Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.


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If you Pitch it, They Will Come

Some spaces which seem inaccessible to the public may actually be open to great ideas — you just have to get the conversation started.  In this post, Judy Verseghy of Trade School TO talks about what she has learned about negotiating use of space instead of paying for it.

Trade School Toronto organizes classes which allow potential students to barter for knowledge.

Trade School Toronto organizes classes where students and teachers can barter for knowledge.

Indoor public space is something that I hadn’t considered much prior to 2012, when a group of five Torontonians (including myself) launched Trade School Toronto – an education-for-barter initiative riffing off of the iconic Trade School New York. The five of us all knew that public education without the exclusivity that goes along with cash payment was a great idea – we just weren’t sure where we could host our events. After all, we had no cash, and traditionally venues require payment for their use. Little did we know that soon enough, building managers and store owners all across Toronto would be jumping on board, allowing us the opportunity to bring our classes to the masses.

You see, the thing is, people across the city and beyond have fabulous ideas, but nowhere to launch them. Lack of affordable space is a huge problem in Toronto, both in terms of living space (which is another – very important – discussion altogether), but also in terms of community space where people can come together and create grassroots change. So how do you acquire the necessary space to manifest your fabulous idea, when you have no money at your disposal?

Well my friends, money isn’t everything, and there’s a very good chance that you have something to offer the operators of stores, community centres, schools, markets, and other indoor public spaces. You probably just haven’t realized it yet. Consider even just the following areas of your life, and see what assets you have that you might be able to offer in turn for space:

  • Skills and expertise – can you barter your own skills as a (communications professional/community planner/nurse/whatever) in return for the use of space?
  • Relationships – can you create new interpersonal connections that might benefit the manager of the space that you wish to use?
  • Web space – can you offer free ad space on your website (if you have one)?
  • Advertising – are you writing a press release to get people out to participate in your group? If so, you can pitch free advertising to your potential space donor in terms of a mention in the release or in other advertising mechanisms.

One of TSTO’s best assets is that our classes bring in people — we have found that we can leverage that traffic in exchange for space. There are tons of spaces around the city that are constantly investigating new ways to become or remain animated – this strategy has proven to be particularly effective with art and design galleries.

Sometimes your mission is simply in line with the mandate of the manager of the space that you wish to use. For example, when searching for space for our upcoming dance themed series for TSTO, organizer Sylvia Yee contacted the Ralph Thornton Centre, who said that they were more than willing to provide space, provided that our classes were open to the public, which is exactly what we want them to be.

You have something to give, and people want to receive it. If you pitch it, they will come.

Looking for something to do on April 26th? Come to Trade School Toronto’s newest session: Dance!Dance!Dance! All classes, as always, are paid for via barter. Come get your groove on!

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Judy Verseghy has three children and a long history of involvement in Toronto non-profits, including Trade School Toronto.


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Junction Commons Townhall Meeting

On Wednesday April 16, I attended a townhall meeting about the ‘Junction Commons,’ a proposed community space on the site of a vacant police station in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto.  A volunteer task force has been developing a vision of the Junction Commons, collaboratively, over the past 18 months.  Even as some members have come and gone, the idea has carried itself along.  The current vision for the site is a building which contains accessible public space for events, programs and socializing with one floor of revenue-generating rental space that will cover the costs of the entire building.

The Junction Commons task force won a Trillium grant to hire Urbanmetrics and ERA architects to complete a feasibility study.  The big news at the recent Town Hall was that the study (which should be available on the JCP website soon) found that it would be possible to renovate the building to create both community space and income-generating rental space.  The study also concluded that the rental income would be sufficient to cover the building’s maintenance and staffing costs and pay off a bank loan for the renovations (app. $3.5 million).  Because it would be difficult to cover the costs of purchasing the property outright and still maintain sufficient public space, the task force is currently negotiating a long-term, low-cost (like $1 a year low) lease from the City of Toronto.

The task force envisions the Junction Commons as a community hub.  Referring to earlier research on Community Hubs, the JCP task force described a community hub as a space which intertwines the following objectives: service deliveryplace-making and community building.  The Junction Commons will be a place where people can obtain services, a space that’s comfortable and attractive, and a space where local people can gather, get to know one another and pursue collective objectives.  The JCP task force is seeking to make the Junction Commons financially sustainable, so that it won’t be reliant on government funding — a valid concern in these times of global ‘austerity.’

Early renderings of potential designs, produced by Ryerson planning students, were on display at the Town Hall.  The task force has also held design charettes with local people throughout the neighbourhood in order to better understand their needs for the space. From the various activities, programs and events suggested in these charettes, the task force developed five ‘pillars’ of the Junction Commons:

ARTS – The Junction Commons will be a site for the discussion, production and experience of theatre, music and visual arts.

