Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.

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A Winter Festival of Fun and Culture

Toronto has plenty of festivals in the spring and summer, but come February, when we’re all desperate to get out of the house, the city feels like a frozen expanse of closed doors and people hurrying home.  And yet, at the very same time, businesses are looking for ways to get people out of their houses after the Christmas rush and bustle.  To kill two birds with one stone, I’m hoping to organize a new type of festival, for this February or next, but I will need a little help.

The basic idea is this:

Businesses and institutions — anything from a barbershop to a coffee shop, a clothing boutique or a library — will make space available to people with good ideas who want to run free events.  People — artists, parents, teenagers, teachers, whoever — will find participating businesses and pitch their idea for an event.    

And that’s virtually the entire plan.  Individual businesses would agree to participate, and they would get posters and materials and be listed on a central website, but they will largely control how they choose and schedule events.  People could approach them directly or be put in touch through a central organizing committee with a list of participating spaces and their size and specifications.  An open-mic night?  A lecture?  A photo exhibit?  Let’s make it happen.  A dance class?  A wrestling tournament?  A mini-rave? Some shocking performance art I can’t even imagine?  We’ll give it a shot, if we can figure out the logistics.

The idea isn’t quite as unusual as it might seem at first: the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival does something similar, but with a focus on photography.  The main difference here is that we don’t want to limit events in advance to a specific category (the best ideas might be something no one has ever thought of before) and we want business owners and local people to meet face-to-face and talk about what should be done with their underused space rather than having some form of central festival planning.


Photo Credit: Flickr user Bobbi Vie (and bboy Nasty Ray)

The concept behind the Festival: Trying to say ‘Yes’

Urban space is one of our most valuable cultural resources — it’s both a site and raw material for new cultural practices, community-building and human fulfillment.  We’re pretty good at using urban space efficiently in our quest to grow our economy — but when there’s no profitable way to make use of a space it just lies empty, because most of our planning and management revolves around turning a profit.  And that’s a real shame, because people can connect with each other in a million and one ways outside of the market — religion, politics, art, learning, subcultures, sport, being silly, just hanging out. So we need to start doing a better job of making space for non-business activities in our neighbourhoods.  Businesses aren’t really the problem here, but the way in which they exclude other types of activities is.  The upside is that business owners are people too, they’re not only interested in profits, it’s just that we’re bad at thinking and planning for other types of activities, because we rarely practice this type of planning.  Yes, businesses need to make money, but space is a wonderful thing, because two things can, and often do, happen at once.  The festival would provide an infrastructure and logistical support to make alternative events happen, business owners would provide space and local people would provide good ideas and inspiration.  This festival is based on one of the Foundation for Indoor Public Space’s key concepts.  The public-ness of an indoor space is on a gradient: a space becomes more public the more the people managing the space try to say ‘yes’ to the ideas and needs of the people around them.  As this would be a festival of public space, events would be free and businesses wouldn’t be allowed to require that participants buy something — but, in most cases, the increased foot traffic at a slow time of year would be good for business.

What do I mean by ‘Trying to say yes‘ ?  Public space is about difference and being in public space is about learning to be comfortable with, and even enjoy, difference.  Trying to say yes is about thinking deeply about difference and what you might learn about yourself and other people by saying ‘yes’ to something that seems weird or slightly uncomfortable at first.  Trying to say ‘yes’ requires you to think about what your most basic principles are, about which things are so important to you that you would have to say ‘no’ to another human being.  It doesn’t mean to abandon one’s principles, only to put them up for consideration and negotiation.  By trying to say ‘yes’ the people who own and manage businesses in our neighbourhoods will have the chance to grow and rethink the way they relate to their community — it might even lead to a new weekly poetry night or free tutoring that runs all year round.

A Festival Needs a Name!

