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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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.

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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!

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* Special thanks to Gonzalo Riva of Artery for hitting on the perfect name.  Artery.is 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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Ideas can be erased from public websites, but not from public space.

The moment Trump took office, his minions scrubbed the White House website of all mentions of climate change, LGBTQ issues and civil rights.  This is a clear effort to manage public opinion, not by engaging in discussion, but by erasing certain ideas from public space and consciousness.

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Photo credit: @yayoi_shionoiri

‘Public’ is a funny word.  Habermas has observed that it can refer either to the government and its various appendages OR to precisely that segment of the population which criticizes the government.  When democracy is functioning properly, these two meanings should be synonymous, but when things get out of whack these meanings will drift farther and farther apart.  When the state is functioning democratically, it supports, reflects and encourages our political conversations in the spaces it manages. (Footnote 1)  While the United States, and most other democratic countries, have rarely, if ever, aimed to encourage dissent and discussion, the current President marks an “unpresidented” low in this regard.  The views of the government are publicized through specific channels, but the public itself is everywhere.  If the government is doing a bad job of reflecting your views in the spaces where they ought to be reflected, then it is time to make them heard elsewhere.

If Trump refuses to acknowledge civil rights, then paint your favourite James Baldwin quote on a sign, slap a team logo (other than the Indians) on there and bring it down to the ballpark.  If somebody makes small talk with you on the bus, tell them about the last protest you went to.  Ask your waiter if they vote, and if they do give them a 30% tip and tell them why.  (If they don’t, give them a 20% tip and tell them to consider voting).

If Trump refuses to allow civil servants to discuss and study climate change, then we must move the discussion into those day-to-day spaces that the state cannot police so easily.  If your HR department asks if you have any concerns, tell them you are worried about the company’s carbon footprint.  If you teach a high school physics class, use climate change as a case study.  If a store asks you how you found their service, tell them you were too worried about climate change to buy anything.  If someone asks you if you like their shoes, tell them ‘Climate change is real (and I like your shoes.)’

If Trump refuses to acknowledge the existence of the LGBTQ community through the government, then the LGBTQ community and its allies must be everywhere.  Put a flag up on your porch.  Sew pride patches onto your backpack.  If you have a youtube channel reviewing movies, review Milk.  Steal a tactic from those FHRITP idiots, and yell ‘We’re here.  We’re queer.  And we have human rights’ whenever you see a live TV camera asking for public opinion on any topic whatsoever.

We cannot allow our public representatives to pretend to represent public opinion when they do not.  Trump can erase ideas from public websites, but not from PUBLIC SPACE.  And public space is everywhere that we are.

Footnote 1: For some interesting thoughts on how government officials could design public spaces that encourage dissent and discussion check out this book: Beyond Zucotti Park: Freedom of Expression and the Occupation of Public Space.


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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.

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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 (contact@indoorpublicspace.org), blog comments, twitter or facebook!

Logistics?

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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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.