FOOD – The Junction Commons will be a place where people can come together to eat and cook.   It will be equipped with a community kitchen and host a farmers’ market.

HEALTH –  The Junction Commons will be a space for exercise, dance, yoga and a site for the provision of health services.  The University Health Network was mentioned as a possible anchor tenant.

COMMUNITY BUILDING – The Junction Commons will be a space for both casual conversations and community meetings.

LOCAL EXCHANGE – The presence of so many different people in the Junction Commons makes it an ideal site for local development and learning.  It will be an excellent site for co-working, public lectures, skills exchanges, sharing and local trade.

209 Mavety Street from Google Streetview, with a little photoshop spice.

209 Mavety Street from Google Streetview.

At the outset, creating a commons requires real initiative and effort from one or more individuals, but as the idea and project grow and more people are drawn in by the vision, the work can be distributed.  Hundreds of people have come to JCP meetings and townhalls.  Thousands have signed a petition to delay the sale of the property until the completion of the feasability study.  It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a for-profit company to produce a space like this.  It will be possible to fund the public space within the Junction Commons from rental income, in part, thanks to the efforts of so many volunteers.  Eighteen months of planning, design and outreach by a private development company would be extremely expensive — as it stands however, the JCP will only have to cover the cost of the physical renovations.  The JCP is currently looking for new volunteers to step up and help to shoulder some of the load.  The task force has formed a non-profit organization and will soon be electing a volunteer board.  If you live in the Junction – especially if you have legal, marketing or accounting experience — consider becoming a Junction Commoner and volunteering your time.

After the presentation of the feasibility study and the preliminary plans for the space, Vandra Masemann of the West Toronto Junction Historical Society took the stage and spoke passionately about the importance of open and accessible ‘third places‘ — spaces which are neither home nor work — in building a community.  As access to schools and churches becomes more tightly controlled, it becomes harder and harder for ordinary people to find places to gather and discuss community initiatives.  The self-sustaining, community-driven model developed by the Junction Commons Project is one possible solution to this problem.


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The FfIPS Rule of Thumb

The line between public and private space isn’t necessarily clear — especially when it comes to indoor spaces.  Is a library public space?  What about the fountain at a shopping mall?  There are several ways to analyze this question.  Ownership is one; access is another.  Sometimes these lenses give different answers.  Both a library and a police station are publicly-owned, but only a library really feels like public space.  A shopping mall is privately-owned, but it is very much accessible to the public.  These are important questions to ask oneself when thinking about public space — but we should also ask about public participation.  We at FfIPS believe that ordinary people should have a say in how indoor public spaces are used and we propose the following question as a tool for thinking about the extent to which a space is open to public participation:

If a stranger were to walk into a space with a fantastic, but slightly outside-the-box, idea, how difficult would it be for them to make it a reality?

The more detailed the imagined scenarios are, and the more accurate the imagined institutional responses, the more useful the question becomes.   Obviously, the answer will vary depending on the activity being proposed.  One might be able to hold a meeting for a new non-profit in a coffee shop quite easily, but you might have trouble hosting salsa lessons. There are good reasons for these variations, as sharing space is always a balancing act.  However, the more scenarios there are that result in a ‘go ahead’, the more open a space is to public participation.  It is of course still important to consider other aspects of public-ness — the FfIPS Rule of Thumb simply provides an additional angle of attack.  According to this standard, it may well turn out that certain independently-owned, open-minded coffee shops are more public than a library or a museum.  We feel that this question will also help people to understand the FfIPS project and why we are interested in so many different types of spaces.  We want to encourage any and all spaces to think about how they can say ‘yes’ to more fantastic ideas.  Shopping malls should consider the costs and benefits of opening their concourses to dancers and roller-skaters after hours.  Even an office building might consider offering inexpensive access to some of its facilities after regular business hours.

If you are the owner or a manager of a space, you might prefer phrasing it like this:

If a stranger were to walk into your space with a valuable, but outside-the-box, idea, how would they go about making it a reality?

It may also be worth considering these sub-questions:

Who would they talk to first?

Who would need to approve the idea?

What red-tape would they have to confront?

Are there any fees?

Would different people get different answers?  Why?

Are there people in the community who might not even know that your space exists?

How could you make your space more welcoming to new ideas?

If a stranger were to walk into your space with a valuable idea, how would they go about making it a reality?

If a stranger were to walk into your space with a fantastic, but outside-the-box idea, how would they go about making it a reality?


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Hackerspaces.org

"Hackerspaces are community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects."

… are community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects.”