I have yet to come up with a satisfying name and I’m entirely open to suggestions.  We would need something short and satisfying that communicates a little bit about the idea of publicnessand being open to new ideas and activities.  I see some potential in a play on the double-meaning of ‘premises’ (such as Open Premises or Shared Premises), but I’m not sure it’s catchy enough and might work better as a slogan or explanatory phrase.  Send me name ideas by email (, blog comments, twitter or facebook!


Organizing the festival would likely have two phases.  The first phase would involve getting spaces to sign-up and publicizing their participation in-store, online and through the media.  There would have to be an application form where potential participants explain their ideas and how much time and space they will need.  There would be a specific date, maybe a month before the festival, where we would cut-off applications and businesses would choose and schedule as many events as they wanted.  The second phase would involve promoting the chosen events and helping people choose which ones to attend.

To do this city-wide would be a huge amount of work, so it might make the most sense to do the first festival in just one neighbourhood as a pilot project, possibly with the help of a resident’s association or BIA.  How we do it, will depend a lot on how many people are willing to volunteer their time and skills to help organize it.  I know that I do not have the event planning, project management and web development skills to make it happen on my own.  If you’re interested in getting involved, please send me an email:


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The Public Sphere — Part 2 The Decline of the Public Sphere in the 20th (and 21st) Century

In our last episode, the bourgeois public sphere had taken shape as a continuous public discussion among white, male property owners, a discussion where the best idea stood on its own merits and one which penetrated to the core of major economic and political organizations.  In the 1700s, this discussion took place in coffee shops, salons and dinner parties, in the reading rooms of private libraries and in the halls of parliament.  Modernity promised that an ideal world was possible and that reason was the way to find it.  As a result, in all these public and quasi-public spaces, there was a sort of gentleman’s agreement to truly listen, an openness to new ideas regardless of who spoke them.  In practice, the bourgeois public sphere was elitist and discriminatory, but whenever it could be held accountable to its own principles, real progress could be made.  In the 1800s, in much of Europe and North America, property restrictions on voting were removed.  The opinions of working class white men could no longer be ignored.  But they were not necessarily respected either.

When compared with feudalism, the workings of the ‘free’ market had seemed rational and liberating.  Democratic notions of freedom of speech and economic ideas of free trade had appeared to be two sides of the same coin.  But the rise of monopolies and millionaires in the 1800s demonstrated that an unregulated market tended towards inequality rather than equality.  In the 1700s, property ownership had been seen as a guarantee of autonomy, a way of freeing oneself from the old social order.  The general opinion was that merchants had competing, but equivalent interests, and they could discuss policy as equals.  As wealth became more concentrated and economic relationships became more vertical, it became clear that the market was a new social order.  Even successful businessmen were dependent on their suppliers and distributors.  Today, the average property owner lacks meaningful autonomy.

Ideas of economic and intellectual freedom, which had once seemed so closely linked, were becoming distinct, and perhaps even antagonistic.  It was obvious to many that the market was not a level playing field.  Some people could not participate properly in the public debate because their parents had been unable to educate them or because they themselves had neither the money to afford books nor the time to read them.  For the public sphere to continue to function, it would be necessary to make knowledge equally and freely available to all outside of the market.  There was however, a certain ambivalence in early efforts to incorporate the working class into the public sphere.  Public schools and public libraries both arose at this time, as ways of ushering new participants into the market and the political conversation.  The debate was ongoing and there was much important material to catch up on.  As far as the participants in the bourgeois public sphere knew, these really were the best ideas and one ought to know them in order to either acclaim them or disagree with them — but education can be a double-edged sword.  With an organized schooling system, certain ideas are amplified by the state and the currently dominant ideas tend to drown out new perspectives.  Some of the ‘horizontality’ of the ideal public sphere is lost and, more insidiously, the ‘best’ ideas often justify the current economic and social arrangements — they were, after all, the result of a debate that had previously included only wealthy white men.  As a result, in the late 1800s, the existing elite saw teaching these ideas as a useful form of indoctrination.  In North America at least, public libraries were seen by many as a way of preserving the status quo and promoting a specific vision of economic and political freedom over the socialist ideas of Karl Marx and others.¹  Joseph Carnegie, for example, prized economic freedom above all else, and saw it as a sufficient method of ordering society (Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth).  Competition in the market annointed the best among men as leaders and blessed them with great wealth which they were obliged to use to shape society as they saw fit.  The market itself was a sufficient test of intellect and there was little need for public debate.  Such a view dismissed the opinions of not only the working class, but even modest property owners.  Carnegie chose to invest much of his money in public libraries, not to help the poor to understand and discuss their world, but in order to nourish the minds of the next generation of economic competitors.

