Are surveillance cameras and private security guards in pseudo-public spaces creating invisible gated communities within the city?
As Toronto’s downtown core continues to be congested with towering condominium buildings under construction—and others ready to be occupied—rising property values may have made public spaces more vulnerable to private interests and security.
Not all Privately Owned Publicly Accessible Spaces, or POPS, in Toronto will have video surveillance or private security patrolling the space, but they are not prohibited from doing so.
The owner of the space is permitted to hire private security to monitor the POPS, but it is not required by the City, according to the City’s urban design manager, James Parakh.
Recently, concerns were raised about St. Lawrence Market’s neighbourhood business improvement area’s use of a private security firm after a homeless man was removed from St. James Park—a City public park. The BIA hired a security guard to patrol the area, including the park, as part of a pilot project.
“Private security does not have the authority to ban or remove people from a public park,” constituency assistant for late Councillor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), Claudia Calabro, said in an email. “It seems like there might have been confusion about this on the security team’s end. Once this point was clarified, and reports were received of the security guard acting in this manner, the BIA stopped their program.”
Torontoist looked into whether the presence of private security and surveillance on POPS has created invisible gated communities within the city, and if the mass development of condos throughout the downtown core may soon result in fewer public spaces, where people can sit on a bench and have lunch or read a book and not worry about being under surveillance by private security.
What are POPS?
POPS include parkettes, walkways, urban plazas, and courtyards. These spaces are required to comply with the City’s bylaws, and are privately owned and maintained by developers and private corporations. Hours that these spaces are open and publicly accessible vary, with some open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while others have restricted hours.
POPS are open to the public, which the City is using to “complement” its public parkland, and “not replace them.” Parkland represents nearly 13 per cent of the City’s land base, according to the City.
“We do believe that they do add a lot of value to urban living,” Parakh told Torontoist.
“They augment our Parks system by adding much needed additional green space in our urban areas,” Parakh wrote in an email. “The way they are designed is reviewed by the planning department at the time of site plan application. They are often designed with added greenery and outdoor seating to be used by the general public.”
There are instances where POPS add to the City’s parkland. Clover Hill Park, which is currently under construction, will be a public park and a POPS, Parakh said. Another example is where there is a pedestrian walkway on the east side of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which connects to Simcoe Park to the south.
“Parks and POPs are complementary, not comparable,” said Parks, Forestry and Recreation spokesperson, Matthew Cutler. “When developers provide POPS, they are in addition to the parkland requirements, not an alternative to parkland. The public is not giving up anything—they are getting more than they normally would if POPS did not exist.”
However, urban planner Gil Meslin said POPS hold the promise of being more than what they actually are.
With so much rapid growth and density in the downtown core, where property values are becoming too expensive for the City to acquire parkland, Meslin said the City has “positioned POPS as being a way to mitigate this.”
But most POPS aren’t the types of spaces where you would go to hang out, relax, and engage in recreation, he said.
A lot of the POPS are mid-block connections between one street and the next, or small entrance plazas in front of a building, Meslin said. “There are a few nice spaces, but by and large, it’s a real mixed bag,” he added.
What is being presented as POPS are the types of spaces that would be included in any property as an amenity and selling point to existing and future tenants, Meslin said.
“Instead, what you have is, a kind of created system where developers will come to the table with less than what they would be willing to give and then bargain up and give what they should be giving anyways in exchange for extra height and density,” he said
City Council approved a motion put forward by Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) in November 2012 requesting a report be put together identifying all POPS in the city. Also requested was that a strategy be created “to ensure that all privately-owned public spaces have visible signage indicating the space is open to the public.”
Recommendations for City Council to adopt a new set of design guidelines were unanimously approved by the planning committee in June 2014, as well as mandatory signage that should be visible. A set of guidelines for POPS were released by the City in June 2014, which look into addressing and enhancing public accessibility and safety at POPS.
More than 100 POPS have been secured through the different planning tools, including Section 37 and Site Plan Agreements. Meanwhile, about 400 potential POPS have been identified by City planning staff. The report also mentions that such spaces might be “underutilized” due to the lack of awareness by the public not realizing that these spaces are accessible to them, as opposed to a City park.
Accessibility and Civil Liberties
The idea of POPS being “…welcoming, accessible, and comfortable” is clearly noted in its guidelines. The City has made a map that is available online, which indicates existing and future locations of POPS.
While having signage for new POPS is required, that is not the case for the retroactive ones, which were built prior to the POPS guidelines and agreements. This may result in people potentially being caught up in no-trespassing zones, which Matlow said is “very concerning.”
“The reason we added older POPS (not signed) on the map is so the public can know that they are publicly accessible,” Parakh said. “I have heard there have been instances where a ‘no trespassing sign’ had been put up, but it has since been removed.”
When asked if there will be a time when Toronto will have too little public space because of POPS, “not at all,” assured the City’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat.
“If in someway it’s compromising public space, then quite frankly it’s failing,” Keesmaat said. “Our evidence is, of course, that isn’t the case.”