Earlier today, we were combing through a list of hackerspaces and makerspaces on hackerspaces.org looking for spaces to add to our own directory.  The thing was, most, if not all of them, seemed like amazing, community-based organizations that fit our criteria.  And on top of that, hackerspaces.org already had a well-curated, easily-sortable list that contained all the information we were hoping to share with our visitors.  Instead of cherry-picking a few, particularly public, spaces from their list, we decided it was better to simply link to their entire list through our organizations section.

Hackerspaces.org defines a hackerspace as a “community-operated physical place, where people can meet and work on their projects.”  Many of the spaces on the list also define themselves as makerspaces.  Some of them explicitly highlight their connection with visual and performing artists.  Most of these spaces are membership-based, but have very open policies towards the community at large.  In some cases, membership guarantees 24-hour access to the space, but the general public is welcome to drop-in whenever the space is open.  As you can see, these organizations display many of the characteristics that FfIPS is looking for in indoor public spaces.  What’s more, the list is truly international with spaces — some of them offering residence options — listed for Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, Scotland, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Togo, United Kingdom, and the United States.

The list itself also has a number of cool features.  For example, it is linked to a world map and is sortable by any of its columns.  But the best feature — and the one that made us realize it would be a travesty to duplicate, in a lesser form, the fine work that had already been done on this site — was the automatic ‘last updated’ column, which lets you know which spaces still have a lively web presence.  While we plan to confirm that our links are active once a month, doing it automatically is beyond our technical expertise.  If our organization gets big enough, we would love to get a lesson on how to build such a lovely and functional directory.

Way to go, Hackerspaces.org!

UPDATE: April 9, 2014: We found another albeit shorterlist here: http://hackaday.io/hackerspaces/


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At this Mall, Closing Time Means Open Space

By day, Stratford Shopping Centre is an ordinary shopping mall.  But after the shutters are rolled down, the doors stay open and the rollerskaters, rollerbladers and skateboarders roll in. The mall includes a 24-hour, public right of way and — as you can see — it is well-used.

Open Doors & Smooth Floors from 32LDN on Vimeo. This film is part of the 32LDN project — a series of shorts seeking to answer the question ‘What does it mean to be a Londoner in the 21st Century?’.  It’s lovely and intriguing, but it doesn’t offer up much information.  Google results are a little spotty as well.  A few reviews of the mall on foursquare mention how much they enjoyed the rollerskaters, with one user proclaiming that “the best time is when all the shops are closed and there’s a lot of people skating and dancing, it becomes an indoor practice spot !!!”  An old petition on change.org suggests the police have begun stopping the skaters, but other sources — including the film above which is only two weeks old — suggest that the skating is ongoing.  Anyone in London feel like checking it out and reporting back?  According to this post Tuesdays at 10pm are the best time. There is also a thoughtful blogpost from 2011 on a site called Rethink Childhood.  The author is in favour of the skaters and observes that “they make the place feel safer.”  It’s a sort of Jane Jacobs approach to safety — more eyes and feet on the street means more safety — and one that makes good sense.  A club or restaurant that’s open late helps to keep a neighbourhood safe because its lights are on and people are coming and going.  And yet we are often so afraid of our young people that we drive them away with classical music (we use it in subway stations in Toronto and elsewhere), high-pitched squeals that only they can hear (no, really), anti-skateboarding infrastructure or the more prosaic night-time security guard saying ‘move along.’

And it’s not just rollerskaters who are looking for this kind of indoor space.  

When I lived in Japan many shopping concourses would come alive with young people practicing different styles of dance –popping, locking, house, bboying — from the moment the shutters rolled down until very late at night.  These photos are from under Hirakatashi station outside of Osaka, but similarly scenes can be witnessed each night throughout the country.  Middle-aged couples and seniors would often stop to take a look at what was going on.  No one seemed to mind.

It’s a massive waste to leave spaces like these empty all night when there are so many people desperate for places to exercise, dance, rehearse and perform.  I understand that there are security issues, but surely they can be solved if police, property managers and local people put their heads together.  The benefits of this public access are immense and the costs are quite low.  While governments are spending millions on motivating people to exercise, just unlocking a few malls at night would make exercise more accessible for many, many people.  It would be a great chance for shopping malls to give back to the community and get some positive publicity.  If they are reluctant, municipal governments might consider requiring a certain amount of space with continuous public access in order for new shopping centres to receive zoning permits.  Although shopping malls are ostensibly dying out, they are still the closest thing we have to public squares in many neighbourhoods, so we need to think about how we can ensure that they serve public needs.  This is a topic this blog will return to, but, for now, just imagine what young people in your city could do with a few thousand extra square feet of warm, dry, smooth floors each evening.