Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.


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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.

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Welcome to the Foundation for Indoor Public Spaces

Hello!

Hello!

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.

RATIONALE

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.

FUTURE PLANS

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.