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Safe in Public Space
This series of essays is part of an initiative by The Bentway in Toronto that takes a deep, critical look at safety and equity in public spaces everywhere. It unites a passionate group of creators, artists, activists, researchers and other partners to develop new practices and strategies to ensure safer public spaces for all.
Shared Governance: A Democratic Future for Public Spaces
Talli Osborne standing against a teal backdrop.
Universal Design: Transforming How We Think About Accessibility
Double Duty: Reimagining the Public Value of Infrastructure
A group of people gather to take a photo on a mobile phone at a Carnival event.
Carnival, Blackness and the Precarity of Public Safety
Unhoused, Unwelcome? Public Space and the Stigma of Homelessness
An aerial view of Fort York / Tkaronto, looking over the Gardiner Expressway and the Toronto Island Airport.
Decolonizing Design: The Case for Universal Inclusivity
Looking Back, Moving Forward: How Public Health Shaped Toronto
Safe in Public Space

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.

Talli Osborne standing against a teal backdrop.

What is accessibility? As a 3’5” scooter user with no arms, for me accessibility means barrier-free access to all the world has to offer. It’s a simple principle, but one not often seen in our public spaces. Even the legal regulations and design standards meant to ensure universal accessibility often fall well short of their goal, if they’re met at all. From the limited assumptions of what “accessibility” entails to the inadequate codes that enforce it, there’s still a long way to go. We need to completely transform how we think about accessibility, starting with a real definition of what it means — one rooted in the diverse lived experiences of people with disabilities.

Living in Toronto, I’m personally faced with barriers that make daily life difficult. For example, I’m often dependent on asking a friendly stranger to open doors. Sometimes, there’s an automatic door opener but no ramp, or a ramp and no door opener. Often there’s an automatic door opener but I can’t reach the button, or it’s out of service with no other accessible entrance. And even when there is a ramp, some are very hard to navigate with a scooter because they’re either too narrow or the turn is too tight. There are even many places I am completely unable to enter due to a large step or even a full flight of stairs. And that’s just getting in the door! Even if I get inside, there are usually so many barriers that I’m unable to get around comfortably or without possibly breaking something.

Toronto’s streets are often no more welcoming. While the city’s sidewalks are full of barriers at the best of times, construction sites create an even greater challenge — often closing sidewalks without offering fully accessible alternatives. But perhaps the biggest barrier I face in my everyday life regards public washrooms. Although many public spaces have “accessible” washrooms, what’s considered accessible for some is not necessarily accessible for all. For example, a raised toilet is helpful for many but not for me; in fact, it makes things even more difficult.

Talli Osborne standing beside a lowered, accessible toilet in a public bathroom.

Inaccessible spaces mean more than the existence of a physical barrier; they are also a safety threat. There are times when I’m stuck outside of buildings in the cold or late at night. There are instances where I’m trapped in between two doors, unable to get out. Whether I’m stuck inside a subway station because the elevator is out of service or I’m behind a door with no way to open it, these barriers not only fail to meet the standards set out in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), but they are immediate safety hazards. Being trapped is scary and makes me feel helpless. I hate the thought that — even as I type this — others are trapped in places around the city. We should all feel safe navigating our cities, not just able-bodied people. 

Each day, I have to know in advance if everywhere I need to be is accessible for me, or if there is even an accessible route to get there. People assume that in Canada — in 2021 — most places meet those criteria; this, however, is not the case. Not only are there plenty of spaces not easily navigated by a large portion of society, but even when a place is considered accessible, it is a one size-fits-all approach. And without a clear definition of what “accessible” even means, I can see why.

I use a standard scooter to get around. It’s a model available to the general public and not specifically customized for me. Yet, I have been told on many occasions on public transit, accessibility lifts, and even elevators that my scooter is too big. Why is the standard size of mobility devices only based on the smallest of wheelchairs? Whenever I hit a physical barrier in the city that is supposedly “accessible,” I think, “accessible for whom?” And the answer appears to be only people using manual wheelchairs who have full use of their arms. Obviously, this is a very limited way to think about something as important as accessibility – it excludes so many people. The issue needs to be considered from a much broader perspective: we are all so different, which means our needs are different, too. 

