Toronto park

Privately owned public spaces in Toronto

POPS have become important gathering and recreational spaces for citizens
Monday, April 21, 2014
By Leah Wong

Unused land can be rare in major North American cities. So it’s not surprising that urban areas are looking to private partnerships to provide gathering spaces for local citizens as supplements to traditional parks. The result is privately owned public spaces, or POPS, which are now ubiquitous in Toronto.

The concept is simple: municipal governments work with developers to exchange height bonuses on buildings and zoning exceptions in exchange for creating and maintaining publicly accessible parkettes, plazas, courtyards and walkways.

These spaces are playing a more and more important role in urban life. Increasing density and rising land costs are making it increasingly difficult for cities to develop new public parks. Through its development review process, using tools such as section 37 and site plan agreements, the City of Toronto has added more than 1 million square feet of open space since 2000 in the downtown alone. This includes plaza in front of office buildings, green spaces surrounding tall buildings and pedestrian walkways.

Some of these spaces, such as the plaza at Commerce Court in Toronto’s Financial District, are easily recognizable and appear inviting to the public to sit or lounge. But not all spaces are so well designed. Due to a lack of both signage and public knowledge, the average person may not able to identify many POPS in the city from private property.

This has been a major issue in Toronto. As a result, it has sparked a push to include proper signage on POPs to inform pedestrians of their right to the space, and also a digital strategy to formally list and map all POPS within the city.

The final report on Toronto’s POPS is expected to be on the planning and growth management committee’s agenda this June. The report will be accompanied by POPS design guidelines and a web page that lists properties with POPS in place. About 100 properties will be listed on the website when it launches. An interactive map on the website will show locations of the POPS, as well as information and a brief description of the spaces.

The idea of POPS isn’t new. In fact, these public spaces were formally introduced in New York City in the 1960s. In a TED2014 talk in March, Amanda Burden, former chief city planner for New York City, spoke about what makes a successful urban public space.

“Lively, enjoyable public spaces are the key to planning a great city,” Burden said. She stated that one of the best examples of an effective privately owned public space in NYC is Paley Park. Designed by Zion and Breene Associates and funded by former CBS chairman William Paley, the park has been around since 1967.

Located on 53rd Street between Madison and Fifth Avenues, Paley Park sees a high volume of traffic. A big part of its success is the moveable chairs located in the park, while allows visitors to interact and customize the space by joining furniture together in groups or distancing it from others.

In contrast, Burden said that wide, stark plaza outside buildings, which are often associated with modern architecture, have become more common than public parks in New York City. Many of these plazas have no seating and often go unused. “It’s not surprising that people avoid spaces like these,” Burden said. “They look and feel downright dangerous.”

She said that developers often favour these stark plazas since they require minimal maintenance. There is nothing to water, and there is little space for people to congregate. In dense cities, these are wasted spaces, which pit commercial interest against public spaces.

Though public space and commercial interests are often at odds, public space can drive commercial investment in an area. Burden argued that people stay in cities for public spaces. The same can be said for office buildings with vibrant areas for tenants to gather, making a building seem friendly and more desirable.

To work towards making the most of public spaces in Toronto, the coming report on POPS will outline design guidelines for these spaces to ensure they are being created to welcome members of the public, and include ample signage so that people know they exist and are accessible.

Leah Wong is the online editor of Canadian Property Management.

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