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Round Table: Who is public space for?

Designing, programming, and maintaining inclusive space for everyone

Moderated by Nadja Pausch, OALA

Diana Chan McNally (she/they) is a former frontline worker who is currently employed by the Toronto Drop-in Network, where she oversees advocacy initiatives and learning opportunities for 56 organizations across the City of Toronto supporting unhoused people. As someone with lived experience of social services and being unhoused, Diana’s work focuses on human rights and equity issues for people who are experiencing homelessness, and she is particularly involved in rights protections for residents of encampments.

Sara Udow is an urban and cultural planner and engagement and communications specialist. As co-founder and principal of PROCESS, Sara is dedicated to designing and delivering collaborative, creative, and equitable planning processes that lead to meaningful and inclusive outcomes.

Adri Stark is a project manager at Park People, a national charity that helps people activate the power of parks. She is co-author of Park People’s Canadian City Parks Report—an annual publication that explores park trends, challenges, and leading practices based on a survey of municipalities across the country.

Bryce Miranda, OALA, CSLA, is an experienced landscape architect and urban designer, who is a Principal of Landscape Architecture with DIALOG in the Toronto studio. Bryce’s current work is focused on design development of urban and campus environments including streetscapes, institutional buildings, parks, urban revitalization, and transportation-related urban design. For over a decade, he has led some of the most innovative public realm projects—creating spaces that bring communities together in innovative and sustainable ways.

Nadja Pausch, OALA, CSLA, is the Ground Editorial Board Member and Chair. Nadja Works as a landscape architect at a multidisciplinary design office in Toronto.

Nadja Pausch: The ways our public spaces are designed and utilized are a reflection of our societal values. Everybody should feel at home in the public realm. But, to be truly inclusive and equitable, these spaces need to be located, designed and programmed, operated and maintained to meet the diverse needs of the whole population, and this includes unhoused members of our communities.

If our parks, streets, and open spaces are not universally welcoming and don’t meet everyone’s needs, we can’t really call them equitable, or perhaps even “public.” During the pandemic, for various reasons, many unhoused people chose to live in parks. The outlawing of certain shelters and forcible removal of those living in encampments has brought this issue to the forefront of public consciousness.

What are the greatest barriers to improving equity in the public realm, and how might these barriers be addressed?

Encampment site at Trinity Bellwoods Park. IMAGE/ Elena Berd

Sara Udow: It can’t just be landscape architects, planners, and architects sitting at their desk and doing site visits, et cetera, and then engaging with some people about a project. You need intensive and inclusive engagement approaches, so you actually understand the issues at play.

Someone said our field works from rendering to ribbon cutting, and we let go from there. But public spaces and their uses change. With the encampments, we need to shift with the times. We’re in an affordable housing crisis, instead of trying to keep people out we should create more inclusive spaces for everyone.

Diana Chan McNally: The City of Toronto treats public space as if it’s defending private property. Specifically, their private property, in which they get to define and set the limits on what is acceptable use of a space. In a sense, we’re privileging municipal bylaws over much higher, superseding laws at the federal level—which include the Charter, as well as the National Housing Strategy Act—about the right to housing and meaningful engagement with people to define and decide what their services, housing, and supports actually look like.

It’s picking and choosing which laws the City upholds, and, legally speaking, their actions aren’t really lawful. The City has legal obligations to uphold the right to housing, and they’re failing to do that when they clear out encampments. By United Nations and international law standards, these are houses.

Defensive design – Spikes installed to prevent people from sleeping on vents. IMAGE/ Tai Huynh

Bryce Miranda: I think our definition of a park has changed, and should be changing over time. Parks began with cemeteries in the mid-19th century, but evolved into public spaces to deal with the industrial age and terrible living conditions. In the digital age, we’re still dealing with a lot of the same issues. We have overcrowding. People can’t afford housing. We need to rethink the function and use of the park, which, currently, is a place of respite for people without places to live.

