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Bank of Canada Head Office Renewal, DTAH

Spatial Democracy

How can landscape foster equity

Moderated by Glyn Bowerman


Chris Pommer is a founding partner in PLANT Architect Inc., an interdisciplinary firm branching into the domains of architecture, landscape, ecology, art, and graphics. Some of PLANT’s projects include: the Nathan Philips Square Revitalization, the Dublin Grounds of Remembrance, the Canadian Firefighters Memorial in Ottawa, and ongoing work on Mulock Park in Newmarket. Chris has taught and lectured at the Universities of Toronto, Waterloo, and Manitoba, and at IIT in Chicago, and currently sits on the Toronto Public Art Commission.

Jay Wall, RGD, is the Principal Creative Director at Briteweb, a creative agency dedicated to social change. He also teaches at the George Brown College School of Design. With a background in graphic design, Jay advocates for inclusive communications to promote participation in shaping our cities and public spaces.

Zannah Mae Matson’s research and design work focuses on the histories and contemporary reinterpretations of landscapes throughout processes of colonization, violence, and state infrastructure projects. Her current research traces the afterlives of coloniality through highway construction in Colombia’s eastern piedmont landscapes to think about transportation infrastructure, extractive economies, and visual representation in Latin American landscapes more generally. Zannah is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Design at the University of Colorado Boulder and an active member of the Beyond Extraction Collective, a scholar-activist-led collective that mobilizes counter-extractive knowledges.

Glyn Bowerman is the editor of Ground. He is a Toronto-based journalist and hosts the monthly Spacing Radio podcast.

Remembering Jack Layton at Nathan Phillips Square. IMAGE/ Jackman Chiu / Flickr

Glyn Bowerman: We’re here to discuss the expression of democracy in our physical world. Often democracy is spoken about as an intangible principle or ideal. We are curious about a spatial democracy, as in places to gather that are universally accessible and promote wellbeing, freedom, and equity. So, can landscapes, public spaces, or institutional infrastructure be democratic?

Christopher Pommer: Yes is the short answer. It strikes me, having worked on Nathan Phillips Square (Toronto City Hall), that spatial democracy relies on actual democracy. The political democracy has to be active and supported in order for those spaces to receive people equitably and provide them space for gathering, protest, celebration, and sadness. All of those things. One of the challenges we’ve seen at Toronto City Hall is budget. And this really goes for all the public realm in Toronto. You need to be able to maintain these places to allow them to be accessible. I’ll give you a very clear example at Toronto City Hall: because of a lack of available resources, things can’t get maintained, barricades go up to prevent people from using the space because they’re not properly maintained, and therefore access is cut off. This is a huge problem. We need to collectively be willing and eager to support our public spaces in a way that, presently in Canada, we’re not doing a great job.

Remembering Jack Layton at Nathan Phillips Square. IMAGE/ Jackman Chiu / Flickr

Zannah Matson: In thinking about spatial democracy, or democracy in landscape, we must understand the vibrant and healthy democracy that we need to support it. Democratic landscapes, like any landscape with a porous boundary, are impacted by what’s happening around them. So often embedded within how we define democracy is this idea of ‘one person, one vote,’ or, in other words, true and complete equality. But the difference between equality and equity is really important in thinking about what democracy in landscape looks like.

I’m more familiar with the concept of spatial justice and thinking through how you’re explicitly advancing it through an equity framework, creating public spaces that aren’t just universally accessible in a level playing field sort of way, but are actively trying to promote equity and lifting up folks that have been historically marginalized within public spaces. Doing this means increasing access specifically for them—and not just access as in ‘there’s a door, anybody can come through it’—but specifically reaching out and thinking through how to invite people into spaces they have been systemically marginalized from.

Democracy comes down to people’s ability to participate in, and have agency within, their surroundings, their government, their cities. So, to answer your question, of course landscape can be democratic, but it needs huge investment in thinking through more than just access, it means thinking about agency and the ability to fully participate in an equity-minded framework.

Toronto Strong vigil at Mel Lastman Square. IMAGE/ Wikimedia Commons

Jay Wall: Democracy sounds like a wonderful ideal, but we attach this concept of equality to it. Equality isn’t necessarily what we need, because, as it’s been well established and increasingly understood more widely in the last few years, not everyone experiences public space in the same way. So we can’t just say, ‘Here’s a beautiful public space. You’re welcome to use it just like anyone else,’ because it might not be designed for you. Even if it’s designed for you in a physical sense, there may be invisible barriers, other forces like policing for example, that impact your experience of that space. So, we can have a wonderfully designed space, maybe even designed democratically, but if there’s not a broader system of true inclusion and equity-driven policies that surround it, it’s going to fall short.