Both conservatives who wanted to keep things the way they were and those who truly believed in the superiority of the best idea had reason to share contemporary thought.  Schools and libraries were embarking on two somewhat contradictory missions at once.  Using the power of the state to amplify and echo the best ideas in the public sphere can reinforce the status quo, but it also spreads the skills and knowledge needed to shape and redefine those ideas to people who might never have been part of the debate at all under other circumstances.  As Foucault has said, If power only ever said no, why would we obey it?²  In order to understand whether education is truly designed to strengthen the public sphere, we can try to discover whether its promoters expect new readers to pattern their lives upon what they learn or if they are genuinely training new participants to enter into an ongoing debate with their own opinions and perspectives.  Those with knowledge should share that knowledge, but they must be careful to listen as much as they speak.



This is of course something of a caricature of a more complex process -- perhaps it is better to say that people begin to speak without even claiming or pretending  to listen.

This is of course something of a caricature of a more complex process — perhaps it is better to say that people begin to speak without even claiming or pretending to listen.


Amidst all this turmoil and difference of opinion about education, the public sphere itself begins to change around the turn of the century.  Not all participants continue to play by the same rules.  More and more, certain powerful individuals, confident in their own opinions, publicize their ideas not to test them, but simply to make them heard.  These people are essentially speaking without listening — a privilege which once belonged only to the king.  Habermas calls this the ‘refeudalization’ of the public sphere.  Others, seeing money to be made, begin to publish not the ideas that they believe in, but the ideas that the average person wants to hear.  Astrology, get-rich-quick schemes, sensational romances — publishers promote these books based on their marketability, not their intellectual or artistic value.  This does not mean that popular works cannot also be genuine or valuable, because they can — the problem is that books that have been primarily shaped by economic considerations no longer record real opinions.  The food that feeds the public sphere is becoming tainted.

The rise of advertising is obviously significant here, but, for Habermas, the worst offender is the practice of ‘public relations.’  Unlike advertising, which puts biased ideas into the public sphere, PR actively seeks to control and respond to public opinion.  PR is an effort to enter the public debate, not as part of one’s personal quest for truth, but in the interest of a specific individual, company or organization.  Large organizations circle the wagons and produce positions and statements internally (in their own private spheres) without allowing themselves to be affected by public debate.  Pomp and reputation, rather than facts, are once again the building blocks of public opinion.  Political parties have done the same — they hire permanent, professional staff and use advertising and PR techniques to make statements about internally-crafted positions rather than forming their policies within the crucible of the public sphere.  Habermas is also critical of the caucus system because it draws such a sharp distinction between internal and external debate.  In fact, real policy debate has so totally moved within parties that it is necessary for parties and the media to organize a temporary and artificial public sphere for party leaders to debate within in the lead up to each election.

At the height of the bourgeois public sphere, political debate and artistic critique were part of culture and socialization, but that is less true today.  Cultural production, which once emerged from private homes in the form of letters or the essays and artistic products of individual artisans, is increasingly mass-produced.  Even in science, which was once the domain of amateurs, we see a rise of large laboratories and extensive training regimes.  Producers and consumers of culture are no longer on equal footing.  As a result, while socialization still revolves around music and books (and Netflix) it is more about consumption than critique.  We discuss our ‘preferences’ rather than engaging with artists’ ideas.  Habermas’ position on socialization is supported by Robert Snape who has written on ‘leisure’ in the United Kingdom.³  Snape points to a shift from the Victorian (think bourgeois public sphere) idea of recreation — which was about the restoration and improvement of the self — to modern leisure which is about relaxation and defined in contrast with ‘work.’  At first glance, there is no good reason why our hobbies and passions cannot also be active and productive — except our exhaustion.  ‘Recreation’ was never properly available to the working class.  It may also, however, be that this cultural shift is a rational response to the public’s realization that those with power aren’t really listening anyway.  Amateur scientists and armchair critics are not usually well-received.  Though the maker movement and some trends within social media may signify a turn for the better.

