Belle Park from the Air

The film Belle Park from the Air is 100 years of aerial photographs of Belle Park and Belle Island.

A bird's eye view

The public is invited to experience a unique short film by Faculty of Arts and Science professors Laura Murray and Dorit Naaman, and Geospatial Data Librarian Francine Berish, with sound by FAS professor Matt Rogalsky: Belle Park from the Air. The film, which is both informative and poetic, is based on 100 years of aerial photographs of Belle Park and Belle Island. It is part of the broader Belle Park Project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

From 1924 until the present, Belle Park and Belle Island have been photographed regularly from the air — part of a worldwide practice of geographical documentation for military, climatological, and economic purposes. The video shows the changes and continuities of this space over a century as the wetland became a dump and then a park.

“I'm really interested in knowing the history of the place I'm living in and so I've done a lot of work in the Inner Harbor,” says Dr. Murray. “I also really like working to engage people outside the university and the people who live in these places. Belle Park wasn’t a place I had focused on in my research, but I was fascinated with all its transformations. It was a wetland and then the railway went through there. At some point the City of Kingston needed a place to dump its garbage. I don't suppose at that time cities were thinking about this: that's just what cities did — fill wetlands with garbage.”

Dr. Naaman says one of the fascinating things about Belle Park is if you walk there, you have no idea what the history is. “You have no idea that it was a wetland and that you're walking on a landfill. There is some signage about remediation the city was forced to implement in the early 2000s but the signage is not prominent, and I was interested in how we make that visible and legible and audible so that we can have conversations.”

She adds this kind of look into the past also helps us think more carefully about the present and future decisions. City Council has approved “daytime eviction” of unhoused people living in the park, on the grounds, it seems, that the city thinks the space should be primarily for recreation. "Prioritization of park use for those who have homes is itself a rather bizarre presumption," she says. "In addition, with the Federal government currently in the planning phases of dredging that area of the river, the park’s double identity as both a source of toxic leachate and a location of vibrant natural life is worth considering."

“When Laura and I started talking about this project and walking a lot in Belle Park and Belle Island we wondered who would be interested in such a very local story. But it turns out most cities in North America had open landfills, and most of them were located near industrial areas, which were also where the working-class poor used to live. You start seeing patterns that are much larger than Belle Park or Kingston regarding class relations race relations, capitalist interests, it all comes into play into how decisions were being made and who it affects.”

Berish says her collaboration started unofficially and, when it was clear how central maps and mapping would be, it became official. “There is power when a lot of different minds come together, and different perspectives are represented at the table.”

She adds that her involvement also has a secondary purpose people will learn about the specialists and collections housed in the Library that are freely available for consultation. “It’s important to showcase that these collections are accessible to the community and for folks to know that these collections are available for many different questions we may have about our communities and beyond.”

When asked about the future, Dr. Murray says she thinks that once the film is released, “people will find the perspective from the air to be amazing like I did. Francine has held various sessions at the library, and everyone has the same reaction which is ‘wow’. We walk around on the ground and suddenly, you get this view from the air which shows the passage of time.” 

Dr. Naaman says sharing their work with the community helps the research team contribute to the conversation around Belle Park and the future it has in the City of Kingston. The Belle Park Project plans to complete and share other undertakings including a podcast about activists supporting the unhoused in the 2020 encampment, a film about the totem pole in the park based on interviews done with Indigenous men from the area, and an augmented reality piece about the effects of changing water levels.

At the screening, the team looks forward to ideas and questions. As Dr. Naaman notes, “Some of them, we won't be able to answer but some of them may lead to further projects.”

To learn more and see the film visit: