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Picture Berczy Park in Toronto – before the cute dog statues were added to the fountain. On a hot summer day at this modest little slice of green in an otherwise busy downtown area, a woman decides to sit on the fountain’s edge. She dips her feet in the water. Before long, others have joined. And in that moment, she considers the safety of her impulse, the confidence of her action – and this opens a door to thinking about the many versions of this space and of her act. Her inner line of inquiry leads to questions about power, rules and people. Would every person in the city feel just as allowed to dangle their feet in the water, and to be the first to do so? And what is it that determines how we engage with the public realm and our shared commons?

The possible responses to these questions are typically, and unsurprisingly, centred around urban design: the physical features of public spaces – that is, what’s in them and how they look and could be used. And yet, a big challenge in creating optimal public spaces and technologies – ones that are people-centred, accessible, responsive and adaptive – is not only about the “what” but also the “who” and the “how.” Who is involved in the process of their creation and how are they invited to collaborate and co-design? This goes beyond thinking about the space itself, but a co-design process for the rules that govern the space.

Because to create truly democratized public space, we need to first embrace governance as a part of every design conversation from the very beginning. But well beyond this, we need to establish a shared governance of our spaces, one that takes the shape of an ongoing dialogue about rule-making and rule-modifying amongst representative bodies and community members. Taking care of our shared spaces is a never-ending process – which is the only way to ensure that both our online and offline realms serve a wide range of needs related to life, work and play. To get there, we need to ask how people could be engaged in long-term shared stewardship of these critical assets. More of this approach in practice will combine the true power of the city – its people – with the institutional form that is municipal government. The trick is designing the models and investing the money to make it happen. In finding ways to create more intersections between the agendas of both communities and the state, the hard part is the ongoing investment of time, energy and process expertise.

For public space to function, rules can be helpful. Rules, and the models that hold us accountable for them, are one way to create different safeties for all and freedoms from harm – physical, mental and otherwise. But safety is subjective. For so many of us, it is self-defined and self-designed, centring our unique identities and experiences of the world. When it comes to day-to-day operations, many of local government’s primary concerns in relation to rules and safety pertain to liability – criminal and otherwise – in terms of a government’s legal responsibility to the public. This is an important and complex issue with a long and tangled history relating to private property. But the analysis is simple – the way cities think about liability cannot be the only frame we use when we talk about human safety.

Designed by Claude Cormier, the Berczy dog park (here and at the top of this article) invites people to play. PHOTO: INDUSTRYOUS Photography

So many rules are unwritten and open to interpretation, causing some of us to wonder if there is a behavioural code we aren’t privy to. The Berczy public fountain is a seemingly innocuous example of a piece of infrastructure with implied rules about how it is and isn’t meant to be used. Sometimes, as in the case of Snøhetta’s Opera House in Oslo, the unwritten code is clearly invitational: here is a building that encourages people to climb all over it and up to its rooftop – a typically inaccessible space that it transforms into a public commons. But monuments like this, however intentional in their embrace of all users, are mere emblems in public realms where the invisible codes embedded into their oversight are vestiges of inequality.

For so many people, the rules are defined by their upbringing and the community to which they belong – and are enforced by institutional inequity. Consider how unsafe and excluded many residents currently are due to a range of racist urban planning and policing policies, and status quos that don’t take disabled communities into full consideration. Governments fail to create safety for everyone because they were and are shaped by colonialism. Inclusiveness doesn’t figure into a notion of “public safety” that derives from this violent history and worldview, one which still influences how the country and its cities operate today, and which includes overspending on policing versus investing in community. As ever, where our governments fail it is the people who pick up the slack to keep each other safe. So how can we better create safe shared spaces that advance inclusion and encourage creativity, joy and freedom?

Snøhetta’s opera house in Oslo telegraphs that passersby can climb all over it – without breaking any rules.

First, we can set “positive” rules. These are rules that lay out what we want to do and what we want to encourage both online and offline. Positive rules grow the foundation for self-governance in a way that requires us to constantly define and redefine how our public spaces work for us, support us and nurture us. A primary design principle in creating public spaces is the management of certain types of liability related to property, but this prioritizing of liability concerns results in spaces that are exclusionary. It needs to stop. It’s not equity-based, and it won’t get us to creating spaces that support the kind of connection and urban commons we want to see.

When we manage liability related to property as our primary consideration, a list of rules and a mindset about “what you can’t do” emerge as a dominant force. When we leverage a more collaborative governance process, where taking care of this public infrastructure is shared, safety is explicitly co-defined and redefined on an ongoing basis, and different understandings and approaches to safety emerge. From there, people can hold the government accountable to deliver on these approaches. Imagine a city bench with a sign that says, “enjoy a quiet moment here” or “have a great conversation with a friend.” Something so simple can inspire us to generate joyful ways of using the space, versus only focusing on what we can do within its constraints. We can create commons where people find spaces to play, to be light, to experience joy, and know how to support each other in those activities.  

Setting positive rules and communicating them “gives people the confidence to engage with the space, especially when they are framed in a positive tone that encourages use…and is particularly important when it comes to new spaces or new amenities” (North of the Water, 2018). These are the kinds of opportunities that can arise when there is shared governance that is focused on having the space be used actively and collectively, leading with the creation of trust through relationships and accountability over liability. It gives communities a chance to explicitly define which kinds of behaviour are encouraged versus which kinds violate our social contract, and how these agreements amongst ourselves will be held up. Investing in our capacity for self-governance allows us to show up for one another – it’s a method to pull long-standing and under-discussed issues of exclusion out into more public forums, and a way to do it more consistently. It’s urgent work. But who pays for it, how does it get done, and how does it plug into our formal local government?

