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cityscape

Public Works: Finding Privately Owned, Publicly-Accessible Spaces

A database in New York could help Toronto make Privately Owned, Publicly-Accessible Spaces major components of the urban landscape.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

The splash pad at the Shops at Don Mills, one of Toronto's many privately owned public spaces. Photo by kaeko, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

The splash pad at the Shops at Don Mills, one of Toronto’s many privately owned public spaces. Photo by kaeko, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

How should we define public space? Should it be limited to publicly owned land—parks, sidewalks, and streets managed by the city? What about private land that’s been made available to the public? Can we, as citizens of an ever-growing, increasingly crowded city afford not to make the most of accessible private space? Cities around the world, Toronto included, are working to bring Privately Owned, Publicly-Accessible Spaces (POPS) to their citizens’ attention. Since 2012, when city council approved a plan to make local POPS more visible, Toronto has taken major steps toward making these spaces an integral part of our public landscape.

On June 19, Toronto’s planning and growth management committee was presented with the city planning department’s POPS urban design guidelines. The document offers direction to the development community—including architects, planners, designers, and developers—for the creation of new POPS and the revitalization of old ones. It also explains the value of POPS in a growing city: “[POPS] are a key part of the city’s public realm network providing open space in much needed locations across the city and complementing existing and planned publicly owned parks, open spaces and natural areas.”

The City has also created an online map of Toronto’s existing and future POPS to help Regular Joes find what are often hidden-away nooks of public space. Each POPS marker on the map is accompanied by a small image and description of the space, though some are more complete than others—the low end of the spectrum being “740 Progress Avenue: A pedestrian walkway with landscaping.” It’s all pretty helpful and an encouraging step in the right direction, if not particularly extravagant.

But as far as the identification of public spaces goes, the comprehensive database of New York City POPS sets the standard. Created by Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS) and the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), the database gives users a chance to search for POPS by neighbourhood, amenities, or address. Say you are looking for a POPS on the Upper West Side—just select that neighbourhood from a drop-down menu and you’ll instantly be shown a list of 18 locations in the area, each with a photo, a baseball card–style list of vital stats, a few-hundred-words-long profile drawn from the pages of a NYC Department of Planning and MAS-penned book, a visitor rating, and a corresponding flag on a map of the city.

And you can get pretty obscure with this thing. You want a 24-hour POPS with air conditioning, public artwork, and a toilet? You got it.

So far, the database includes POPS from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, but it is very much a work in progress. Curators invite the public to contribute written profiles, photos, and ideas to the project to create the most helpful and accurate database possible. The result is a nimble, evolving resource. As Toronto implements its plans to develop and rejuvenate POPS around this city, such a resource will become vital.

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