Adri Stark: The distinction between parks and housing is rooted in colonial definitions of what a park can and should be. I always return to Jesse Thistle’s definition of Indigenous homelessness, which highlights that home can be so much more than a bricks and mortar shelter over your head.

To the question of barriers, working closely with municipalities, and specifically parks department staff, a lot of folks are trained as natural resource managers and are more focused on the environmental side of things. It’s not always that their intentions are in the wrong place, it’s often that they’re completely lost when it comes to understanding the housing crisis and how they might engage with folks living in parks.

As for the need to shift how we think about parks and public space, a lot of municipalities still think of parks as places for recreation where you play baseball and walk your dogs. The reality is parks are now places that intersect with the most pressing issues of our time. They can be a place for more systemic change and solutions.

Bench at Grange Park – middle armrest serves as defensive architecture. IMAGE/ Jeremy Gilbert / Flickr

NP: What are some of the design features in the public realm which (intentionally or not) exclude unhoused and other vulnerable populations from public space?

BM: There’s a whole world of hostile architecture. The most common example is the bench with an armrest strategically placed to prevent someone from sleeping on it or deterrents on top of exhaust grates to stop people resting on them for heat.

DCM: A lot of what is, or isn’t provided is very telling about who is considered a park user and what the “public” actually means at a policy level. We see that hostile architecture in every park in Toronto. But we also see the elements of a park which facilitate people’s health and wellness, including having and maintaining accessible bathrooms, withheld from people living in encampments for basically the entire pandemic. And while we technically have infrastructure for accessing running water, that also is not maintained, there are many unusable water fountains. The City is actively withholding things that are absolutely rights and that people need to stay well. It’s done on purpose to discourage people living in encampments. It’s by design. People are forced to use the bathroom outside and aren’t able to practice any kind of basic hygiene—terrible enough, but violence during a pandemic.

We’re prioritizing spaces for recreation and dogs, and privileging resources for single-family homes and condos. We don’t understand, to the fullest extent, who and what a park user is, which absolutely must include the people who live in them.

Tents in Moss Park. IMAGE/ Bryce Miranda

SU: A lot of our research focuses on having active parks. Having “eyes on the street” or in parks makes it a space where people feel safe. But a lot of people living in a park actually want privacy. So, we must rethink our perceptions of what good design is and what we learned in school.

Also, Cheryll Case and Cheyenne Sundance talk a lot about using parks for food security and urban agriculture. There are community garden programs, but they don’t exist in the way they used to, or could. We need to transform parks not for leisure but for actual necessity and need.

AS: In terms of what’s missing from parks, I love the term Cara Chellew uses of “ghost amenities”—things that should be in parks but aren’t. These are things people require to meet basic needs, but they benefit literally everybody.

One of the most extreme examples we’ve seen of defensive design is parks being completely fenced off to the public and patrolled by security guards. Cities do this, and say it’s for environmental remediation. It’s obvious what the real motivations are, and the narrative around environmental remediation contributes to a lot of hostility between housed and unhoused folks, because it perpetuates a blame dynamic where unhoused people are accused of destroying the environment. And that’s ridiculous because us housed folks have a way bigger environmental footprint than someone living in a tent in a park. There’s also defensive maintenance practices. I spoke with someone who experienced sheltering in Grange Park and they said sometimes sprinklers would go off really early in the morning. It was a clear defensive tactic to push people out of the park.

An out-of-order fountain. IMAGE/ Bryce Miranda

BM: There’s also design based on how much time you are spending in the park. It’s okay to enjoy the park, but only for a certain period of time, and if it’s any longer, hostile architecture is introduced to make you leave, like making benches with no backs so you can only sit comfortably for a certain period of time before you carry on.

NP: How can public space be designed, programmed, and managed to be more inclusive and welcoming to all?

SU: We talked about washrooms. Other things people need if they’re outside for a long time, or if they’re unhoused, includes the digital space: getting WiFi in parks and outlets to plug your phone in.