Talli Osborne poses with her mobility scooter on a residential sidewalk in Toronto.

So, who’s missing the mark? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be everybody. From top to bottom: the people who created the standards with a narrow view of disability, those in charge of ensuring the standards have been implemented, the architects and city planners who treat these features as an afterthought – all able-bodied people. But the only ones who know what works and what doesn’t are those actually living with a disability and having to navigate the city every day.

There’s a big difference between a space complying with standards set out by the AODA or the City of Toronto’s Accessibility Design Guidelines and a space being truly, universally accessible. The City’s guidelines appear to be based on limited outreach and research, failing to accommodate the wide range of abilities of people accessing the spaces. What’s my solution? Hire the experts! I have long imagined putting together an accessibility consulting practice: a committee of people with all types of disabilities: people with visual impairments, hearing impairments, people who use prosthetic limbs or mobility devices such as crutches, canes, scooters, and wheelchairs, and also people who rely on service dogs. Hire us to visit existing spaces to share our experiences, give ideas and feedback on ways to make them more accessible, and invite us to consult on the initial design of new builds. We should be there at the beginning, middle and end of the design and build processes, to make sure spaces are truly safe and accessible to all. 

For starters, I see this committee covering four categories: transportation, housing, interior public spaces and exterior public spaces.


The Greater Toronto Area has a long way to go before it has implemented even the most basic accessibility standards. Every TTC subway station needs to have an elevator, all buses need to have a kneeling function, and every bus stop needs to have space to deploy a lift or ramp. That said, there is still a lot of room for improvements with transit’s existing accessible infrastructure. On the GO bus, I’m often told that my scooter is too big to fit in the designated spot. On numerous occasions, when arriving at a subway stop that’s listed as accessible, the elevator is out of service — with instructions to get back on the subway, go three stops to the next accessible stop, and wait for an accessible bus to then take me back to the station I was already at. I would want my committee to make elevators our top priority, and to ride on every mode of transportation to ensure cohesion with accessibility features, like subway and train cars lining up with ramps.


Recently, I was in the market to find a new place to live. Even in 2020, my choices were limited, and the resistance of some building managers to install even the most basic accessibility features was infuriating. I asked for an automatic door to be installed in a building I was considering and the response was that they would install grab bars in my unit. Grab bars! For someone who has no hands! When I finally found a building that was willing to accommodate some of my accessibility needs, they put a huge sticker of the universal accessibility symbol on the outside of my apartment door, announcing to all the other residents that “a disabled person lives here”. Does that sound dignified to you?

Not only would an expert committee ensure that there are more accessible options for housing, but that our dignity is as important as all of the other accessibility features. I would lobby the City and condo developers to allocate an adequate percentage of all new builds to be accessible. And of course, my committee would be hired to make sure “accessible” really means what it should for all. For existing buildings, there is no good reason that they are not all equipped with automatic doors, at the very least. 

Interior Public Spaces

Having an accessible entrance is just the first step in creating an accessible space. There are often so many barriers inside a building that it’s overwhelming to think about where to start. I’ve been inside buildings where, upon exiting the elevator, there’s a door that I cannot get to in order to enter a hallway. Or doors to offices that don’t have accessible openers. I’ve also entered buildings through automatic doors only to find stairs upon my arrival inside.

And have I mentioned how frustrating washrooms can be? My committee would be in charge of going through every public building, ensuring that there are truly no barriers for people using mobility devices or with other accessibility issues. If this sounds like a monumental task, that’s because it is.

Exterior Public Spaces

Scooting around the city is not a fun task. The sidewalks are often too narrow to fit an ambulatory person as well as my scooter, forcing me to stop to let the person pass. The buttons at crosswalks are often not accessible for me, so I’m forced to scoot out into the street, hoping cars will stop. 