I also love the idea of the right to the city: not just to accessing and experiencing the city, but to co-creating it. How can folks have agency in designing their cities and public spaces, but also bring them to life and program them in different ways? For example, I’ve spent two weeks as a resident of Black Rock City, Nevada, which many people know as Burning Man. One of the main principles is that it’s a city you don’t visit like you might go to a music festival to consume an experience. You are welcomed there to co-create an experience for yourself and for everyone else, to intentionally contribute to it. I’m not suggesting that Black Rock City is the perfect city or that it’s accessible to all, but in my experiences there, I’ve been deeply inspired by the idea of creating democracy with your hands: you arrive in the desert and build things. You create soft infrastructure, you create hard infrastructure, and you do that collectively as 80,000 residents of a temporary city. It’s explicitly stated as an invitation to action and participation. But most cities don’t have that as a default.

Black Rock City in Nevada. IMAGE/ Wikimedia Commons

I like to ask, how do we make design processes more inclusive? How do we make policy decisions and community engagement more participatory? One way to do that is with thoughtful communications, through design that is visually impactful and makes the content accessible and approachable to folks who aren’t experts in urban design or landscape architecture.

GB: That leads into the next question: how can design or design processes contribute to democracy? What are some ways democracy can influence the creation, facilitation, and programming of our public spaces? Are there literal, physical ways a place can be more or less democratic?

CP: The key clause in your question is “design processes,” because there’s the design work that we all do—the nuts and bolts aspects of it, accessibility and things like that—that are a given for public projects. But with the design process, to Jay’s point, there can be challenges in how those are undertaken, especially by larger organizations where they become a checkbox—you have to have a public meeting, so they have a public meeting, but it’s not necessarily as fruitful as it could be because it’s a pro forma thing, as opposed to structuring the public process in a way you can actually get meaningful feedback.

Champ des Possibles, Montreal. IMAGES/ Les Amis des Champ du Possibles

The word “democracy” is a Eurocentric idea. And, as we know, democracy was not democratic in Athens, Greece, either. A very small percentage of the population had that control. Sadly, we’re not that far away from that. We’ve drifted back towards land-owning, wealthy, powerful people being the ones who actually exercise or wield that power in our cities.

But one of the things that I’ve found encouraging is the degree to which people are eager to participate in these public processes. We’ve worked on parks and other public spaces for a long time and we’ve always had public consultations, but, unless you were in a neighbourhood that was super motivated, or you had a residents’ group, people often didn’t have a sense of how to push their ideas forward or talk about it, and it took work to draw that out. But, in the last few years, people are much more willing to come to a public meeting and say, ‘This is what we need in our neighbourhood.’ And it’s up to us as designers to encourage our clients to listen to those people.

JW: There’s the top-down approach and the bottom-up approach, and I’ve worked in both directions. Some of what I do in this field with my creative agency Briteweb is on consultant teams for municipal governments. We often help to promote participation in urban planning processes. The project could be the development of a city-wide planning policy, a regional parks and recreation plan, or something more site-specific. But, regardless of the scale or geographic reach, I believe in being really intentional about the communication and engagement process. I often ask: What has already been decided by those who hold the most power? What’s on the table for influence? We can design processes around distributing power back to residents and then being extra mindful to ensure there’s a diversity of perspectives and—back to the point of spatial justice—ensuring we’re connecting with those who may not have the privilege of time, money, or academic credentials to participate in these processes. It’s important to make sure it’s truly accessible in many different ways.

Champ des Possibles, Montreal. IMAGES/ Les Amis des Champ du Possibles

From a communications design perspective, a lot of this comes down to how we frame the narrative. Talking to someone about a park or a playground design may be more straightforward because it feels tangible. When you’re talking about something more abstract like a city-wide official plan, they’re not going to see the immediate impacts. An official plan is zoomed out, up at the policy level. But it’s really important because it’s far-reaching. It can impact the decisions we make around things like housing affordability, climate action, Indigenous planning perspectives, inclusion, accessibility, and economics—all these dimensions. In those cases especially, it’s important to take the technical content and present it in a way that’s going to resonate with the public. Often we do that through creative messaging, paired with good graphic design. That opens the door for people to get involved in the process.

