Two weeks ago, a young unmasked white man, wielding hate speech and a fighting knife, the type of model derived from the early dagger, cornered my Asian partner on the street in front of our loft, desecrating the sanctity of our vibrant downtown neighbourhood. Greg, a Masters-educated elementary school teacher who opted to forgo a senior administrative position to directly influence the lives of second graders in the classroom, immediately recalled a safety protocol he’d imparted on his students and started yelling, “Knife, he has a knife!” as loud as he could to attract attention. A couple of pedestrians hurried off in the opposite direction of the imminent danger but a Latinx-appearing man left his wife and two teenaged daughters in their family Jeep, risking the sharp edge of the assailant’s blade. Without taking their eye off the knife, the pair proceeded to yell, “Knife, he’s got a f@%$ knife!” together to attract a crowd, as our rescue dog Esther, a Husky-Labrador mix, tugged slightly on her leash.
After an incalculable passing of time, a small crowd convened at the site, and as the perpetrator attempted to make his getaway, a police officer drove up alongside him and placed him under arrest. As witness statements were taken, the Latinx man’s family exited their Jeep to check in on Greg and Esther as the street slowly settled back into its rhythm. That it happened here, like this, has forced me to grapple with the public safety issues I address within my practice at a site of refuge: my home.
Kensington Market is a proudly unpolished, pedestrian-friendly gem in a historic downtown Toronto neighbourhood. Its distinct character has been shaped by multicultural waves of immigrants, residents and small business owners, who laid good ground for an unusually eclectic range of vintage shops, eateries, social service organizations and housing types. It is the neighbourhood where my Caribbean grandmother haggled with fishmongers when I was a child, and later a hangout spot for me and my angsty, hip-hop-punk-rock–aspiring friends in search of good Doc Marten boots — the legit kind with the yellow laces. My partner Greg — who grew up in Parkdale, a similarly distinct downtown neighbourhood where his Filipino mom opened her own dry-cleaning and seamstress business to keep an eye on him and his older brother while their father went to work in a factory — has early memories of trekking to the market for comic books and counter-cultural fashion finds. For us, this place is like the tree beneath which we exchanged friendship bracelets with classmates or that Led Zeppelin song played at the end of every high school dance in the 1980s. It was home long before we moved here five years ago.
Upon moving in, I made a conscious decision not to mix my placemaking practice work with my home life. Given that I spend the vast majority of my time in other cities leading complex, oftentimes contentious, public space design and policy initiatives and participate in housing justice advocacy, I wanted my neighbourhood to be a place of respite. And it has been. I purchased my first adult bicycle and nervously took it for a spin here, I celebrated my first major book deal with my publisher and editor in a great little French restaurant here, I eagerly lined up to patronize the Indigenous restaurant when it first opened here, and during Pedestrian Sundays, I’ve made new friends while dancing in the streets sipping fresh coconut water here.
However, a year ago I began hearing disturbing stories about Asian people being verbally abused in the public realm and I noticed locally owned Asian businesses losing patrons. I went against my initial decision to draw a boundary between my placemaking practice and my personal site of refuge and organized a walk in support of local Chinese businesses and residents.
The route started at the entrance of our loft, less than 100 feet away from where my Asian partner would have his life threatened. My urbanism colleagues, neighbours, friends and Barbara Hall, one of my favourite past mayors, attended. I opened with a few words about the importance of coming together to stand up against all articulations of racial hatred in the public realm — words that now have meaning so deep they’ve taken root in the marrow of my bones. A couple of camera crews came, and while I didn’t alert the media, I welcomed the opportunity to advocate for this kind of resident-led public space intervention across neighbourhoods and cities. Shortly afterwards, while leading a gender-responsive street design initiative in Vancouver, I found a quiet spot in a public library to provide advice to an American Asian activist, volunteering in China, interested in leading a similar walk. My words were later translated in a Mandarin blogpost I could not read but was proud to be featured in. I had no idea that I was just getting started.
A recent article in the American Journal of Criminal Justice highlights a long-standing bias characterizing Asians as “the physical embodiment of foreignness and disease” and cites an FBI warning about how some individuals will associate COVID-19 with Asian populations. At around the same time it was published, things became especially unsafe for Black communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and street-based violence. As a Black and Asian household, a sense of risk and hyper-visibility hovered above us for an entire year, but we had no idea this hatred would fester, multiply and desecrate our front door.
It isn’t that I’m unaware of public space risks. From first grade through my freshman year of high school, I avoided safety traps like strangers sleeping in the stairwell, the underage sex trade on the fourth floor, the ravine rumoured to be the preferred site for rapists and pedophiles, and the basketball court where fights broke out. My entire childhood, if it could be referred to that, was preoccupied with avoiding unsafe common and public spaces in my poorly designed and maintained neighbourhood. Poor kids like me do not grow up with a strong concept or expectation of safety, public or otherwise. And so the threat to Greg’s life did not expose me to public safety issues: It confirmed for me a fear that every individual who has felt unsafe carries around — street smarts, making so-called “good choices” and class ascension cannot guarantee anyone’s safety in cities.
While I reject the notion of cities as fundamentally dangerous places, we’ve all witnessed the ways polarized political discourse and urban inequities come to bear on the public realm. However, these socio-political issues are often overlooked by status quo urbanists who primarily examine this issue exclusively through the incomplete and privileged prism of design. While infrastructure plays an integral role in improving public safety, Henri Lefebvre, a French philosopher and sociologist, reminds us that cities are places where differences collide and where systemic power is constantly shaping human relations and the built environment. This is especially true on streets, which have multivalent significance, across cultural, spatial and imaginary lines.
Jane Jacobs talked about the ballet of the street. Lil Wayne exposed the mean side of the streets. Prince wanted to woo women in his daddy’s Thunderbird on Alphabet Street. Bruce Springsteen lamented young men scattered like leaves on street corners. And today, feminists, housing justice activists, and climate crisis heroes use streets as sites for progressive protests. Streets are at once referred to as “hot,” “mean” and “complete,” as economic engines and social destinations.
They are a locus for community, collective memory, democracy and joy. It is where the unexpected delights of public life unfold — a saxophone solo emanating from an outdoor restaurant patio or getting to know a neighbour better over lingering conversation. Streets are also markers of violent histories; many are named after colonizers who murdered and displaced Indigenous peoples and sanctioned the sale of enslaved Black people for centuries. They are places where individuals from LGBTQ2S+ communities have been mercilessly beaten because of who they love, a risk that prevails in some cities. They are places where women experience daily sexual harassment and where Indigenous women go missing at rates that constitute a national epidemic. They are places where poor people are scorned for not having any bootstraps to pull up, where children are warned to come inside when lamppost lights come on and where disabled people and elders have been excluded due to inaccessible design. Streets are the biggest placemaking paradox, at once sites of immeasurable joy and delight and unspeakable violation.
To further complicate matters, groups that experience various types of violations on the street explore these histories and current challenges within identity politics and professional practice silos. For instance, many racialized groups deemed “model minorities” rarely support Black and Indigenous communities facing disproportionate public safety risks. Women’s street harassment advocacy groups often overlook trans women, sex workers and unhoused women facing the greatest threats. Cycling advocates are fierce advocates of safe street infrastructure but often fail to acknowledge additional perils faced by people using bikes from various equity-seeking groups. Long before the harrowing incident involving Greg, I’ve encouraged these and other groups to join hands recognizing interlocking systems of oppression and collective risks.
There’s a growing receptivity to this approach but many advocates argue that their group’s challenges are distinct, oftentimes code for “more important,” and stress the efficacy of “staying on message” due to limited attention spans, financial resources and political will. Another unspoken but pervasive bias among public space advocates, and the broader general public, is the ideology that some people are more deserving of safety than others. For instance, if an individual is harmed in public while engaged in activity deemed less than respectable, like committing a petty crime or openly suffering a disruptive mental health crisis, there is little empathy or outrage. However, if someone is harmed while engaged in an activity deemed respectable or virtuous, like walking to a professional place of work or picking up children from extracurricular activities, there is greater empathy and outrage. There are of course other variables, such as the social identity of the individuals and the physical location of the incident, which inform most peoples’ sense of the violation’s severity.
Given my identities and lived experiences, I see no difference between public safety incidents caused by the lack of active transportation infrastructure, gender-based harassment, inadequate play spaces that hem children in and racially motivated police and resident profiling. To lift any one of these, and other public safety issues, above the others would require me to hive off or negate particular parts of my own identity — which is the highest form of spatial, spiritual and physical violence.
Although audacious, or seemingly naïve, my contention is that public safety advocates should continue working on issue-specific movements while establishing new multi-movement coalitions that respond to issues that may not directly impact them. There is enough space and justice for all of us.
Another point that warrants interrogation is that we need to become more honest about the ways our actions and inactions compromise the public safety of others. Just as scholar bell hooks brilliantly pointed out “patriarchy has no gender”— acknowledging that all genders are capable, albeit to varying degrees, of upholding the oppressive system of patriarchy — I posit that public safety violations can be carried out within and across equity-seeking groups. While the colonial project is fundamentally designed to divide and deny dignified space for our collective prosperity, it cannot be wholly blamed for all public space safety incidents and on-going challenges.
Since the beginning of time, our bloodiest battles have been waged over the control of land and quest for place — as a way of asserting perceived ancestral birthrights, claiming favour from the Creator, accessing natural resources for survival and building wealth. It is inarguable that individuals from equity-seeking groups face increased risks due to the legacy of colonialism and urban design practice and policies. It is also true that even the most marginalized groups create spatial and social hierarchies that impinge on the public safety of others. And whilst difficult to confront, these internal power imbalances and harms cannot strictly be explained away by an external, dominant force, whether that be colonization, patriarchy or classism. Doing so is an abdication of accountability and inadvertent concession to a lack of agency. When it comes to public safety, there are groups that face substantive risks due to historical and systemic violence but there are no innocents among us.
To collectively address these and other complexities, we must dissect the lens with which we explore public safety, and even its very definition. Most municipalities and advocacy groups define public safety as the absence of physical bodily and environmental threats. These are two crucial components, but woefully incomplete. Whether leading a United Nations Women professional development process, collaborating with southern U.S. municipalities to redesign Confederate monument sites or conducting equity-based site safety audits with developers, community members have articulated a broad range of issues, one that includes but expands well beyond conventional definitions of public safety:
I’ve found that grounding the conventional definition of public safety in actual communities to be both generative and illuminating. It becomes exceedingly clear that public safety is not merely the absence of physical threat; it is the presence of inclusive places shaped by equitable urban placemaking and policy. It is the visceral yet indescribable sense of belonging that is experienced in spaces which invite rather than tolerate differences. These places are concurrently sites of delight and community care, sites where we joyfully claim and cede space. Public safety is also characterized by grace and justice, where survival-based crimes like petty theft or sleeping on a park bench don’t lead to state-sanctioned shaming or death. Ironically, public safety is not primarily achieved by the blunt force of law but by the stewardship and compassion of everyday people invested in collective community wellbeing.
That said, there is no universal or static safety. No two humans experience a public space in the exact same manner and all of us have distinct life experiences that shape our perceptions of safety. We can realize safe(r) public spaces through an ongoing process of investments in good pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, reformation of urban policy and raising awareness about the importance of community care.
Although I am steadfast about the importance of policy and design reformation to address public safety issues — from crime to climate change to cultural erasure — it is the idea of community care that has carried me through the past couple of weeks. We were contacted by a detective constable, who indicated that the perpetrator will likely be pleading guilty to the charge of assault with a weapon. I’ve grappled with bloody night terrors and with place-based trauma catapulting me back to an unsafe childhood. My family’s routine has also changed. Greg’s walks with Esther have become shorter for the time being and I text him more frequently when he is outside of our home. The only thing that has disrupted these images and impulses is thinking about that Latinx man, the one who left his wife and two daughters in their family Jeep to stand alongside Greg. I also think about the pedestrians who stayed behind to provide the police officer with a statement. I reread emails and hand-written cards from dear friends and urbanism colleagues whose love has felt like a force-shield around my home and heart. I don’t know if Greg and I can continue to live in our beloved neighbourhood or when I will feel more settled. But I take comfort in an enduring truth — we are, all of us, each other’s most safe, sacred space.
Jay Pitter, MES, is an award-winning placemaker and author whose practice mitigates growing divides in cities across North America. She also shapes urgent city-building conversations through media and academic platforms. Jay was recently the John Bousfield Distinguished Visitor in Planning by the University of Toronto and her forthcoming books, Black Public Joy and Where We Live, will be published by McClelland & Stewart, Penguin Random House Canada.
Placemaker Jay Pitter grapples with the personal and professional dimensions of safe(r) space.