Last evening I had the privilege of attending Steven Mannell’s book launch for “Living Lightly on the Earth” Building an Ark for Prince Edward Island, 1974-76 and although I should have left inspired, instead I left frustrated and thinking of how much short term planning without a vision can influence decision making.
The Ark was visionary, a project about redefining what a dwelling could be by incorporating sustainable design and experimenting with green ideas. I’m not going to delve deeply into the waters that were the political and environmental climate of 1970s, suffice to say there was a real push at the time to “live lightly on the land”. In 1974, PEI was leading an environmental movement, where today we have fallen behind.
I’ve known about the PEI Ark project for years. As the daughter of an architect who works with other architects - interesting architecture tends to be a common topic of conversation around the dinner table. As I step into the shoes of shadow critic to the Communities, Land and Environment portfolio for the Green Party of PEI, I must say hearing the story recounted of the Ark project last night had me questioning what exactly we learned through its loss and how we have changed in the decades that followed.
In 1974 The Ark did what I imagine this department should be doing today: it promoted and facilitated a project which built community, it considered proper sustainable use of our land, all while protecting and preserving the environment. How would this department be different today if it were guided with this as its mandate? This is a question I’ve asked myself as I watched the building designed by my father and built by my family and I be torn apart for a government road last week. It took one machine three hours to tear down The Hughes-Jones Centre and pack it into blue bins destined for a landfill. Two projects forty years apart which understood community to be more than a location, but rather the relationships of a place, torn down due to a lack of understanding of what constitutes value for our Island community.
Destruction is easy.
Construction? Planning, maintenance, upkeep, improvement, responsible development? That's the hardened and at times thankless grind of a long term relationship. It’s time for PEI to enter into a long term relationship with our communities, land and environment, planning for the future instead of the next election cycle.
We look fondly back on the Ark project, lauding it as an example of innovation and forward thinking for PEI and for architecture. However, as we celebrate their achievements we must also acknowledge the ultimate failure of government to support the project long term, past an election cycle. Government at the time failed to see past the short term success of the Ark and look toward what could be. Ultimately, the Ark was neglected and then lost to governmental shortsightedness when it was torn down against the will of the community in 1999.
The Ark proved more than a concept. It showed that PEI could be a place where ideas which incorporate the community, land and environment come to thrive. It could be a place where the vision of youth is supported in their effort to build a future of hope and prosperity for the generations who follow.
The real question now PEI, is who do we want to be?
A society where we treat buildings, people, the land and environment as disposable?
Or an Island looking and planning for a lasting relationship with all of the above?
R. Ellen Jones is the Green Party Shadow Cabinet Critic for Communities, Land and Environment