“Good POPS read as part of the public realm; the public doesn’t know they’re sitting on a bench that’s maintained by the City versus a bench that’s maintained by the developer. The objective is to blur those lines, as a tool for extending and enhancing the experience of the public realm in the city overall,” Keesmat added.
Last year, a fenced-in patio was “illegally erected” on a space that was a privately-owned, but publicly accessible outside Toronto restaurant La Carnita on John Street. The restaurant’s owner was issued a building permit that included the “proposed reshaping of outdoor patio.” After public backlash, the owner said he did not know the plaza was a POPS.
POPS are not unique to just Toronto. During Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park in New York City, where hundreds of activists camped out at in 2011, is also a POPS.
But what makes a POPS recognizable is not always clear.
“Unlike City parks you don’t have the cues of a kind of publicness, so whether it’s the City of Toronto park signage at the entrance, or kind of the consistency of street furniture, and benches and water fountains,” Meslin said.
“A privately-operated public space or publicly-accessible space has cues of privateness, and even if there isn’t a sign saying, ‘This space is monitored by CCTV,’ which there may be, there still are clear cues that show that, rather than being integrally connected to the public realm, the space by virtue of its consistency of design with an office building or whatever it’s attached to, is actually more integrally linked to the private realm.”
Jake Tobin Garrett, manager of policy and planning for Park People, presents a frustrating scenario.
Imagine enjoying a space thinking you’re in a City public park, then suddenly have a security guard tell you to “move along,” or that you can’t lay down here, or you can’t have a picnic here. ‘This is a POPS,'” said Garrett.
POPS are important to the city, but they are not a “substitution” for a public park, Garrett adds.
While the City is creating and putting more of a focus on POPS, they also need to make sure they are investing in fully public parks at the same time, he said.
“I do think that they add value to really dense downtown areas by creating sort of little in-between spaces and kind of breathing spots,” Garrett said. “I think that’s really, really important. I was just in New York, they have a lot of these types of spaces. They’re not all well-designed, but they do provide some relief from the city. You can go in, sit down, enjoy your coffee, and I think that those provide a really important function in Toronto as well.”
“When it comes to demonstrations and protests taking place on POPS in Toronto, there are specific instances when a group or individual can be removed from the space, according to terms of many POPS agreements, which includes unlawful activity causing damage to property, noise, etc.,” Parakh said.
If there is a crackdown on public spaces when people wish to protest, then those kinds of signals would “embolden the private security people to take the kind of action that we’ve heard of happening recently,” said Kikélola Roach, a lawyer and the Unifor-Sam Gindin chair in social justice and democracy at Ryerson University. “…where they feel that not only their direct immediate area is under their private control, but also the surrounding areas that are public, they feel that they can police those as well,” says Roach.
When private ownership is prioritized, the number of communal spaces in the city are then reduced, Roach says.
“I think it reduces even the idea that we are a community and that we are all interconnected and that we all do belong.”
Homelessness and Opioid Crisis
About two months ago, Parkdale Community Health Centre received a call from a local coffee shop owner about an individual dealing with a mental health crisis, who was known to be homeless.
Rather than calling 911, the owner called Parkdale Community Health Centre, and they were able to dispatch their harm reduction outreach worker to the location to de-escalate the situation and engage with the individual to a point where the individual left the space and got the support that they needed.
“That intervention, I think, proves successful in that you have a local business owner who saw this as a health crisis, rather than a policing, security crisis,” said Angela Robertson, executive director of Parkdale Community Health Centre.
Parkdale Community Health Centre has shared their contact number with local businesses through the local BIA, which is how the owner got the number to contact them.
The health centre is a community-based agency that will provide what they call “street outreach,” where harm reduction staff will take their services to City parks and parkettes where homeless people reside or stay. It is one of the services that is important and needed more in the city, Robertson said.
“The developers need to really work in collaboration with community agencies and the City from an element of support, rather than an element of monitoring surveillance and removal,” Robertson said.
“It is important for anyone witnessing an overdose to intervene,” Toronto Public Health spokesperson Shaun Hopkins, manager of the needle exchange program, said in an email. “The Works is currently providing training to City of Toronto staff and staff from community agencies on how to recognize an overdose and how to respond. Owners of POPS could attend this training.”
Often, new development in the city results in the displacement of people living on the margins, including homeless people who have called those spaces and communities home, Robertson said.
“Folks who are homeless are sometimes thought of without home or community, so they’re without housing, but the space is where they congregate and find safety,” Robertson said. “Maybe the space isn’t public space that they call a ‘home base’ and that needs to be really recognized, acknowledged, and supported.”
Jessica Hales, an Ontario Coalition Against Poverty member and a nurse practitioner who works in the Dundas and Sherbourne area, said there is a lot of gentrification taking place in the Dundas and Sherbourne area right now that is creating more homelessness.
“A lot of people who have lived in this neighbourhood for years are being pushed out of their neighbourhood, and running into problems when they’re using public spaces,” Hales said.
