Who are city parks really for?

In the wake of multiple police evictions in Toronto parks, advocates are calling for a conceptual — and literal — redesign of public space
By Michael Rancic - Published on Aug 03, 2021
Julie sits with her belongings after being evicted from the Alexandra Park encampment in Toronto on July 20. (Chris Young/CP)

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Blue metal fences cage in the southwest corner of Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood. Closed to the public for “remediation,” this area — and the private security guards charged with monitoring it — are reminders of what happened in June, when city staff, police, and security guards evicted roughly 20 unhoused individuals who had been living there in a tent encampment for more than a year. Last week, similar evictions took place in Alexandra Park and outside Lamport Stadium

According to a city spokesperson, “encampments contravene several chapters of the Municipal Code and are not a solution to unsheltered homelessness.” They tell TVO.org via email that the city’s response “takes into consideration the health and well-being of those living outside and the broader community needs, including access to green space for safe outdoor recreation during the pandemic, and upcoming summer parks programming and permitting requirements including for summer camps.”  

But not everyone agrees on what “broader community needs” are or who parks should be for. Many advocates see the evictions as extensions of a wider set of actions and attitudes designed to protect a select few — and they’re calling for a conceptual and literal redesign of public space.

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workers carry a mattress out of a park
City workers clear encampment residents’ belongings after Toronto police evicted unhoused people from Toronto’s Lamport Stadium Park on July 21. (Chris Young/CP)

Critics say the city’s main priority is clear: “It’s hard not to see what’s happening in encampments and not think it’s related to property value, including the city’s ownership of the parklands,” says urban planner Jamilla Mohamud. “Parks are often imagined as these pristine spaces that serve the leisure and the needs of the affluent, property-owning, heterosexual, non-disabled white Canadians.” 

That’s an extension, Mohamud says, of a colonial mindset: settlers earmarked certain green spaces for preservation — and for their own activities and recreations — while forcibly displacing Indigenous peoples: “Conserving green space … is really part of a history of white settlers preserving spaces for their own leisure.” 

Those who do not fit the description of the so-called appropriate user, she says, are policed, surveilled, or otherwise deterred from using public spaces.

While the encampments contravene bylaws, David Roberts, director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Toronto’s Innis College, notes that bylaws can and have been suspended — in certain circumstances. “If an activity is connected to revenue generation through tourism, then there's all kinds of exceptions being made,” he says: for example, private events, such as music festivals, are sometimes held in public places; parks, which can spur concerns over public drinking, may end up hosting beer tents — and offer such amenities as restrooms and water fountains, which they otherwise might not have or may leave unmaintained.  

Deterrence measures don’t just take the form of ticketing or eviction — they’re literally built in. Since 2019, Cara Chellew’s multimedia project DefensiveTO has tracked the implementation of so-called defensive architecture across Toronto, documenting benches that have centre bars to prevent people from lying on them, for example, and metal spikes that make flat surfaces uncomfortable to sleep on. 

Defensive architecture is an outgrowth of a set of design principles known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. According to Chellew, CPTED rose in popularity around the 1970s and ’80s. “In 1972, Oscar Newman wrote a book called Defensible Space,” says Chellew, who’s also a member of the non-profit Toronto Public Space Committee, which aims to make public spaces more inclusive. “He developed the idea that shared spaces and housing can be defended by the people who live in the community if they have an opportunity to take ownership over the space.” Newman emphasized the importance of residents’ surveillance, proximity to such features as local police and busy areas, and adjoining neighbourhoods that follow the same principles.

Roberts says that this period was a transformative one for cities, as increased globalization and entrepreneurial competition changed urban priorities: “There's a perceptible shift in North American cities from more of a managerial approach to a more entrepreneurial approach, and the shrinking of municipal governments and their roles.” 

Agenda panel, June 25: Clearing homeless encampments.

CPTED is evident not only in the built form of public spaces, but also in the absence of structures that provide shelter and shade, Chellew says: “[CPTED] is largely disseminated by people who have worked in policing or security. It often looks at public space through an enforcement lens as a way to prevent crime [such as loitering] but also to prevent the perception of crime.” 

The principles have been embraced in cities and organizations throughout Ontario. Toronto Community Housing, for example, applies them “when undertaking major capital repair or redevelopment projects.” The Toronto Police Service states that “CPTED works by eliminating criminal opportunities in and around your property” and provides a link to CPTED Ontario, an association that promotes the philosophy across the province. 

Mississauga has authored its own guidebook, which focuses on other elements of CPTED, such as the importance of surveillance, access control, and so-called territorial reinforcement: “Maintenance is a critical factor of territoriality, a clean well cared for environment demonstrates pride of ownership,” it reads. “Territorial reinforcement, together with natural surveillance and access control, promotes more responsiveness by users in protecting their territory. A well designed territorial environment is defensible in nature.”

While the guidebook is geared toward developers and residents, it notes that, in January 2000, Mississauga approved a resolution that “CPTED principles be incorporated in all phases of the design, review and approval for all new City Building Projects and City Park Development Projects.”

Mississauga’s manager of urban design, Sharon Mittmann, tells TVO.org via email that the city uses CPTED for public safety: “By integrating the principles of CPTED, we are able to create public spaces that are visible and benefit from the natural surveillance that is provided by the people in the buildings and activities that surround and overlook the public space. This provides a feeling of safety and comfort for the users of the public space and discourages crime.” She also says that the 2014 guidebook has been integrated into all the department’s other documents and is a key consideration when reviewing development proposals.

But Chellew says it’s time to change the way we make decisions about public space. Related discussions, she says, often involve police, planners, and residents who have the time to show up to consultations. In her view, the design of public spaces should instead be informed by how people actually use them: “We really need to understand who uses the parks, how we use them, how we'd want to use them, how many people use them, and what times of day we use them,” she says. That data, though, isn’t being captured. “I know for a fact that Toronto doesn't have that much data on park usage, which is surprising to me,” she says. (In an emailed statement to TVO.org, the city confirmed that it does not collect such data.) 

Instead of cracking down on encampments in parks, Mohamud says, “cities need to think more about what they can do to meet the needs of the most vulnerable” — according to Toronto’s 2018 Street Needs Assessment, 63 per cent of respondents identified as racialized, and more than half of those identified as Indigenous.  According to Mohamud, meeting such needs would involve major changes in attitude and approach. “We have to shake our thinking into adapting regulations to be more responsive,” she says. “Maybe we start to imagine parks as places that can be used as temporary shelter encampments, and that shifts the way we plan for them and maintain them in light of the housing crisis and overcrowding shelters.” 

Moving beyond an antagonistic approach, Roberts says, could in fact end up benefitting more of the public: “The more hostile public space is to folks who are seen as not belonging ultimately makes the public realm more sterile and less enjoyable for most people.” 

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