Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.


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Studio.89 – A Café that allows itself to be shaped by its Community

Many businesses are parachuted into a community with a one-size-fits-all plan for extracting money.  Others emerge from a community organically, both serving and reflecting the people who live there.  Studio.89, a fair-trade café in Mississauga, didn’t start out as a business at all — it began as a student-run non-profit called Youth Troopers for Global Awareness.  In 2006, a group of students at John Fraser Secondary School came to the conclusion that their community needed greater awareness of local and global issues and their potential solutions.  YTGA was created to meet this need.  Members of the group quickly identified art as a way of amplifying their voices and sharing their knowledge.  As their work expanded, they identified a second, related need — people in Mississauga needed space for events (especially artistic and non-profit events) that was accessible, free and easy to book.  Recognizing that Mississauga also lacked places to buy fair-trade coffee and quick, environmentally-conscious meals, YTGA created Studio.89 — a space designed to meet a variety of community needs all at once.

Studio.89 provides free event space to students, artists and community groups and pays the rent by selling fair-trade coffee and affordable vegan and vegetarian meals.   I recently interviewed Jazzmine Lawton, the executive director of YTGA, about Studio.89 and the people it brings together.

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Inputs and Outputs

In terms of inputs, Studio.89 sells a lot of coffee, but it also makes use of grants and non-monetary inputs like volunteer staff and in-kind donations.  Studio.89 receives grants from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the City of Mississauga.  While it has some salaried staff, volunteers serve the coffee and the people running events keep it spick and span.  Volunteers come from local high schools, as interns from colleges, and through youth justice programs.  They gain experience in the food industry, but also learn about local arts and advocacy groups.  Many high school students have stayed on after completing their required volunteer hours because they found the space comfortable and the work meaningful.  Drawing volunteers from different places also increases the perspectives in the mix, strengthening Studio.89’s decision-making capacities.

Rent is Studio.89’s biggest expense, followed by admin salaries.  Fair-trade coffee is another big expense.  Studio.89 could have higher margins if it used cheaper coffee or charged higher prices, but either choice would undermine the space’s mission.  Running a business that also has social goals is challenging, but balancing economic and social imperatives gives the café its own eclectic character.  Fair-trade coffee at a reasonable price makes Studio.89 stand out from both franchise donut shops and trendy cafés.

Even when sales are buzzing, there are no profits to speak of — potential profits are funneled right back into the organization because a social enterprise’s real output is community well-being.  While competition between profit-oriented businesses may gradually find the most profitable use of space, there may be an even more efficient use of space to be found by balancing a variety of needs and goals against one another.

Challenges and Advice

Studio.89 is bustling and vibrant, but it hasn’t always been easy.  In fact, the hustle and bustle itself can be a challenge, as admin staff sometimes have trouble focusing on paperwork in such a lively, social atmosphere, even resorting to bringing their work home with them just for peace and quiet.  Having two bottom-lines, one monetary and one social, can feel like an unwinnable war.  When staff focus on the economics, they risk letting social programming slip, and when they focus on programming there’s a chance that business operations will falter.  But at other times, the two aspects work harmoniously — as when an especially popular event helps them sell a ton of coffee and food.  Or when a socially-motivated choice like using gender neutral washrooms leads to increased bookings and business from the local LGBTQ community.

For anyone thinking of opening a similar enterprise, Jazzmine suggests building wide-spread community support in advance.  Keeping an event space full and paying the rent can be a struggle and it helps to have partnerships and alliances laid out in advance.  Jazzmine also suggests taking the business aspect seriously out of the gates and working out a detailed feasibility plan.  Working with a non-profit budget and mindset, Studio.89 chose a space that was inaccessible to pedestrians and transit-riders because it was cheap — something they might not have done if they had thought of their initial expenses more like an investment.  As a result, Studio.89 doesn’t get many walk-in customers at their present location and has to rely almost entirely on events to draw people in.

Making Space for Free – and Distinctive – Events

Studio89’s event space — in a loft area above the café — is the heart and soul of the enterprise.  Last year, they hosted 673 events — about 1/5th were planned by the program coordinator with the rest reflecting the diversity of local interests and ambitions.  The artademic centre hosts open mic nights and documentary screenings, but it also provides meeting space for non-profits and small businesses.  Unlike many city-run facilities where booking space can be a procedural nightmare, turn around time at Studio.89 is usually within 24 hours.  Bookings are done through an online form and reviewed by the program director.  Studio89 approves almost all events — though a few events have been cancelled or denied because they made the space unwelcoming to others.  Balancing as many community needs as possible, while also holding space for those who are most often excluded, is the programming rule of thumb.  Booking the space requires a credit card — but it’s only billed in case of a cancellation or clean-up fee.  Charging to cancel a free service weeds out people who don’t take a service seriously just because there’s no price attached without burdening those who really can’t afford to pay.