In our third and final episode, we will take a look at what we can do to revive the public sphere and what role indoor public spaces can play in this project.



1 — For an academic paper on this theme, please contact me.

2 — This is a pretty close paraphrase from Truth/Power in The Essential Foucault, eds. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (2003)

3 — Snape, R. (1995). Leisure and the rise of the public library. London: Library Association Publishing.

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The Public Sphere — Part 1: The Early Development of the Public Sphere

Jürgen Habermas is a contemporary theorist who has struggled valiantly to salvage truth and reason from the moral (and factual) relativism that is so dominant today.  His key concept is the idea of the public sphere — a social space in which anyone and everyone can test their ideas and engage in debate in order to produce a reasoned public opinion which will then, hopefully, drive politics and social change.

The ideal public sphere is a continuous public discussion among free individuals who read and think in the privacy of their homes — a discussion that is open to all, where the best idea stands on its own merit, where listening and speech are equally important, and one which penetrates to the core of major economic and political organizations.

ideal public sphere color

The core of this concept was developed in a book published first in German in the 1960s.  The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere is a historical review of the birth and eventual disintegration of public opinion.  One of the most interesting things about the book is the way in which Habermas teases out the complexities in our understanding of public and private and their interrelations.

Our modern idea of public and private didn’t exist in the middle ages.  Habermas traces its roots to the 1500s.  Before then, art existed exclusively to indicate rank and the meaning of words was shaped by the status of the person who spoke them.  In particular, Habermas looks at the ‘dignity’ of kings and nobles.  Dignity was a blending of power and culture, produced by heredity, military might and the rituals of the court.  The court was a form of government, but it was also a cultural show performed for the lower classes.  Without onlookers, this sort of dignity wouldn’t really exist and the pronouncements of the king would lose their significance.  As members of the court, the life and actions of a nobleperson were always under the eye of the entire society.  The word ‘private’ was first used to describe an individual who was not part of the state, who did not have a role to play in courtly life.  They lacked a certain amount of dignity, but they also had more freedom to conduct themselves as they saw fit, without being obliged to retrace the footsteps of ritual and tradition.  The first ‘private’ individuals to gain some social standing were merchants who amassed private fortunes and gained influence through their wealth.

By the 1700s, these private people had gained considerable power.  They owned property and could afford to commission art and music.  They were creating culture and meaning outside of the social traditions of the court.  For Habermas, this is the type of person who populates the early public sphere; his wealth allows him to influence the behaviour of others without relying upon aristocratic ‘dignity’ and the intimate space of his private home gives him the time and breathing room to reflect and develop personal opinions outside of the pressures of the court.  Reading at home is very important for Habermas.  ‘Novels’ in the modern sense of stories about the subjective thoughts and feelings of individuals arise at the same time, amplifying the idea that a person can have an individual personality which is different from the role they play in society.  This is also approximately the time that modern governments appear.  Keep in mind that democracy did not yet exist; first came a new idea about how royalty should handle its subjects.  In theory at least, a modern government is supposed to treat all individuals equally, rather than basing their treatment on their cultural or social position.  This new equality before the state is also important in shaping the idea of private individuals as equivalent, but distinct — unique atoms forming the molecules of different social groups.