Economist Elinor Ostrom life’s work is about investigating how communities succeed or fail at managing common resources such as land, forests and waters. One of the core principles of her thinking, which can be applied to managing shared resources such as public spaces, is that those impacted by their use should have a say in designing and overseeing them. Sheila Foster, a professor of urban law and policy at Georgetown University, has been doing extensive research and writing on the practical application of Ostrom’s work in cities for years. The results are exciting and encouraging, from community housing and land trusts to shared governance of community internet networks. Ostrom and Foster are two thinkers that offer us a starting point to keep evolving the approaches we use to make our public spaces work better for more of us, and to think about how to better define the interface between state and community governance. Drawing from this thinking, here are two key mechanisms related to self-governance to consider in more detail:

Beginning with a collaborative design process

To support being in right relations with each other we need to embed collaborative design approaches early and often into any public space development process. Design approaches centred on equity offer a window through which we can start to think about a deeper approach to collaborative design that moves beyond superficial co-creation and goes further to understand key elements related to power: why a project is being developed and the context of its development, if there is history and healing to be acknowledged about how the intended community has been served (or underserved), and identifying nodes of power that will enable an ongoing, iterative process of design that sustains key relationships and honours community voice throughout the lifespan of a development.

Thankfully there is an increasing effort to think more about how to put people at the heart of this design conversation, as the recent Black Futures on Eglinton – Cultural Mapping Study and Community Power for Anti-Displacement report about Chinatown’s Downtown exemplify. Across Canada, there are numerous equity-centred participatory design efforts; the most successful ones clearly identified who will share power and accountability for the infrastructure over the long-term – and did so early in the process. In this structure, the community plays the role of being eyes and ears on-the-ground, evaluating the success of the space, and sharing back with institutional and government stakeholders the issues and opportunities as they emerge so that changes can be made. Constantly. Parks groups often model ongoing and shared stewardship; among them is the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, where community members actively engage with the municipal government, philanthropic organizations and charities to ensure a continuous dialogue about critical public space needs.

Understanding the Internet as a commons

Another space – this one online – that is experimenting with commons-based thinking is Toronto Mesh. There, a group of residents are working on a community-driven model of internet access and governance known as a community network. This exciting initiative goes beyond simply getting internet access to people: It seeks to build digital literacy and community capacity in technology, skills that residents can apply to creating rules for how we want local technology systems to work while also thinking about the broader community and economic power that comes with it. This includes building the knowledge to support new technology businesses as well as the industry models for those businesses, which include co-operatives that have more expansive approaches to sharing worker power in organizational design. Mesh communities worldwide – Guifi in Spain and Freifunk in Germany are well-known precedents – provide stories of expansive and positive rule-setting in practice; they have shown the pragmatic potential to grow community power from the status quo ­– to mix public and private assets into new structures and formats that are community designed and overseen. As always, the tech is the easy part. Finding the time and capacity to come together in person to build and maintain the networks is the tricky part, and it’s a place where new interfaces with city governments should be explored.

These two key mechanisms — beginning with collaborative design processes and using commons-based governance — point in one overarching direction: Public service and public policy must evolve to accommodate a pluralism of safeties and ways to make them happen. Setting aside electoral politics, public service – the big and expert machinery of the government – offers too much to ignore and so much to salvage from. Its shape, form and structure must be evolved to match more of the people’s needs through a public approach. This involves designing interfaces and translation spaces, and networking investments and people in novel ways. And yet none of this is new; it is all about merging and reorganizing existing systems and knowledge, both community and city government. We have to stop thinking about community processes and city processes as independent approaches, and instead start actively mapping them together.

Perhaps one of the most important expectations to manage is messiness. There is no set of rules for self-governance that make it easy, tidy or fully about consensus. A successful outcome often looks like a group of people deciding that the outcome for their shared rules is something they can live with – which is lightyears away from wild celebration or outright despair. Governance and stewardship aren’t about the creation of perfect immaculate policy that serves everyone. It’s about praxis – creating a democratic framework that allows for new positive and negative rules to emerge from community and evolve with its needs. It also considers how these rules plug into the more formal approaches to governance managed by city governments. In this way, we should think of the public realm, both offline and online, not as a “place” to be designed and defined, but as a process. The point is to create the space for the kind of governance and stewardship that can make this happen and continue to happen, again and again and again.

Bianca Wylie is an open government advocate with a dual background in technology and public engagement. Her main areas of interest are democracy and civic technology.
Zahra Ebrahim is the CEO of Monumental, an organization dedicated to supporting an equitable recovery from COVID-19. She has led organizations in the social and private sector that design and deliver participatory and equity-centred approaches to policy, service, and infrastructure development. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto, the Chair of the Board of Park People and the Vice-Chair of the Canadian Urban Institute.

Lead image by INDUSTRYOUS Photography.

Shared Governance: A Democratic Future for Public Spaces

Bianca Wylie and Zahra Ebrahim argue that collective stewardship of our shared realms – online and IRL – can be achieved through an ongoing, collaborative process of rule-making and modifying.

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