CP: Another challenge is, when that consultation takes place. Often it happens way too late in the process, to the point where there’s no way for the concerns of people to have any impact. It should be the first thing that happens.

JW: I hear you. For the last three years, I’ve been working on Our Plan Toronto, which is the City of Toronto’s process to review and update its Official Plan. I can’t speak on behalf of them, but kudos to our project partners at Dillon Consulting and the team at the City. They looked upstream in the process itself. There was engagement on how people wanted to be engaged, including proactive outreach to Indigenous communities. It wasn’t just about consulting those communities on the content but instead first asking, ‘How and when do you want to be included in the process? How can we incorporate your views into all aspects of the plan?’

This ties back to my point about bottom-up approaches. Instead of the invitation to participate only coming top-down from the City, we equipped a group of community leaders to go to their respective communities and invite them to participate in the planning process.

To close the loop, those who hold formal power need to create space for grassroots participation and engagement to happen.

Champ des Possibles, Montreal. IMAGES/ Les Amis des Champ du Possibles

ZM: One of the things I think about is what’s the role of the technocrat within democracy? Reflecting on that and therefore the role landscape architects, or design professionals, play in creating democratic spaces is a really important one. So, in thinking about how design processes can contribute to more democratic spaces, for me it’s understanding that professionals like landscape architects aren’t experts, or shouldn’t portray themselves as experts within this space. Consulting on when people want to be consulted, as Jay was just mentioning, reflects a certain amount of humility: I don’t actually have the answer on when people want to be consulted, so why don’t we just ask them? Because they’re the experts on what they would like. 

One of the things I love about spatial practice is that everybody has spatial practice. Everybody makes life in space. They live their life in space, and they create things they live within. If given that ability, people will constantly be creating a life for themselves that has a spatial imprint. How do we, as professionals, allow people to be experts of their own spatial practice? Just because there’s schooling and tests and accreditation means very little when it comes to how people actually live in space.

GB: We’ve talked a lot about process, but are there certain aspects of physical design, landscapes, or best practices that are more inherently democratic? Chris, you mentioned state of good repair. That is a physical thing: when you let it slip, spaces become less welcoming, not as accessible.

CP: There are pretty simple things we can do that will make spaces more democratic. I was recently in Berlin, which is a city that spends a lot of money on their public realm, and it’s immaculate. Compared to Toronto, the urban realm is taken such good care of. However, there are very few places to sit there. You would think, in a city like that, they would make lots of places to sit. And it may be that when you hit a certain threshold of tourists, you have to deal with it in different ways. But what we did notice is, they have tons of trees along streets—shady and green—and around all of the bases of the trees are benches, and they’re all guerrilla, built by neighbourhood people. The people just build things and provide places to sit. And as soon as you have places for people to sit, you have society, essentially. You have places where people sit and have a conversation. And conversation is the beginning of any culture and democratic impulse.

Guerrilla bench in Berlin. IMAGE/ Chris Pommer

ZM: One thing I feel strongly about is the importance of big spaces for huge, collective gatherings, like protest spaces and the importance of that within our city. Sometimes we look at those spaces as empty when there isn’t a protest happening within them. Boston City Hall Plaza being the prime example: it looks like a big, empty space a lot of the time, but it is a place that a large number of people can collectively gather and protest. It’s so important that we don’t lose track of the fact that sometimes we need big spaces to collectively come together and make our voice heard.

And of course that can happen in the street, and I’m very supportive of it spilling over the square that it’s supposed to happen in, but if we continue to eat into those spaces for other uses, we lose sight of the fact that we need these purpose-built civic spaces for expressing ourselves.

JW: I’m totally on board for designing spaces to accommodate protest and expression of dissent. That was actually what catapulted me into public space activism, after the police wrongfully arrested me on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto during the G20 Summit in 2010. But I’m curious: let’s picture something like the convoy in Ottawa last year. We heard about protests spilling out from the main spaces into the streets and trucks taking over the city. Personally, I’m not politically aligned with what the convoy participants were advocating, but how, as spatial designers, do you all feel about how space should be designed to accommodate—or not accommodate—these things?

Democracy is messy and it’s good for everyone to have their voice. But, going back to our point about spatial equity, who feels safe there? Who feels unsafe? What are the potential harms of the politics or the perspectives being voiced there? I don’t have the answer, I’m just wondering.