For Habermas, the meat of the public sphere is the written word.  Books are now produced en masse.  Newspapers are emerging.  The rule of law means that power itself has been written down, rather than being determined by the role and personality of the king.  In the 1700s, the well-to-do consume culture privately — they read newspapers and novels and musicians perform in their drawing rooms — but they then gather in the public spaces of coffee shops and formal dinner parties to discuss what they have experienced.  The public sphere existed everywhere that private individuals met and conversed.  Public opinion was beginning to take shape.  Debate and discussion was a testing of ideas, a process of determining the best ideas, just as the market was a way of finding the best products and evolution was a way of finding the best genetic arrangement.  But for it to be a real competition — ideas had to enter the fray in isolation, they could not be weighed differently based on who spoke them.  Habermas says that “critical debate took place in principle without regard to all preexisting social and political rank and in accord with universal rules” (p.54).  For the best results, ideas should compete against all other ideas.  The public sphere existed in different places and on different scales, but it was continuous; writers and musicians tested their ideas or melodies before the smaller public of the salons before ‘publishing’ them to the broader public.  Debate in the coffee houses produced letters to the editor, which, once published, entered back into the coffee houses for a new round of debate.  Habermas makes a distinction between the ‘political public sphere’, which was situated in coffee houses and populated exclusively by men, and the ‘public sphere of the world of letters’ which focused on arts and culture and also included women, but these spheres also overlapped and influenced each other.  Though each coffee house or salon was small, participants went from one to another and ideas traveled with them; this broader level of exchange is the real public sphere.

To be effective, this public discussion can’t be just a sort of peanut gallery, it must be continuous with the debate in the halls of power.  Politicians and amateurs must influence and be influenced by one another.  Habermas sees the battle to publish the debate on the floor of the British parliament as a crucial part of this process.  Once parliamentary debate was available in print, it too became meat for the coffee house discussions and all this interweaving talk helped to ensure that politicians remained part of the ‘public’ and protected against corruption.  The people were talking and what they were talking about was democracy.  At this point, the public consensus was that laws should be determined by public opinion and that public consent was the only real legitimacy for power.  This sort of public opinion arose before the formal institutions of democracy and is arguably the real substance of democracy.  Habermas argues that ideas of equality first arose from the practices of the public sphere where individuals emerging from their private homes confronted each other as equals.

Of course, in its early days ‘democracy’ was very exclusive.  In part, this had to do with the way in which the public sphere was initially conceived.  In the 1700s, people still thought that only those with a certain net worth could properly participate in public debate. These people were the ‘bourgeois’ — property owners without an aristocratic title. Owning property guaranteed that a person was autonomous and had freely developed their own ideas.  It seems odd, but, as a break from feudalism it makes some sense.  A property owner was not as tightly embedded in a social role.  A servant in the court didn’t have a ‘private life’ in the same way that a bourgeois merchant did.  This limit on participation was further justified, in theory at least, by a sense that anyone could gain access to the public sphere by competing in market.  This then, gives us a complete picture of what Habermas calls the ‘bourgeois public sphere.’  It is a sort of working prototype of the ideal public sphere.  It is founded in the written word, it operates based on rational debate and it has a real influence on politics — but it is certainly not accessible to all.  Over the coming decades, rational analysis would begin to conclude that limiting participation to property owners was in itself irrational, little by little the vote would be expanded to include more people in democracy, but wealth and power were also being concentrated in new ways.  In part 2 of this blog post, I will look at Habermas’ analysis of the 20th century and his disappointment with the effect that the rise of PR and political parties have had on rational public discussion.


Now let’s take one last look at our notion of ‘public.’  With the birth of democracy, and especially after the expansion of the vote to those without property, something strange happens to the word ‘public.’  Under government by the people, the government, the people it employs, and the things it owns are all referred to as ‘public.’  Public servants, public parks, public schools.  Habermas highlights the oddity of this dual meaning of public.  ‘Public’ can refer to either the state or to precisely that segment of the population — as in the case of public opinion — which either criticizes or acclaims the state.  It is this second meaning of public — the coming together of free individuals — that interests me and it is this distinction between two ‘publics’ that has led to the Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces’ focus on grassroots community spaces rather than community centres and public libraries.  In fact, public libraries — because of their focus on silent reading — are perhaps better understood as a state-funded private space (a socialized version of the bourgeois home) than as a part of the public sphere proper.



