School district removes Spring Ridge Commons furniture

Spring Ridge Commons was created in 1999 as a “community urban food forest.” On February 4, 2019, the principal of nearby Vic High responded to a complaint about drug use in the Commons, which is owned by School District 61 (SD61), by telling his colleagues the Commons was “a cesspool.” Later that same week, SD61 began a months-long project to remove furniture and seating in the Commons, to displace homeless people and people who use drugs.

Removing branches, seats and rocks

The Spring Ridge Commons Facebook page describes the Commons as “a source of free food, a learning environment, a community space and most importantly a place of beauty, nature and solitude.” Until earlier this year, it also used to have seating.

Central trellis and furniture previously located in Spring Ridge Commons. Image source: Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group, April 2017 ( link ).

Central trellis and furniture previously located in Spring Ridge Commons. Image source: Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group, April 2017 (link).

The principal’s “cesspool” comment, released through a Freedom of Information request, was prompted by an email where someone asked what “rights” they had to get SD61 to “remove the seating” in the Commons to make it “less appealing for groups to ‘settle’ in.” In particular the complainant wanted to keep “groups doing drugs” from using the space — “Vic High students mixed with older homeless men.”

Here’s an excerpt from the principal’s message to SD61’s Director of Facilities Services:

Excerpt of an email from Vic High principal to SD61’s Director of Facilities Services regarding Spring Ridge Commons. The full email and all released records can be found at the bottom of this post.

Excerpt of an email from Vic High principal to SD61’s Director of Facilities Services regarding Spring Ridge Commons. The full email and all released records can be found at the bottom of this post.

In response to the initial complaint, one person, not with SD61, said they had already had someone working in the Commons since summer 2018 “to prune the bushes [and] clear the sightlines” in an attempt to discourage “the drug use and people hanging out all day.” Clearing sightlines is also part of Victoria’s Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” or “CPTED” policy to facilitate “natural surveillance.” Clearing sightlines in this case was targeted at specific types of people they didn’t want in the Commons.

On February 7, 2019, SD61 staff responded to the complaint by going into Spring Ridge Commons to “make sight lines much better (per Vic PD) and also a clean-up getting rid of the makeshift seating etc.” An article on the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group’s website said SD61’s removal included “benches, the gazebo and other built features.”

Spring Ridge Commons, cleared of furniture. Photo taken June 8, 2019.

Spring Ridge Commons, cleared of furniture. Photo taken June 8, 2019.

Victoria has a long and shameful history of removing furniture in an attempt to displace people. VicPD and Victoria businesses called benches and planters “key crime generators” in the 1990s, with Yates Street businesses asking for some benches to be removed. Benches have also been removed at locations in Pioneer Square and on Broad Street in an effort to displace people from certain areas.

Furniture removal, stigma and “community”

SD61’s emails show that on separate occasions in February, March and April, the school district removed furniture from Spring Ridge Commons.

There are plenty of examples of defensive architecture in Victoria with no record of how it came to be, or no way to prove intent, but in this case SD61’s Director of Facilities Services openly used stigmatizing language when he cited SD61’s reasons for removing the furniture, saying the removal was “important to these people [the complainants] and to the district as druggies destroy the tranquility of the commons it further deteriorates the community access.” He went on to say that “it may behoove [us] to stretch our resources to ensure nothing is being set up for the druggies to relax and shoot or smoke up.”

Email from SD61’s Director of Facilities Services regarding furniture removal. All released records can be found at the bottom of this post.

Email from SD61’s Director of Facilities Services regarding furniture removal. All released records can be found at the bottom of this post.

SD61 removed this furniture specifically to make the space uncomfortable or hostile to people the Director of Facilities Services called “druggies” and, in another email, homeless men using drugs whom he referred to as “undesireables.” He wanted to prevent them from using the space, for the benefit of what he considered “community access.” The casual use of stigmatizing language was in support of displacing people SD61 had already decided they didn’t want to see in ‘their’ community space.

SD61’s stated values for learning include “Integrity” — acting in a way that is “ethical and fair” — and “social responsibility and justice,” to “work with and inspire students to create a better world.” Instead of upholding those values, in its actions and words SD61 advanced the idea that homeless people and people who use drugs aren’t members of the community who should get to use public spaces in a way that works for them.

VicPD requests ‘trespassing’ signs

When Vic High’s principal called Spring Ridge Commons a “cesspool,” he was also annoyed at some pushback his staff had received in the past. He said some people had argued that the Commons “is an inclusive ‘healing’ space [where] public drug use is accepted and should be free from judgement.” The principal called that idea “an extreme libertarian vision that ignored public safety and accountability.”

In late April, VicPD said they needed signs at the Commons to help them enforce “trespassing rules,” and SD61 said they would install signs based on wording provided by the police. Three signs on the site explicitly forbid overnight access or camping, with two adding that “Consumption of Liquor, Cannabis and other illegal substances [is] Prohibited.”

This metal sign — with its inconsistent capitalization and suggestion that two legal substances are “illegal” — represents a troubling escalation by the school district. Not only has SD61 removed furniture and trimmed bushes to displace people from Spring Ridge Commons, but they are working directly with the police to add the threat of forcible displacement if those tactics fail.

Conclusion

I’ve written in the past about how the city and police have displaced people based on a shared, narrow view of how community spaces should be used and who they believe should access those spaces. It’s disappointing that SD61 is taking part in the same ongoing project of displacement and stigmatization. SD61’s efforts to displace homeless people and people who use drugs are aligned with the city’s camping bans in Reeson, Quadra and other parks, for example, as well as VicPD’s continued policing of poverty and homelessness.  

Vic High’s principal said the location of the Commons made it “a predictable disaster.” On the contrary, the use of Spring Ridge Commons by people living in homelessness and people who use drugs points to the need for community space in exactly that location, and beyond.

A copy of the emails released by SD61 through a Freedom of Information request are below. I removed a photo of a group of people using Spring Ridge Commons. The records are otherwise complete, including duplicates.

Stephen Harrison