CP: I’m not a “free speech absolutist,” but do believe that people that I disagree with have just as much right to protest in the public square as I do. With something like the truckers protest, first of all there isn’t really a big public square in Ottawa to gather. The only big public space is Parliament Hill, and that is very tightly controlled. There was no way they were going to be able to occupy that. But there is no way for any of us to anticipate the ingenuity of someone who is determined to do something.

Trucker Convoy in Ottawa. IMAGE/ Wikimedia Commons

Whoever organized the trucker protest looked at what they could do to cause maximum chaos. They realized they have these machines that can’t be easily moved. It was brilliant as a protest idea. So none of us is ever going to design around someone coming up with an ingenious way of disrupting lives. That being said, to Zannah’s point, we need big public squares. We need them and we need more than one. It’s great to have one central one and to continue being vigilant against the cluttering up of those spaces. A big part of our project at Nathan Phillips Square was to clear out the stuff that had been added over time and reopen the square.

The counterexample is Mel Lastman Square: it’s a big public space, but it was designed coming out of the Vietnam War-era protests, where the philosophy was to make a big public space, but make sure no group larger than 20 can comfortably gather there. It’s all broken up. I often hear from people that we should have planted trees all over Nathan Phillips Square for shade. Open space sometimes makes people uncomfortable. But when you see something like the spontaneous memorial when Jack Layton died, that gathering there was incredibly moving, in part because people understood ‘this is our space to take over,’ and they did.

Remembering Jack Layton at Nathan Phillips Square. IMAGE/ Jackman Chiu / Flickr

GB: This all brings up something interesting about balancing different people’s freedoms—freedom to, freedom from—and also the idea of safety. People like to say safety should be a right and it’s essential. That freedom comes with an expectation of personal safety. But “safety” is also a coded word for policing, cracking down on people, and sometimes silencing them. So, in terms of equity, how do we design spaces to balance those two things?

CP: I was born in the ‘60s and grew up with Vietnam and draft dodgers lodging at our house and stuff like that. There has been a concerted effort, beginning with the Ronald Reagan era in the ‘80s, where the forces of that kind of mean-spirited conservatism have patiently chipped away at all of the things that allow for the equitable use of our world.

And if we are going to combat it, we have to be willing to play the same kind of long game. We have to slowly build to get things changed, one bit at a time, in order to turn the tide, make things go back the other direction, and allow for people to have access to things they deserve. I don’t think any of us is going to solve it through design. It’s ultimately a political question. Obviously, design can be political, and there are things we can do, but they’re incremental.

ZM: There’s a real need to emphasize that safety or being unsafe is not a question of inconvenience—those aren’t the same thing. Frequently, policing in public spaces is responding to inconvenience, and not actual safety concerns. Somewhere along the line, those have been conflated. To be annoyed by somebody else in public space is not a crime.

In fact, if you aren’t just a little bit annoyed with people frequently within the day, I don’t think you’re living life right. You’re not around people you disagree with enough. There’s a level of inconvenience and annoyance that happens when you live in truly democratic spaces, when you are around people that think differently, have different needs, or express themselves differently from you. Understanding that about public space is fundamental. And, regarding policing, we could reduce that so much if we started understanding what truly makes us safe, as opposed to responding to what makes us uncomfortable within public space. If we started to address safety on a deep level, that would look a lot more like public investment in communities and programming to make sure folks are fed and housed.

JW: When I think about public space and urban planning, one of the biggest things that comes to mind is our roads and streets. These spaces are often very car-centric, especially in North American cities. We know the many problems that come with that, from people dying on the roads due to collisions, to pollution, to public health and climate impacts. And communities who are more marginalized and vulnerable experience these symptoms the most. So, you might be relatively safe inside your SUV—if it’s the biggest vehicle on the road, you’re more likely to survive a crash—but are you then more likely to be making someone else unsafe? Some people get upset when cities build bike lanes. It may feel inconvenient for some who are driving cars. However, it can improve safety for other people who we consider vulnerable road users, whether they’re on a bike, wheelchair, walking, pushing a stroller, or whatever it might be. So we need to think about true safety, versus convenience.

GB: I wanted to ask each of you for a landscape or public space, anywhere in the world, you think exemplifies equity.

ZM: For me, the Unist’ot’en Camp that’s protesting the Coastal GasLink pipeline is the embodiment of what design and spatial practice can do as a way of reclaiming space and using design and construction to defend land, water, and our lives that rely on them. The policing and militarized response to the camp, as well as the willingness of the state to protect corporate interests over those of people standing in solidarity with the earth, also holds up a pretty revealing mirror for the challenges we face in creating truly democratic landscapes.