And then there’s construction. Toronto is going through a major building boom, with construction hoarding and diverted sidewalks everywhere. And yet, there seems to be little oversight to ensure these diverted routes are accessible. This leaves me no option but to jump the curb and ride on the street while traffic is heading the same way. It’s not just inconvenient, but extremely dangerous. My committee wouldn’t even need to visit the city’s streets in order to give suggestions for making exterior public spaces more accessible — we already have a laundry list of changes that need to be implemented.

Talli Osborne on a green lawn with hula hoop.

It will take major structural changes for our voices to be fully heard, but sometimes speaking up is all it takes to get started. A few years ago, I found myself repeatedly trapped between doors on a GO station train platform because the button for the automatic door was located completely out of my reach. What did I do? I made some phone calls, and they came to assess the barrier with me. They then installed the most beautiful button I have ever seen. It was placed in a very accessible spot: a three-foot-tall vertical bar, which made it easily reached – not just for me, but for people with various abilities.  

These kinds of small fixes are encouraging — even if they remain one-offs. However, to build a truly accessible city, the needs of individuals with varying abilities must be critical to the initial design of public spaces, and not an afterthought. If only Toronto’s architects, designers and urban planners could see access as an exciting challenge to be incorporated, instead of defaulting to the eyesore accessibility features we often see now. 

Part of an architect’s job is to not only build beautiful spaces, but also to fit into the city — and even more specifically the neighbourhood — they’re building in. That idea needs to be extended to all of the people who will be enjoying these spaces. It would be an absolute honour to create a committee to help make this city truly first class and accessible to all.  

Although Talli Osborne was born missing her arms and stands at just over three feet tall, she was raised with the belief that she could do anything she set her mind to, and this is exactly how she lives her life. Talli has shared her story with thousands of students across North America, has been the keynote speaker at many corporate events, and did her first TED Talk in 2015. She also received a video endorsement from Sir Richard Branson, who included her in his Top 10 Most Inspirational People. Talli has shared her personal experiences with bullying on the CBC and hopes to truly make a difference. 

While Talli feels that being an inspirational speaker was something she was born to do, she also loves music and is recognizable in many punk scenes around the world, fronting her own melodic-punk band. Talli’s positivity is infectious. She loves changing perceptions and attitudes, and sharing her stories with others. She wants to spread inspiration, love and punk rock, across the globe, one talk at a time.

Lead image by Ian Pettigrew.

The street as public space — as site to reclaim for civic possibilities — gained new potency during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Building on the roots of the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and the social protests of 2015 (which brought attention to the re-appropriation of privately owned public spaces for gathering), streets increasingly operate as collective sites for both protest and everyday gatherings.

Streets are transforming into urban communication devices to assemble and broadcast support. With the demands of social distancing, they are also becoming pedestrian zones as roadways become sidewalks and domestic spaces like living rooms spill onto sidewalks and stoops. Since the late 20th century, however, many major cities have increasingly turned towards securitization – and de facto privatization – of public space, harnessing design as a tool of protection and restriction.

PHOTO: Marylynn Antaki via Agency-Agency.

This tendency towards securitization also produces a visual language of defensive urban design. It manifests itself in a number of both visible and invisible ways that control and dictate how people can access the city. Consider the spikes installed on windowsills to deter entry, the armrests on benches designed to exclude the unhoused from sleeping, or myriad electronic modes of surveillance (such as CCTV cameras for traffic monitoring and GPS in cell phones) that can also be used to track people’s movement. Moreover, designing for safety in public space tends towards infrastructural engineering rather than infrastructural design, resulting in environments geared to the automobile rather than the body. But we should ask for whom — rather than for what — is the street designed? How might one recapture the street as a site for design to help nourish belonging, inclusivity, and spontaneous interaction in our public spaces?

In my studio, we are engaged in working on the street as a public space to focus on the civic possibilities for designing and considering alternative uses for small scale urban infrastructures that are typically in the background of everyday urban experience. These elements, which include safety infrastructures such as fire hydrants, Jersey blocks, delineator posts, and traffic bollards, are often treated as an urban residue, leftover or forgotten artifacts that make up the city yet go unnoticed. The following offers three key frameworks that we would like to propose when thinking about safety infrastructures in public space. 

