Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.

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Indoor Recess (Take Two)

Last year, we tried to plan a new type of festival, but we couldn’t work out the logistics in time, so we put it off until this year.  If you’d like to know about the festival, just keep reading, if you want to know why it didn’t quite come together read this post here.

This February, when it’s too cold to go out and play, we’re going to put on a festival that will help you, your friends and your neighbours find free things to do inside.

Businesses and institutions — anything from a coffee shop to a clothing boutique to 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.  Then, over one weekend, we’ll run all the events and you can attend as many or as few as you like.


The festival will be called Indoor Recess*.  Remember the cozy feeling of staying in and padding around in your socks while the wind howled out on the playground?  The illicit pleasure of enjoying your classroom without the rules that usually tied up your days?  Board games?  Books?  Oregon Trail?  Any of those could make a comeback — or you might encounter an exciting new activity.  Knitting?  Jazz?  Cooking lessons?  What skills could you share?  What hobbies have you wanted to try?  Are you looking for a better way to meet new people?  If you have an event idea, let us know and we’ll try to match you up with a space some time in the fall.

The logo above is just a rough draft — if you have something better hovering in your mind’s eye, get it down on paper and pass it along to us.  We will also need a slogan, so get your thinking cap on.   Indoor Recess is becoming a reality, but we still need your help.  Events, logos, slogans -send them our way!


* Special thanks to Gonzalo Riva of Artery for hitting on the perfect name. is great way to organize low-cost events in public or private spaces all-year round — it’s a social network, an event planner and a ticketing site all in one!





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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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Renew Newcastle – A New Model for Negotiating Use of Space

Newcastle, Australia.  Source: wikimedia user macr

Newcastle, Australia. Source: wikimedia user macr

Renew Newcastle

Renew Newcastle began in 2008 in Newcastle, Australia, an industrial city on Australia’s east coast, not too far from Sydney. Like many industrial towns, Newcastle has struggled economically and had vacant properties in the downtown core. Renew Newcastle scouts out vacant storefronts and buildings and negotiates temporary use of these spaces with their landlords. The organization then seeks applications from artists, entrepreneurs, cultural programs and community groups to use and maintain the spaces until the landlord can find a paying tenant. This has the three-fold effect of keeping the propertiesin good repair; stimulating street traffic by creating new cultural options in the neighbourhood; and providing inexpensive spaces for new organizations. It’s a win-win-win situation.

Renew Newcastle serves as a sort of middle man matching landlords who hold vacant space with artists and entrepreneurs who have ideas about what to do with vacant spaces. The program is structured in such a way that it is effectively free for the landlord and very cheap for the participants. The landlord and the participants sign a license agreement rather than a lease, Renew Newcastle holds the necessary insurance, and the participants agree to pay for utilities and some other costs, as well as paying a nominal participation fee which covers some of Renew Newcastle’s own costs. Landlords don’t risk the loss of any future rental income because the agreements are made on a rolling 30 day basis.  Renew Newcastle’s management screen proposals according to the specifics of a given space and then present a number of options to landlords, who ultimately choose their preferred candidate.

An Innovative Model

Renew Newcastle is an exciting project which seems to have done a lot to revitalize Newcastle’s downtown. One interesting innovation is the existence of an umbrella organization which can handle insurance, negotiate with landlords and sort through the delicious chaos of proposals that they surely receive. The presence of such an organization in any city could go along way towards making shared community spaces a reality. Another interesting idea is the rolling-lease, which is reassuring to landlords without being too onerous for small community organizations — it isn’t the ideal way to build an enduring institution, but it could be a good place to start.

Vacant Spaces in Toronto and the U.K.

The Empty Spaces Project documents a number of similar projects throughout the world.  In Toronto, the Danforth East Community Association (DECA) has organized a pop-up shop project, using a similar model, to match would-be entrepreneurs with vacant retail space and revitalize their neighbourhood. Vacant retail spaces are particularly problematic in Toronto because the City of Toronto offers tax relief to landlords whose spaces are unoccupied — effectively encouraging them to raise rents and let space sit empty until they find a more profitable tenant.  In 2011, Councillor Mike Layton introduced (unsuccessfully) legislation which proposed that ” the current commercial property tax relief program could be changed to encourage the support of small business start-ups, artists, community outreach, not-for-profits and other qualifying ventures, within these otherwise empty spaces by way of an Enterprise Incubation program in which property owners would need to register and make available their vacant properties in order to receive tax relief.”  Such a project would benefit landlords, community groups and the city as a whole.  Councilor Layton’s proposal provides a strong incentive for participation at no cost to the city without without mandating participation.  With a new Mayor at the helm, perhaps this is an idea worth returning to.

Although they are doing a lot of good in their own way, Renew Newcastle and DECA’s pop-up shop project have so far mainly served to incubate new businesses — given the choice landlords often prefer projects that have the possibility of becoming market-rate tenants — rather than not-for-profit community spaces.  However, one organization in the U.K. called 3space is working to make sure that vacant spaces are used for community projects.  Check out their promotional video:

Valuing Space in Human Terms

In effect, Renew Newcastle gives people the chance to negotiate temporary control of space based on the originality and value of their ideas, rather than the size of cheque they are able to cut.  Programs like Renew Newcastle ask landlords to consider a broad variety of criteria when choosing tenants. While yet another clothing store might be the most profitable use of a given property, an arts venue or a peer-to-peer learning facility could well produce much broader benefits to the community — including boosting foot traffic and making surrounding stores more profitable.  Some landlords think in these terms already — many avoid raising rents on businesses that are important to the local community. What Renew Newcastle, and programs like it, have done is to institutionalize this relationship, creating a formal process within which people can discuss the use of space using the full spectrum of human language, rather than a monochrome of dollar signs.  Legislative initiatives that provide municipal support for such programs are particularly appealing because they give organizers more leverage when advocating for the inclusion of community projects in addition to fledgling businesses.

City of Toronto Draft Legislation: Member Motion MM10.10, 2011.

DECA website: 

Renew Newcastle website:

Westbury, M. (2010) Creating Creative Enterprise Hubs: A Guide. Retrieved from

Westbury, M. (2011). RENEW NEWCASTLE: Reinventing the City. Municipal World, 121(4), 5-6.

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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!


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