Naloxone (in case of overdose). IMAGE/ Bryce Miranda

DCM: A broad swath of the public uses drugs, and we know the drug poisoning and overdose crisis is affecting people across identities, but we still don’t want to have that conversation, because we’re still stigmatizing drug use. We’ve argued for a long time for sharps disposals for needles, to keep them off the ground—always a point of contention with many people living in the neighborhood, or casual users of the park. From a public health perspective, it’s good policy. Not just in the context of people who use drugs: many people live with diabetes, so a sharps disposal unit would be helpful. In Los Angeles, they have a program near Skid Row called the Mobile Pit Stop, which is kind of a bathroom, with running water, a facility to wash your hands, and a place to dispose of medical paraphernalia like needles. It’s a well-used program with a many good public health outcomes for everybody. It’s also monitored by a staff person, so someone using the space will not overdose and die—something that happens in our parks with some frequency in unattended porta-potties. These are human lives being lost unnecessarily because we’re not putting features in the public space which would actually keep them safe.

BM: For people living in tents, everything they have is in there, and security is a real issue. If they leave their tent, there’s a chance they’ll lose things, or it’s removed by the police. Maybe there’s some way to protect their belongings, like lockers, to give people a sense of security. And we need a system where police are not there to extract you but to protect you.

Protesters hold up a banner above Nathan Phillips Square demanding pandemic housing relief. IMAGE/ Michael Swan / Flickr

AS: On the programming side, parks can be valuable spaces for public education, which I think is a huge component of helping potentially hostile people who otherwise might call 311 to complain about folks living in “their” park have a bit more understanding.

Take the Native Women’s Shelter of Montreal. They do work in Cabot Square—a gathering place for unhoused folks, particularly the Inuit community. They have a full-time Indigenous social worker in a pavilion in the park who acts as a mediator, helping to engage housed people in public education, as well as provide support if there’s anything onsite that requires it. Pre-pandemic, they had a program called “Indigenous Fridays,” where different community members (who might be precariously housed themselves) led workshops. The executive director said this helped shift perceptions of the park, and people started seeing it as a vibrant community space, rather than a place to avoid.

Initiatives like that, aiming to bring together housed and unhoused folks to address stigma and shift perceptions, are valuable.

DCM: With my role at the Toronto Drop-In Network, we’ve been given license by the City to run drop-in programs within parks. This is something we’re going to try to initiate, and it absolutely can be a space where we address people’s real needs, whether they are living there or not. We can create a space to gather together (difficult to do indoors right now), access needs, and do community building. We’re taking baby steps to understand there is a diversity of people who use parks, and there’s a lot of ways we can leverage the space to create inclusivity and community. But there’s still a lot of bad design and logic, and a lack of programming in place.

Needle Drop (users can safely deposit needles). IMAGE/ Bryce Miranda

SU: In our engagement work, we often speak to certain people, community organizations, and non-profits who are using public space in different ways. And it’s important because it shifts our thinking.

We were working in Victoria as an artist residency, and they had a controversial park redesign proposing a children’s playground. Why wouldn’t you want a playground? Well, in Victoria, there’s a bylaw that, if there’s a playground, you cannot camp overnight in a park. This park is home to a lot of unhoused community members, so it was basically saying “you have to leave now.” The City hadn’t done engagement specifically with the people living in the park. I think it was well intentioned, as it often is. They had pop-ups, art signs, saying “tell us what you want to see in the park,” all that fun stuff. But there was no conversation with the actual people living there. So we led a separate workshop with members of the unhoused community, a non-profit, and City parks and planning staff, and talked about what they wanted to see in the park. A lot of it goes back to harm reduction.

The line for take out food at The Good Shepherd stretches down Queen Street, around the block. IMAGE/ Michael Swan / Flickr

NP: Are there any public spaces that shouldn’t be designed to accommodate unhoused people, and, if so, why?

DCM: I don’t think so. But I’ll just point to universal design: which is to say we should be taking into account  as many stakeholders as possible  and not excluding anyone on purpose. It’s not for us to define what is public.