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In our interview, Jazzmine discussed Studio.89’s nuanced response when they noticed that small businesses were dominating their booking calendar.  Small businesses are a key component of a thriving community and provide valuable connections for other participants in the space.  Studio.89 didn’t want to exclude them, but they also wanted to make sure that those groups they had initially identified as needing better access to event space got their time to shine.  The Studio.89 staff made a few changes to their policies: strongly encouraging, but not requiring, donations during regular hours and charging a fee for bookings before the café’s regular hours, a time period that was popular for business meetings.  Since then, they have reached a healthier balance between business and non-business bookings.  Those businesses that got the most value out of the entire Studio.89 package have stuck around, while those who who were just looking for the cheapest option have moved on.  And the early morning bookings are a new source of revenue.

How A Loose Vision leaves Space for the Local Community

Jazzmine explained to me that Studio.89 began with a loose vision of their future.  They knew they wanted to sell socially-conscious food and drink and provide a free space where people from Mississauga could connect with one another and speak out about global and local issues — but that conception includes a wide horizon of possibilities.  A detailed vision can give a space direction, but it can also cloud one’s gaze, preventing you from looking closely at the texture of your local community.  Studio.89’s loose vision has served them well.  As they have connected with different resources and needs in an omnivorous way, they have brought together groups and individuals who might never have met under a more tightly planned arrangement.  Having found that artists and students are mainly looking for space in the evenings, they are reaching out to seniors’ groups to see if they need free space during the day.  Outreach to seniors is a connection that a high-school social justice group might not typically make — but it is one that reflects the reality of the local community.  By adapting to the needs and opportunities that surround it, Studio.89 more and more closely mirrors the demographics of Mississauga.  The space also helps to draw the community itself together, weaving new connections and knitting new friendships.  People getting coffee hear about local poets; entrepreneurs get to know high school students; comedians meet activists and vice versa, creating considerable cross-pollination between groups.  Volunteers report that learning about new groups and activities is one of the biggest perks of working at the café.  And Jazzmine and her staff are always working to strengthen these connections, pitching in with marketing efforts for causes and shows that need assistance.

As the years have passed, Jazzmine has been amazed by the way that the community has shaped Studio.89.  What started out as a loose vision has gradually become a distinct image that draws energy and character from the people of Mississauga.  An open-minded outlook lets Studio.89 react honestly and directly to the people around them — rather than focusing on a predetermined model.  Having deep roots in the community has also made the space unique.  Cookie-cutter chains feel the same everywhere, because their brand is cooked up by a transnational marketing company, rather than being seasoned by the many different people who walk in the door each and every day.

Stephen Lewis Workshop

All photos courtesy of Studio.89

 


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The Public Sphere – Part 3 Open-minded Indoor Spaces and the Quest to Restore the Public Sphere

Restore the Public SphereIf we recall, Habermas sees no clear distinction between public and private in feudal society.  Dignity was a blending of power and culture and the force that made ideas ‘true.’  The court was a form of government, but it was also a cultural show performed for the lower classes.  This was a public space, but behaviour was tightly scripted, leaving little room for individual opinion and personality.  ‘Private’ individuals were initially those who had no position in the state.  These merchants gained economic autonomy and shaped their opinions in the privacy of their homes.  When they emerged from their homes and encountered each other as equals — debating art and policy in coffee shops and salons — the modern idea of public space was born.  Equality was easy to maintain as most participants in this public sphere came from the same class and were collectively seeking to wrest dominance from the aristocracy.  Once the aristocracy was dethroned, maintaining and expanding equality became more troublesome.  Now that ‘private’ individuals had real power, many of them wanted to hang on to it.

For Habermas, some aspects of contemporary culture resemble the feudal world more than they resemble the autonomous debate of the bourgeois public sphere.  Companies are internally hierarchical and work to manipulate public opinion through ‘public relations’ techniques.  Political parties are closed off within their ‘caucuses’ and display their leaders to the public through campaigns that are more about image and symbolism than policy and ideas.  Publicity, which once rose up from the diversified interactions of thousands of private homes, is “generated from above to create an aura of good will for certain positions” (Habermas, 1989, p.177).  This is the meaning of the ‘refeudalization’ of the public sphere.  As with the medieval onlookers gathered outside court festivities, “the public as such is included only sporadically in this circuit of power, and even then it is brought in only to contribute its acclamation” (Habermas, 1989, p.176).  We can applaud our politicians, but we never get to tell them what we think.  For Habermas, the key question is whether public opinion is a force that shapes policy or an object being manipulated by powerful organizations.

