Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.


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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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What We Have in Common

pasture2

This photo by scjody is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

All human societies have relied on commons of one sort or another — be it pastures, wildlife or the atmosphere itself — but much debate and thought about ‘the commons’ can be traced back to England, where tradition granted people shared access to certain areas for grazing. In fits and starts, most of this land was eventually ‘enclosed’ as landlords attempted to extract greater returns from their property. Ever since, there has been great debate about whether the enclosure of the commons is good or bad for society as a whole.  Some economists have raised the spectre of the tragedy of the commons: the idea that we will necessarily over-exploit any resource that is held in common because we do not treat it as our own.  This is a real risk and one that is worth defending against through planning, discussion and design — but it seems to me excessive to suggest that all commons are inevitably doomed.  This article by David Bollier provides an excellent overview of the idea of the commons, covering both theory and specific examples from seed banks to wikipedia.  In regards to the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ Bollier contends that humans are social, sharing creatures as much as, or perhaps more than, we are maximizing individuals.  To support this claim, he reviews evidence showing that “social trust and cooperation may be an evolutionary reality hard-wired into the human species.”  Bollier and others have noted that the commons is making a resurgence of late.  We often hear about open-source software and creative commons licensing rights.  I found the image above using this creative commons image search engine.  The photograph is being used under a CC license, as the caption suggests.  Although I have used creative commons licensed images before and done my best to give proper attribution, in honour of this post, I decided to put my effort where my mouth is by looking up the Creative Commons attribution best practices and following them.  

On the Commons Magazine has recently issued a free e-book on the Sharing Economy.  One chapter documents a research project in Vancouver which set out to discover how much sharing people did.  On one level, such a study seems ridiculously simple — of course people share things, it happens all the time — but most of our current economic metrics register only monetary transactions, even though things like borrowing your neighbour’s bicycle impact your standard of living and should show up in any model of the economy which purports to measure our use of resources.  A lot of very smart people have spent a lot of time thinking about how to increase the efficiency of the monetary economy.  We are likely to face diminishing returns on our efforts in that sphere, but there is low-hanging fruit left to be picked in the world of sharing, which has rarely been studied.  Right here in Toronto, Not Far From the Tree harvests fruit from city trees which would normally just fall to the ground and rot.  Property owners register their trees, NFFTT coordinates volunteer pickers and distributes the fruit 1/3 to tree owners, 1/3 to pickers and 1/3 to food banks.  Treated as private property, these trees were delivering very little value, but when they are treated as a commons, people are motivated to pitch in and food that would have been wasted is put to use.  This sort of harvest may not be economically efficient in traditional terms, but there are major social benefits to the volunteers and property owners which cannot easily be counted in dollars and cents, and the environmental costs of the project — which are often ignored in economic calculations — are negligible. 

Indoor public spaces are also a kind of commons, particularly when they are shared and co-managed. People collaborate to develop schedules that work for everybody and pitch in — cleaning, fundraising, promoting — when the space itself is in need of help.  Of course, a building in a large urban centre can’t be left open to everyone at all times in the same way that a pasture can, but one can develop practices that work for your community and visitors.  Mess Hall, for example, had a changing roster of keyholders, who could open and close the space — and the ways in which keyholders are chosen can change depending on a space’s needs and goals.  (I hope to present a more detailed profile of the Mess Hall project later this year.)  Indoor public spaces barely exist in urban centres where rents are high, because it is difficult for them to turn a monetary profit, but if we were better able to measure the diverse benefits such spaces have for their users, we might see that they are actually a valuable and efficient use of space.  As a site where local people mingle, they can also become a hub for other sorts of commons.  An apartment building I lived in as a child had a spot in the lobby where people deposited clothes, books and kitchen gadgets which they no longer wanted — my family called it the free store.  In addition to this sort of ‘freecycling,’ an indoor public space could house other types of commons as well, depending on the needs of the community — tool libraries, toy libraries, computer labs and knowledge exchange programs are all possibilities.

Of course, a commons doesn’t require an entire building to be a success. The On the Commons E-Book also profiles a Mississauga resident named Dave Marcucci who rearranged his front lawn to make space for a public bench facing the street after attending a Project for Public Spaces workshop on place-making.  The bench became a real asset for his block, fostered conversations between neighbours and reaped rewards far beyond what would expect from a few extra square feet of lawn.

Resources mentioned in this article:

The Commons as a Template for Transformation by David Bollier

Creative Commons Licensing

The Sharing Revolution E-Book