Unist'ot'en Camp building with banner. IMAGE/ Wikimedia Commons

CP: There’s a particular neighbourhood plaza in Barcelona called Plaça de Sant Pere. And, as part of their buildout of the urban realm, they’ve used chairs in the public spaces as opposed to benches. There are clusters of four chairs, and there was something about the alignment, spacing, and casualness of them that was so perfect. You could have four people gathered and talking, or you could have two groups of two people and they wouldn’t feel like they were impinging on each other. I got a tape measure and drew the whole thing up, then got back and did a 3D model of the thing and posted it on the wall in the studio so everyone would have a reference when we’re doing park projects: this is what we need to aim for. It’s the simplest thing on earth, but it’s the recognition that people want to be close to people, but you also need to be able to have separate conversations. The calibration of that was the most perfect thing.

Plaça de Sant Pere, Barcelona. IMAGE/ Chris Pommer

JW: I’m really interested in liminal spaces and what happens around the edges, where people are re-imagining space and bringing it to life in new ways. In Montreal (Tio’tia:ke), in the Mile End neighbourhood, there’s a green space called Le Champs des Possibles (Field of Possibilities). It’s tucked between a large office building and some train tracks. It used to be a sort of industrial wasteland and residents have worked together to turn it into a wild natural space. They grow gardens, host small markets and concerts, and make art. It’s not conventionally Instagrammable, but it’s beautiful in its own way. I’m inspired by these smaller spaces where people are bringing love and creativity and challenging power dynamics.

CP: Can I ask a question for everybody? The privatization of public space and the existence of so-called Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) and how they’re changing and becoming a default in the making of our cities. How does everyone feel about that?

GB: I’m trying to think of how appropriate it is for me to speak as the moderator. I think POPS are the illusion of public spaces without actually embodying them, and I think they are designed almost to push people away, because the “privately owned” part means the owners are liable for what happens there, and they don’t want to take on that risk. So, oftentimes, you can walk by one and not even know it’s technically publicly accessible, or at least meant to be.

ZM: I was thinking about the big threats to designing more democratic outdoor spaces, and the first thing, which we talked about already, is the increase in securitization, surveillance, and police. The second thing is real estate: we as people actually don’t have control over that much land within the city. The real estate industry, through its control over land, feels like one of the biggest threats to spatial democracy. POPS are in some ways just a manifestation of the threat of private land ownership that we can understand very viscerally as landscape practitioners. They reveal the operation of these larger systems of land control that don’t really leave that much space for us to live democratic and communal lives in spaces that we truly share and have agency over. 

JW: I see POPS as a pragmatic offering in the context of a public space drought. If most everything else is carved out as private space, then POPS offer a practical way forward to enjoy some shared space. That said, I would much rather have fully public, fully accessible public spaces. But organizations like plazaPOPS are bridging that gap: they take spaces like inner-suburban strip mall parking lots and work with local businesses and residents to turn those parking lots into POPS. We’ve talked about the challenges of car-centric infrastructure. PlazaPOPS repurposes these car-dominated places to celebrate local culture and draw people in. So, rather than just saying that POPS are bad, I can accept that, currently, a lot of space is privately owned. We can get creative with how to share power within those spaces.

CP: To me, POPS aren’t inherently evil. They’ve existed for a long time. We see examples for all over European cities in courtyards of apartment buildings. Those spaces are fine. The thing that does concern me is they are an ever-increasing part of negotiations between municipalities and property developers to provide spaces that cities should actually build themselves. If you want to have a plaza in front of your building and allow people, that’s great. You shouldn’t necessarily get three extra stories on your building for it. And creating POPS doesn’t mean the City then doesn’t have the obligation to build genuine public spaces in the neighbourhood as well, because we need places where everyone can go without fear of being chased away.

It comes back to my hobbyhorse of funding and taxation and the fact that no politician is going to raise taxes willingly. But that’s what we need to do. I work hard and I like the money I earn, but, if I look at my property taxes in the City of Toronto and what I get in return, it’s crazy how little I pay. I’d be okay with having them go up now. But it seems like we are unwilling to pay for our public realm, and so we’re just letting it become privatized, and it’s really sad.

Thanks to Jennifer Wan and Helene Iardas, OALA for coordinating this round table.