Rendering by Agency—Agency (background photo by Ian Cheung)
Everyday Collective

Political expression does not just happen during times of emergency or calamity – it is embedded into everyday exchanges and unplanned interactions in the city. Infrastructural elements that act as civic resources and essential services of cities (for example that manage transportation, circulation, or the delivery of water) have a latent potential to support publics. They can become endowed with new aesthetic qualities and charismatic possibilities if attended to and designed with this in mind. While infrastructural elements may seem minor sites for design, they are connected to larger systems that proliferate across the city and can simultaneously operate at multiple scales.

New Public Hydrant. PHOTO: Agency—Agency

As an example, our studio’s ongoing project New Public Hydrant transforms the emergency infrastructure of a fire hydrant into an accessible drinking water fountain or bottle fill station for everyday use, connecting the hydrant itself to the larger system of drinking water throughout New York City. Investment in essential safety infrastructures that are necessary for the functioning of cities, could be redirected towards designing social utilities that endow these infrastructures with the capacity to nourish an enriched collective civic experience.

Double Duty 

If infrastructure is typically designed with a singular functional purpose, we instead would like to think about the capacity for infrastructure to operate double duty. The Bentway perfectly illustrates this concept of an infrastructure that was created for automobiles as the Gardiner Expressway but which now works double duty as a public space of gathering and events on its underside. 

The concept of affordances, coined by James Gibson, is useful here in that it describes the ways in which an object has the ability to invite certain actions due to its interactive features. For example, a door handle can be designed in such a way to either invite the user to push or twist the handle to operate it. Typically, however, safety infrastructures are distributed as acts of control throughout cities with little consideration for bodies or experience. But if the underlying characteristics of these objects are reconsidered, might there be alternative ways to engage them that could benefit the public?

As sociologist Harvey Molotch has described in his essay “Objects in the City,” it may be possible to consider inanimate objects in cities as actants which produce mutualistic relationships, generate particular choreographies of movement and “call forth particular behavioural repertoire(s) that becomes intrinsic to worlds of sociality and production.” Safety infrastructures such as crosswalks, traffic signals and traffic delineators, for example could be considered actants, as they choreograph the movement of people by identifying where and how to cross streets and direct ways of moving that become habitual in cities and produce relationships between people and the objects themselves. In this way, how can behaviours and habits of use affiliated with safety infrastructures be disrupted, nourished or re-conceived to reanimate public spaces in more interactive, inclusive and participatory ways?

New Rituals of Public Space

In my practice, we have been intervening on urban infrastructures in public space (many linked directly to safety) to investigate methods of endowing new rituals to everyday urban experiences. In our competition proposal Flatiron Crossings, for a site adjacent to the Flatiron Building in New York City, we reappropriated the language of safety infrastructures of traffic delineators and speed bumps to reassert them into an illuminated and immersive field, generating a universally accessible space to stop and interact within rather than merely move through.

Flatiron Crossings. Rendering by Agency—Agency

In New Public Hydrant (a collaboration with artist Chris Woebken),a ubiquitous emergency infrastructure was similarly reimagined to deliver fresh water to the public in lieu of using plastic water bottles. Through a series of design probes, or “hydrant hacks” the designs transform the fire hydrant into an urban object that can oscillate between emergency use and everyday use, delivering water to the public in multiple ways: as an oversized bottle fill; as a multi-species fountain; and as a body-scaled microclimate.

Image by Agency—Agency.

For the Bentway, we decided to investigate the affordances that the omnipresent modular concrete Jersey barrier might offer. Designed to be used as a traffic barricade to protect pedestrians and vehicles from collisions, it is often deployed along highways, construction sites or scattered across parking lots. On a recent walk along the Bentway, we captured two prototypical existing conditions, one directly underneath the Bentway (below, left) and one along the perimeter of it by an adjacent parking lot (right). On the Bentway site, the combination of the Jersey barriers and the traffic bollards beneath the Expressway produce an edge condition, a boundary delineating inside and outside.