People depend on public space to sleep, eat, and drink when they don’t have the privilege of owning private space, she adds. “They have nowhere else to go.”
From January through June, 46 homeless people died across the city, according to Toronto Public Health.
As for overdose deaths in the city—which is a separate concern that has passed a tipping point and the City has taken steps to deal with, including opening an interim supervised injection service, now with the emergency approval of Health Canada—the deaths of at least four people that were drug related and 20 reported overdoses in the city in less than week in late-July resulted in a public alert being issued by the police.
“I haven’t heard much about the private public spaces,” Hales said. “To be honest I haven’t really thought much about them either in Toronto, and I can’t in my mind even really identify where they might be, which is kind of funny because they are hidden in that sense. But we see so many problems with people accessing public parks.”
Hales said the City needs to find a way to deliver the message that public space will remain public space.
“For me, it’s like, all these issues are social problems and should not be addressed on a individual level, by like, a security guard, you know what I mean?” Hales said. “I think the City needs to take more steps to protect our public spaces.”
Hales said it’s wrong to have a security guard harass people just because they appear to be homeless. “All public spaces, including our existing public parks, need to be welcoming spaces for everybody,” she said.
“We need more public spaces for people and we need more public social housing. And the City needs to give more consideration to the amount of development that’s going on, and really kind of stop this mass development of condos when we need social housing and public spaces that will be inclusive and support the needs of the community.”
The homeless population in Toronto far exceed the amount of shelter space that is available to people, which results in shelter systems being overcrowded and overburdened, said OCAP member Yogi Acharya. This increases risk factors for people and pushes many people out of the shelter system because they can’t find space, Acharya said.
Even when homeless people do find a space to stay, Acharya said, the conditions are “so atrocious” that in some circumstances people prefer to stay out on the streets.
“Our position is that the City should not allow public space to be privatized,” Acharya said. “Part of it comes down to social understanding of the situation people are in and the way people are marginalized in society.”
“We would say this to the private owners as much as we would say this to the City … create enough emergency shelters and supports for people, so that people don’t have to sleep outside or panhandle. Fight for an increased income for people on social assistance,” Acharya said.
“We’re not prepared to accept the position that homelessness will continue to exist and it’s merely a question of how to better police homeless people,” he said. “Our position is we need to eliminate homelessness, and private businesses can be part of that push.”
Surveillance and Privacy
Universities, hospitals, subway trains, TTC stations, shopping malls, and condo parkettes—there are very few areas in the city’s public realm where video surveillance is not on the property.
Surveillance cameras are something that a condominium corporation or office building may choose to use, which is something that “varies,” Parakh said.
There is nothing in the POPS guidelines that says surveillance cameras are not permitted on site, he said.
Matlow says he has never heard a single concern from residents about surveillance at POPS in the city.
“If there is private security by the adjacent condo, they would simply just be addressing whether it be criminal activity or behaviour that I think any reasonable person would object to, just like you would in a public park,” he said.
It has been six years since a Canada-wide $100 reward was put out by Andrew Clement, professor emeritus in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto and co-founder of the Identity, Privacy and Security Institute, to the first person to find a surveillance camera on private property that respects our privacy rights.
Clement said several people have reached out to him to claim the reward, but none have yet to meet all of the conditions.
Along with his graduate students at U of T, Clement gathered information on surveillance cameras set up in two major shopping malls in the Greater Toronto Area, the Eaton Centre and Square One Shopping Centre. Only about 30 per cent had signage letting people know about the use of their surveillance cameras and none met the minimum standards required under the law, according to the study.
“Based on current practices elsewhere, it is very likely that POPS owners will install extensive video surveillance systems, but these will not meet legal standards,” Clement said in an email.
“The immediate implications of POPS having extensive video surveillance systems that don’t meet legal standards will likely only be felt by the few who run afoul of the norms that the POPS owners establish around who is welcome and what behaviours are preferred,” he said.
Video surveillance is appropriate in some situations, such as subway platforms, said Clement. The TTC reduced the period of time it can keep surveillance camera footage from a maximum of a week to a 72-hour limit, excluding the TTC’s wheelchair transportation service, which is able to hold onto the footage for a week.
According to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, a “four-part test,” which includes the elements of necessity, proportionality, effectiveness, and minimization is “used by courts and legal advisors to ascertain whether a law or program can justifiably supersede or intrude upon rights like privacy.”
“…banking machines or inside convenience stores in high-crime areas…” are among “a number of situations where it may be reasonable to expect video surveillance to take place…,” it states.
“Most privacy laws require the organization conducting video surveillance to post a clear and understandable notice about the use of cameras on its premises to individuals whose images might be captured by them, before these individuals enter the premises. This gives people the option of not entering the premises if they object to the surveillance. Signs should include a contact in case individuals have questions or if they want access to images related to them,” it states.
Most of the concerns about video surveillance is not the presence of the cameras, said Clement. “…what happens to the data, how long is it kept, who gets to see, what sort of oversight is there, how is it regulated, that’s for me the important issue, and the cameras themselves are like the tip of the iceberg.”