Taking back the streets: Citizen activism works sometimes, and social media makes it a lot faster.

plaza fenced
© Jake Tobin Garrett

In the city of Toronto, there are zoning bylaws with limits on density and height, but as an important planning lawyer once told me, “that’s not where you finish, that’s where you start.” To build bigger and higher, developers offer benefits to the city; sometimes money, sometimes bits of land for public space.

plaza beforeAlex Bozicovic/ plaza before occupation/via

At one Toronto condo, the developer offered what is known as a “Privately owned Publicly accessible space” or POPS. It’s a dumb little space, it’s hard to believe that the City actually accepted it as a public benefit, but they did, and they wrote it into the approval for the building:

zoning bylawZoning bylaw re public space/Public Domain

Activist and “park nerd” Jake Tobin Garrett, who writes a blog “this land is parkland”, noticed recently that in fact, it was no longer publicly accessible, but was now fenced off and being used as a restaurant patio. He writes in his post This private patio is supposed to be public space:

King-Spadina is one of the densest, rapidly-growing, open space poor neighbourhoods in the entire city. The fact that we created a public space (however itty bitty) and then had it taken away so people could eat over-priced (but Instagrammable) ice cream cones is just the pits. We need all the slivers of public space we can carve out in this city, especially in the downtown, and especially especially in King-Spadina.

Now normally in Toronto,someone like Jake might complain, but the reaction all round would be… no reaction. You can’t just build a patio anywhere in Toronto, but have to go through all kinds of approvals and paperwork. But something happened here.

The commissioner of planning, seeing Jake’s tweets and articles, reacted quickly:


Then the story got picked up by everyone, from local websites and newspapers to the Canadian Broadcasting System, (CBC) which in a subsequent article notes that “the restaurant will be taking the patio down after city complaints about public accessibility.”

In the subhead, the CBC kind of takes credit for this, saying “The move follows a CBC News story on Friday revealing the fence around the patio was 'illegally erected”. The restaurant owner Andrew Richmond tells the CBC:

Richmond says the business is in active talks with the city to come to a resolution, adding that the restaurant submitted three proposals last week to change the patio to "accommodate for more public space, shrinking it drastically (and) reconfiguring it. We're doing everything we can with the city right now to figure this out," he added, "there's clearly a discrepancy somewhere, we're just trying to figure out where it is and move forward."

Which doesn’t actually sound like “taking the patio down”, but whatever, I will believe it when I see it. However, here are a couple of issues and lessons raised by this chain of events:

rendering of public spaceRendering of public space from planning documents/Public Domain

  • Lets stop with this “Privately owned Publicly accessible space” or POPS thing. Cities love them because they get quasi- public space without having to pay for maintenance, but it is not really public space. This one is so dinky and so surrounded that it does not feel like public space, but more like the front drop-off for the condo. No wonder they felt they could put a patio there.
  • Then there is the issue of public vs private. Look at what happened a few years ago in New York with the occupy movement in Zuccotti essentially on a Brookfield bonus plaza. Because it was actually private space, they did not have the same rights as citizens that they would have in a real park. (Mat explains here)
  • Stop thinking that you can run a city on a shoestring. There is no way this patio was installed without some kind of permit; somebody screwed up. It will be interesting to find out who.
  • Say Hurrah for citizen activism in general and Jake Tobin Garrett in particular! He first exposed this on August 11 and by August 15 the pompous CBC is claiming victory. But this was the work of the smaller, activist urban internet, Jake's blog This Land is Parkland, the pickup by Spacing.ca and urban writer Alex Bozikovic, and planning commissioner Jennifer Keesmaat, who keeps her nose in the social media stream.
A decade ago, Jake Tobin Garrett would have got precisely nowhere with his complaint. Now, within a week, we are within sight of taking back the street. This is a real lesson in the power of social media in modern activism.

Tags: Activism | Toronto

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