Bentway current condition. Rendering by Agency—Agency
Parking lot current condition. Rendering by Agency—Agency

In our proposal, we rethink the sidedness of the Jersey barrier to re-specify an interior and exterior of the object through its profile. While any number of profiles might be possible, it could be as simple as introducing a two-sided profile system to the Jersey barrier to produce hospitable zones for seating and rest or homes for other welcome species that could take the form, for example of a planter profile. If new barriers and profiles were to be produced along these lines, a consideration for embodied energy must be taken into account to rethink the materiality of these infrastructures to support a more sustainable and resource-conscious approach to the production cycle.

Bentway reimagined. Rendering by Agency—Agency
Parking Lot reimagined. Rendering by Agency—Agency

In the parking lot illustrated above, the existing condition illustrates an unfinished, in-between area in the approach to the linear park, with guardrails and Jersey barriers marking a pathway protected from vehicles. Instead of viewing the Jersey barrier as a defensive object, our proposal rethinks the weight of the barriers as a ballast to support a flexible and easily repeatable and expandable play structures using arches and horizontal members embedded into the barriers. By marking the interior of the Jersey barriers as occupiable, this system could afford any number of activities including tire swings, hammocks, monkey bars, or lights for spontaneous interactions and gatherings. Meanwhile, the arches, delineated with colour, can also produce an identifiable threshold condition both moving inside of the barriers towards the Bentway or from afar when the barriers align. These two design proposals are just some of many approaches to consider new affordances that the Jersey barrier might offer within public space to support an everyday collective experience.


While the pandemic has brought the street into our consciousness in a new way, it is also a site of continued investigation into how infrastructures can produce social as much as functional utilities. In light of shifting urban conditions, the re-consideration of rituals and habits of use in public space is key to producing safer and more equitable public spaces.   

Tei Carpenter, Associate AIA, is an architectural designer, educator and founder of Agency—Agency, an award-winning New York City and Toronto-based architecture and design studio. She is Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, where she teaches design studios and seminars.

A group of people gather to take a photo on a mobile phone at a Carnival event.

It’s in the streets that we both find and create our liberation. Historically, they have been among the many sites where Black people across the diaspora have turned to in order to relieve their collective anxieties with and within the state and its systems. The streets are where we have fought for and achieved our rights, dreams, desires and needs. One of the myriad ways that we can see this in practice is through Carnival. 

For the unacquainted, the Afro-Caribbean roots of contemporary Carnival reflect an ancestral tradition grounded in our journey towards emancipation and enacted as a means to reclaim our time during the colonial era. Although the histories and conceptions of Carnival vary among countries within the region, once-enslaved Black people collectively invested in their immediate and future joy, as well as in the protection and safety of their communities, using music and dance to score their movements in the streets.

Toronto’s Caribana in 2013. PHOTO: Chris Harte via Flickr Commons.

In contemporary iterations, descendants of those same people pay homage and celebrate the legacy of their countryfolk from the past by playing mas. The roads and streets that connect the city are temporarily transformed into a catalyst for masqueraders to connect with each other.

Large feathers and magnificent jewelled costumes uniform the jovial song, wine, wukkup, dance and total abandonment of life’s worries. The lore of work, school, family, friends and obligations fades away. In the diaspora, particularly in cities like London (with its Notting Hill Carnival), New York (the West Indian Day Parade) and in my own city of Toronto (Caribana), we recreate feelings of home as we claim space in our new geographies, honouring and acknowledging the labour of our ancestors and reimagining what our liberation could be.

This is why prioritizing the safety of the people who participate in this practise — particularly Black people — is a public health issue. When our safety is negated and our means for engaging in this practise is disrupted, our health and ability to express our culture is at stake. Simply put, if our streets are not safe to play mas, then we are not safe to play mas.

