Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Watch This Space: Designing, Defending and Sharing Public Spaces

by Hadley Dyer and Marc Ngui

Kids Can Press, 2010

As a co-author of this blog, I have been very delinquent in my self-appointed duty to regularly post nonfiction book reviews and book club discussion questions.  One major factor (or excuse) for this is that through a job change, I no longer work in the Sciences and Business Department of the Mississauga Central Library.  To me, this Department has always been a major haven of nonfiction books, and constant immersion lead to many exciting reads.  Having returned to my roots of children's librarianship, I find myself reading far less "adult" books in general, and nonfiction books in particular.  As I get more comfortable in this new career role, I am finding that I can step up and slowly return to my recreational reading levels of years past!

That being said, I should also say that the Children's Department is not a reading wasteland - there are many books (fiction and nonfiction) in the collection that are worth reading, even if you are not writing a grade 4 science project!  One such book is the subject of this post - Watch This Space.  This 80 page book accomplishes much in its brief span, informing children and those adults who have ears to hear about public space - what it means, its societal value, your collective ownership (and responsibility) of the space, challenges, issues, and ways to protect and encourage public space usage and development.

The book is refreshingly clear about the points it tries to make, including a nice and simple definition of public space: "You don't have to buy something or pay an entry fee to be in a public space. You don't need to be a member or explain why you're there. Public spaces exist so everyone can use them. All you have to do is show up."  It takes pains to distinguish true public space from spaces that seem like public space but are not really - malls, coffee shops, and so on which have private owners.

Much of the book revolves around youth, a demographic very much in need of public space - teens hanging out in parking lots seem to be doing nothing, but "...something is happening when you spend time in public spaces. You're figuring out how to get along with people, without adult interference. You're sorting out who you are and how you fit in. You're becoming a part of a community."

The book also talks about the criteria for effective public space, and how public spaces can fail.  This concept is very relevant to those of us who live and work in the Mississauga city centre.  The Mississauga Central Library sits just south of the Mississauga Civic Centre, and for the longest time, the space between the two buildings was basically a failed public space.  During the winter, the central fountain was converted into a popular outdoor skating area, but for the remainder of the year, there was just no reason to go to this space.  Mississauga is very much a suburban city, broken up into zones as described in this book.  One needs to travel by car just about everywhere, and so destinations must be planned out in advance.  Anyone coming to the City centre is either going to the Square One shopping centre, the Central Library, or even the Civic Centre itself.  Each of these sites, and all the other big box stores around it, have their own parking lots or underground garages.  There was never a natural flow of foot traffic through the square, nor any reason that would lead someone to discover it by chance.  The square also had walls and elevated embankments that even prevent people from seeing it at all.

Recognizing this failure, the City of Mississauga redeveloped the whole square, creating a new public space with constant community activities, cultural festivals, and an aesthetically pleasing place to gather.  Initially cynical, I was pleasantly surprised when all of a sudden the new Celebration Square became a destination in its own right and is almost constantly in use.  

Discussion Questions

1.  How do you use public space? How often do you find yourself in public spaces?
2.  How important is public space to your life, and to society in general?
3.  Discuss the book's eight criteria for a great public space.  Would you add anything else? (Shared vision, beauty, sociability, comfort, flexibility, landmarks, accessibility, and safety).
4.  The book compares and contrasts dense urban mixed-use spaces (such as Toronto's Little Portugal neighbourhood) with suburban sprawl, where housing subdivisions are separated from shopping areas (so-called "Smart Centres") and so on.  With a designed dependence on car travel, should suburbs be changed?  What kind of neighbourhood would you rather live in?
5.  This book doesn't really talk about people living in large condo towers.  If the authors were to add a chapter about high-rise apartments, what do you think they would say about residents' need for public space?
6.   Have you ever talked to a stranger in a public space?  If so, did you learn anything through this experience?
7.  How does a public library function as a public space?
8.  How safe are public spaces?
9.  The book includes an exercise for designing a public space.  What would you include?
10.  The book talks about the usage of public space as sites for political demonstrations and protests.  How are public spaces used to initiate social change?
11.  What do you think of "virtual" public spaces?  Is social media interaction (such as this blog) as useful as physical spaces?

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