Public space is unequally enjoyed

When I was a teen growing up in White Rock, BC, the hip place to hang out was the McDonalds. Or, more specifically, the bit of public space in between the McDs and the Subway. Until the building owner installed speakers facing into the space that played classical music all day long. Either this was a misguided attempt to culturally indoctrinate the local teenage population with a love of classical music or, more likely, it was to repel them. It worked.

Public space is not equally enjoyed. We design public spaces to enable and encourage use, but we can also wield design to prevent and discourage use by “undesirables.” Design is not neutral. It can send a clear message: this space is not for you. Move along, please.

This past week someone noticed a speaker installed on the side of a building next to McGill Parkette–a small sliver of green space nestled between buildings east of Yonge Street near to Covenant House, a youth shelter. It was posted on Reddit and confirmed by @Matttomic on Twitter.

The speaker emits a frequency audible to young people under the age of 30 (which, sadly, is not me). In an interview with a Toronto Star reporter, a building representative said the device was not aimed at young people, but then provided a link to the Mosquito Device (a self-described anti-loitering device) that emits an annoying high-pitched frequency heard only by young people.

(And oh, look, if you want you upgrade you can get the Music Mosquito, “a complete music system that will relay Royalty free Classical or Chill-out music that would keep the teenagers away to some extent.” Thanks a lot, Music Mosquito.)

The local councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam, expressed concern and said her office was looking into it. “I think it’s very disconcerting that there are certain types of people that are viewed as undesirable,” she told the Toronto Star reporter.

A visit to McGill Parkette myself on Friday afternoon revealed the speaker had already been removed. But it also revealed a park that is highly surveilled (I counted at least four cameras). The anti-loitering speaker is only a very egregious and obvious example of the practice of creating defensive spaces that are meant to protect against use by people, not encourage it. While McGill Parkette still has benches (someone was asleep on one), two other nearby parkettes were recently redesigned to contain absolutely no seating whatsoever. The message? Walk through here, but for god’s sake please don’t loiter.

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Loitering is an interesting word in relation to parks. Don’t we want people to loiter? Isn’t that the exact purpose of a public park? But that word is only aimed at certain park users. I have the privilege of being able to use public spaces without fear of anyone asking me to move along. I can hang out in a park for hours, take a nap on a bench, crack a beer in Trinity Bellwoods without worry. Loitering refers to, you know, undesirables.

The building rep said that the park had become “a high risk area for crime.” To be sure, creating safe spaces is important. The park is narrow, fenced in, and very enclosed, with an entrance only on one side. I can see how it could create an intimidating environment. Good lighting, additional entry points, and clear sight-lines could go a long way towards creating a space that is safer without preventing its use by people.

In fact, the City is hoping to redesign the park, but since it leases the space from the building it needs the building owners approval to do so–approval they have not given because it seems they want to turn the space into a loading area. The plot thickens.

At any rate, the answer to creating safe public spaces is not to design out certain users. And certainly not for a private entity to install something that inhibits the use of a public space by young people. Or to design public spaces with no seating, for that matter.

When we design our public spaces in this way, we all lose. But those who are already at a disadvantage lose even more. People experiencing homelessness or those who are at-risk need public spaces even more than the rest of us. If you don’t have a living room or a place to hang out then the local park becomes one. If you don’t have a bed, then that bench becomes your afternoon nap spot. This isn’t loitering, it’s living.