SU: It’s about shifting that question. We do a lot of work and talk with BIAs, and they’re experiencing more homelessness than ever, and they want enforcements and security. They’re worried about their small business, et cetera. But I think people just don’t know what the other options are, and how to create spaces shared by everyone, so they turn to enforcement as their only option. The real question is “what are the opportunities for better design?”

NP: What changes to policy, planning processes, or design standards are required to ensure the public realm welcomes and accommodates everybody? Are there systemic changes needed to reach this goal?

SU: From a policy perspective, I’m sure there’s lots of bylaws and things to change. The problem I have is with planning in general: we don’t look at things long-term. We look from rendering to ribbon cutting, as I said, and that’s it. And one thing Park People does really well, and we do some of too, is public life studies, monitoring spaces, and learning about how a space’s use is constantly changing and shifting. But too often we look at public spaces as static, not evolving.

BM: Things like the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act have been successful, when that became mandatory to meet code. Whatever you’re designing must meet the basic standards of the accessibility guidelines. So, you can implement a number of guidelines and codes that meet the basic requirements necessary for people to live. If a public space meets those requirements, we’re successfully supporting unhoused people.

Portable shower for homeless in San Francisco. IMAGE/ Eddie Codel / Flickr

SU: We have a very flawed system for statutory public meetings. We all know the people who come out are often those who have the time, resources, and money to make their voices heard. Ensuring we’re speaking to people who are marginalized or equity-deserving communities who can’t make that time and space to come out is important. We often pay people for their work and hire local community members to get involved and engaged. We reach out to community organizations and give them funds to help speak to their communities, because they know how to get great feedback and advice we wouldn’t be able to.

DCM: The municipality doesn’t have an onus to do that. At a bureaucratic level, we need to change how we frame engagement—understanding it’s an extremely high-barrier. Finding the information for these meetings, let alone having the technology and time available to participate (because they’re mostly online now), really does bring out a certain segment: folks with enough privilege to be there. And, generally, the folks who come out will oppose. It’s always very skewed. Our idea of engagement at the municipal level has to change, and feedback from designers like Process and folks like yourself could help the City rethink how it defines engagement. That’s something designers can do: leverage the City, if you’re engaged in an RFP or something, to push for better engagement, as opposed to a linear, one-dimensional, inaccessible public consultation meeting.

AS: Can every municipality please remove their bylaw prohibiting camping in parks? In B.C., there have been supreme court challenges forcing municipalities to overturn these bylaws, and it’s time for every municipality in Canada to get on board with that. Also, I know a lot of tension comes up around fire safety—fire departments are always mad about structures in parks—so that stands out as an area where we need some innovative, proactive collaboration with fire safety folks, landscape architects, and parks department staff to figure out a workable solution.

DCM: The no-camping bylaws are contrary to federal law, and yet municipalities are ignoring that. As for fire safety, often, through my work, we’ve advocated that the City adopt a set of standards through the Faulkner Inquest, which followed the death of Grant Faulkner in Scarborough in an encampment fire, and they have repeatedly refused to enact these recommendations—which are not coming from advocates, they’re from the office of the chief coroner. What are we actually providing people that will reduce these situations?

And while fires have definitely happened in the past, the issue is being leveraged as an excuse to move people out of these spaces. In your own home, if something isn’t safe, we don’t say “you can’t be in your house anymore, get out.” We have a double standard because, again, we’re not considering encampments housing. We’re using “fire safety” to push people out, instead of doing what you would do if someone were housed: provide fire-safe equipment like a smoke alarm.

It’s also important to apply equity, anti-Black racism, and anti-colonialist lenses. Who’s living in parks? 31 per cent of people who are unhoused identify as Black. Almost one-third of people actively living in parks identify as Indigenous. A lot of unhoused people live with a disability. We have to incorporate these strategies into our planning processes and design; it should be mandatory across the board.

Thanks to Nadja Pausch for coordinating this round table.