 

 

So how can we revive the genuine public sphere without making it once again the exclusive domain of elites, as it was in the 1700s?

I see at least three specific, but intertwined, requirements here:

  1. We need new sites of cultural production which are accessible and diverse and untainted by economic considerations. Social media holds some potential, but it too could easily be ‘refeudalized’, populated as it is by marketers, PR experts and ‘astroturfers.’  Furthermore, social media ownership is very concentrated, unlike the newspapers, cafes and salons of the early public sphere.
  1. We also need a shift in the character of socialization away from passive consumption and towards debate, critique and the formation of opinions. When we talk about politics, we need to talk about policies, not about politicians engaged in some kind of horse race.  Don’t ask who won the debate, ask which ideas were useful.  When we talk about art, we need to talk about its message and meaning, not just how awesome it is.  We have to be willing to engage coworkers and new acquaintances in meaningful discussions, rather than just making small talk.  Fundamentally, we need to use our free time to form opinions about art and politics, together and alone, rather than just to consume entertainment produced by large companies.
  1. Perhaps most importantly political parties and large organizations need to choose genuine public deliberation over public relations. If the shift towards debate as the prime form of socialization is strong enough, political parties will have to play along in order to get votes.  More likely though, if there is progress here, it will be a two-way street, as politicians take deliberation more seriously, the public will see more value in participating and as the public becomes more involved it will produce ideas that are more complex and valuable as actual policy.

I am interested in indoor public spaces because they are so important in forming a public sphere.  Community centres often focus on leisure and exercise, rather than ‘recreation’ in the active and productive sense.  In Toronto, in the breakdancing community, practices are open sessions where everyone can create new movements, rather than learning the movements of experts.  I know that in Toronto’s community centres it hasn’t always been easy for dancers to explain this process to managers who expect their employees to teach lessons.  In the public library, we can read about politics and art, but there is little opportunity for us to engage other people in discussion or collectively produce any kind of statement or publication.  We need public spaces where we can produce, instead of just consuming.  Focused spaces like churches, though they sometimes make space for meaningful discussions, are at risk of forming internal debates which are not continuous with the broader public debate.  We also need spaces that are open to all people, spaces where people have meaningful interactions with members of other classes, religions and political parties.


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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.

 

FOOTNOTES:

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.

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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.

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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.

 


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100 in 1 Day – Toronto

100in1day

100-in-1 Day is an international, citizen-led festival that coordinates a plethora of mini-events and festivals called interventions all across a city, all on the same day.  Part of the fun is helping people to see just how easy it is to take action and make change happen.  The first 100-in-1 Day took place in Bogota, Colombia in 2012 but it has rapidly spread across the globe.  This year 100-in-1 Day Canada is June 7th and it’s taking place in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Halifax.

Hundreds of fun, thought-provoking grassroots interventions will be popping up all across Toronto this Saturday — and many of them are indoors!  While that might not normally be a particularly exciting feature of a public event, it certainly makes them stand out to us.

Here are just a few of the events that caught our eye:

Convenience Stories and Space That Gives A Sense Of Place celebrate the ordinary, indoor spaces that make a neighbourhood feel like home.  Convenience stories is a walking tour of convenience stores that will ask participants to share memories of convenience stores throughout their lives — surprisingly rich soil for emotion and nostalgia!  Space that Gives a Sense of Place will provide maps and tours of local spaces that bind together three Toronto neighbourhoods — the Junction, Cabbagetown/St. James Town and Leslieville.

Covenience Stories

We also noticed three intriguing interventions taking place on the TTC:  Sharing Languages on the TTC is going to hand out buttons that identify people as willing conversationalists in various languages; Go Nicely is seeking to bear witness to polite and pleasant behaviour on the TTC throughout the day; and our personal favourite is the Streetcar Back Pack — roving teams of transit heroes will be hanging out at the back of streetcars making them as attractive as possible — with snacks, cushions and music — in order to encourage people to move on back.

Streetcar Back Pack Project

Nellie’s Women’s Shelter is having an open house with live music and refreshments to introduce themselves and publicize their workshops on topics like transphobia, voting and take-back-the-night marches.

The Children’s Book Bank is having a book drive.  Some environmentally-minded Torontonian are opening a Free Store at York University where you can pass along things you no longer need and maybe pick up something you do.  Free Stores are such an important and valuable service and we should do our best to find a home for them in other indoor spaces.  Finally, the Toronto Carpet Factory is launching a Little Library — which will be an ongoing project.

children's book bank

There are also tons of awesome outdoor events — live music, public conversations about important topics like mental health, guerrilla art — and some other indoor events that we didn’t have time to cover.  You should definitely check out all the interventions and see what’s going down in your neck of the woods!


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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?