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?


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 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.

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Welcome to the Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces



My name is Matt and I’m the founder of FfIPS.  I plan to maintain this website, write content about indoor public spaces and encourage other people to get involved in the organization.

So what is the Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces?

Right now, the Foundation is little more than a concept being worked out on the back of a digital napkin.  However, if enough people contribute their ideas and start talking about indoor public space with their friends and colleagues, it has the potential to radically change the texture of our cities.


Most buildings have predetermined purposes. We behave a certain way in a church. We do specific things in a clothing store. These social norms are powerful and they are often absorbed unconsciously.  They are important, in that they give different buildings different meanings and atmospheres, but they can also stifle social change and new forms of cultural expression.  Jane Jacobs has observed that new ideas need old buildings.  As an observer of urban ecosystems, she noticed that new organizations and activities tended to arise when indoor spaces outlived their original purpose and had to be reinvented (with lower rents). Cities in North America, and many other parts of the world, have a real need for spaces where people can socialize and create culture outside of the constraints of commercial relationships. Stores and other businesses are practical and they’re often a lot of fun — I’ve worked seasonally in a toy store called Kidding Awound for many years and I’m certain that it adds its own special spice to the urban experience — but we shouldn’t have to be either buyers or sellers in every interaction we have with our fellow citizens. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sometimes be just a music lover or a coffee enthusiast or a chess player? Or maybe you would like to try your hand at being an apprentice or a storyteller. Public parks are wonderful things, and they allow us to explore identities from athlete to idler to imaginary superhero, but in a winter city like Toronto, they’re quite inhospitable for a good chunk of the year.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a simple, local building where people could go to hangout, meet people, exercise, learn or make art without having to spend a lot of money? Shouldn’t we all have access to a space that is welcoming and inviting, a space where we can put our heads together with our friends and neighbours and decide for ourselves when and how events and activities will take place?  I started the Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces because our cities need more and better indoor public spaces.

Okay, sure, but what exactly is an indoor public space?

I feel that it’s best to think of public-ness as a gradient, rather than a sharp dividing line. Although a mall is private property, it is clearly more public than a house and less public than a library. I’m hoping that FfIPS will have the opportunity to explore many different models of indoor public space. Many churches make their tranquil interiors available to anyone and everyone who needs a moment of peace. For the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, cafes were important in the development of the ‘public sphere.’ Semi-public clubs like legion halls and cultural associations are important and meaningful places for many people. And what should we make of those vast underground concourses, like Toronto’s PATH system, that are like subterranean shadows of the public streets above them? The Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces will consider all of these spaces, and many others, always seeking to understand how they are used by the public and how they can be made more open to public participation.


Alright, I follow you so far, but what is the Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces actually going to do?

After waxing lyrical about spaces with no predetermined uses, it wouldn’t make sense to lay out a draconian 20-year plan of operations. The Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces is very much open to new ideas, projects and campaigns. That said, there are already a few activities on the horizon.  Initially, the bulk of our activity will be blog posts about indoor public spaces. Some posts will investigate spaces like shopping malls and coffee shops which people invent new uses for every day. Other posts will be profiles of specific buildings, including interviews with their managers and visitors. You can also expect posts about innovative organizations like Renew Newcastle or Toronto’s Community-Run Community Centres. The blog will make space for guest authors and new contributors.  As our readership grows, we will organize social media townhalls to discuss issues that are important to us, and we will summarize and condense these discussions for the blog. Other potential activities include talks in pubs or coffee shops and tours of interesting spaces. Ideally, we will launch awareness campaigns about indoor public space issues and lobby politicians for legislation and funding to make space accessible to ordinary people. If we get big enough, we will conduct research and put out reports. And maybe, someday, we will open a space of our own, so that all of you can come in and pull up a chair.