Spacing Magazine examines “Grey Spaces”

Spacing Magainze: Grey Spaces

The latest issue of Spacing deals with issues of direct relevance to our soon-to-be-reconstructed street, and the BIA encourages everyone to pick up a copy. The topic is “Grey Spaces,” those areas that occupy a middle ground between completely private and completely public spaces, where different rules apply. Roncesvalles is such a space, where members of the public interact with private businesses (whose owners are members of the public too!), and where there are shared feelings of ownership over this space.

As the Spacing articles explain, such issues are not cut and dried. Most often, the “rules” governing grey spaces are worked out informally, through face-to-face interactions between people. But when the rules are routinely ignored by corporations lacking personal accountability, the government is obliged to step in to regulate. But formal regulations can disrupt the informal practices that make areas like Roncesvalles work well. How do you strike the right balance?

Does a patio on a public sidewalk constitute an unacceptable “privatization of public space,” or is it a desirable source of vibrancy that should be welcomed? Should sidewalks be a place to gather and meet, even at the cost of some pedestrian walking space? Do sidewalk signs add vitality to a street, declaring it to be “open for business,” or do they simply clutter the sidewalk? Should businesses encourage people to hang around inside their stores or coffee shops without buying anything, or is this loitering? The answers will vary, depending on where you are.

The Roncesvalles Village BIA has generally welcomed the mixing of the public and the private along our street, encouraging businesses and the community to share mutual ownership of Roncesvalles, including both its private and public spaces. There is a community garden on private property at Garden Avenue, and many new murals have recently appeared on the sides of businesses, painted by community members. At the same time, we hope the newly constructed public spaces along Roncesvalles will be well-used by both the community and by businesses–with new gardens, displays, patios, “outdoor living rooms,” and so on. For a BIA that depends more than most on support from its neighbours, this mixing seems to serve both businesses and our community very well.

However, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between desirable, human scale, small business practices and the creeping corporatization of public space that has attracted so much well-deserved criticism. And there have been times when the City’s efforts to reclaim public space has simply replaced an overbearing corporate presence with stifling government controls, dispossessing the public just the same.

As described in a Spacing article by Shawn Micallef, Dundas Square (right) is an example of a reclaimed public space that has too often made the public feel unwelcome due to overregulation. The architects conceived of Dundas Square as an unprogrammed open space, where the public itself would determine its character. But after it opened, people were harassed by security guards for having “unauthorized” gatherings or for drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. “A problem is now arising,” wrote police chief Julian Fantino in 2003, “where portions of the public believe that Dundas Square is a public space.” Well, people soon got the message, and learned to walk around the square when turning east on Dundas, rather than walk across someone else’s property. Things have improved since then, but the square still often fails to reach its potential as a public space, and most often comes to life only when there are programmed events. Imagining such a scenario on Roncesvalles should give us nightmares!

Once the plans for Roncesvalles are finalized, the BIA along with its community partners will turn their thoughts to how the new spaces along Roncesvalles can be best used. At the same time, we should all ask how new City regulations and programs, all well-intentioned with worthy goals, will affect the informal relationships governing how public and private space is shared along Roncesvalles.

HEAR: Spacing Radio 003 (podcast) – “The Grey Spaces of the City”