A person wearing Carnival attire dances during a parade.
PHOTO: S Kelly via Unsplash

Despite the endurance of our cultural production around the world, Blackness and the precarity of safety are inextricably linked. As a Black person and woman, this has been my experience in private spaces – and one heightened in public ones. Especially so as a person with Caribbean heritage who participates in Carnival. Playing mas has always been an opportunity for me to experience euphoric salvation. Black-skinned, sun-dipped and soca drenched, I make my way through the host city. But even with the gleeful illusion of safety, I’m always reminded of my Blackness, I’m always reminded of my womanhood.

For all the liberation and freedom that Carnival in urban spaces may offer, what do we say to women who are still subjected to street harassment by virtue of their presence on the road? What do we say to people who snark at our revelry with comments steeped in respectability? What do we say of people who do not see us harnessing our own agency and autonomy? What do we say to women whose bodies exist outside of the confines of what is conventionally acceptable and whose embrace of public joy is scrutinized? What do we say to Afro-Caribbean queer and trans folks whose participation exists within liminal boundaries?

I don’t ask these questions to pander to decency or to consider what answers may form under the white gaze. I ask these questions because they relate to material consequences. Outside of Carnival, our conception of safety is already fragmented. Each year I adorn myself in a costume, I contemplate the tension and fragility between what solace and violence playing mas on the road may bring.

In Caribbean parlance, “stormers” — people who attend the parade in plain clothes with intentions of damaging costumes and infringing on the personal space of masqueraders — are a mainstay in many carnivals, particularly Toronto’s Caribana. In an effort to curtail their actions, fences ranging from four to twelve feet tall were first erected in 2009, effectively placing masqueraders within the boundaries of tall steel barriers along our route. Under the guise of security, Black bodies in movement became a spectacle to a mostly white audience who paid admission to gaze, to watch, to stare, to interrogate, to smile, to laugh, to point, to fetishize.

Men in plain clothes dance with a group of women wearing Carnival attire.
A street scene in Toronto’s Caribana, 2010. PHOTO: Loozrboy

The optics are bad and the feelings are familiar. And while Toronto’s crude steel structures were removed eight years later, the question of our safety still lingers with each passing summer.

Carnival is a place bound up in possibility. Individually and collectively, the roads and streets that we march along embody this ethos. Yet at any given time, a public official or a government document can reclaim streets as property, asserting the state’s power to deem what is and is not permissible. But Black people across the world, despite their circumstances, have mastered the art of subversion to create alternative realities — ways of living and ways of knowing — so we may find peace, joy and community in whatever spaces are available to us.

Mundane roads become vital public forums where Black people engage in reclamation, championing the futures they seek for themselves and future generations. In 2020, the streets became pathways to freedom as demonstrations for collective liberation became the fuel that powered a global movement. Saying the names of people slain by the state, Black people around the world took to the streets for our revolution.

But we were met with resistance from the state and from groups whose views and goals were antithetical to ours. So when the state met us with violence, harm and threats to “take back the streets,” we were shown who is and is not meant to be seen, who is and is not meant to be protected and what activity should and should not happen in public space. Because even when we try to reimagine or create new temporal realities, our new worlds often end up becoming microcosms of an unjust society, in turn perpetuating the same kind of violence we stand against. The irony is much more jarring when we consider the roots of many Carnival processions as a direct pushback against injustice.

PHOTO: Ruth Choi via Unsplash

Sometimes we end up travelling paths familiar to us even if we’ve never walked down them before.

With dwindling spaces in the city for its Black residents to call their own, Toronto’s Caribana exists as among the last vestiges that many of us have to express our culture on a public scale. But with Carnivals around the world (including Caribana) cancelled over the past year and into this one, the pause gives us a moment to see how we can actualize our wants and needs for safer spaces for us to participate in our traditions. If a fraught set of negotiations concerning our safety persists, it not only ruptures our attachment to the city, it also stifles our ability to engage with and continue the traditions of the people before us.

It is clear that much is at stake. Streets and roads are a lifeline, offering a vital conduit for Carnivals the world over. It is imperative that we mobilize towards honing in on what safety means for masqueraders. Prioritizing true safety is not just a means of ensuring the physical welfare of participants, it is a commitment to preserving and protecting people and culture.

Sharine Taylor (she/her/hers) is an award-winning, Toronto-based writer, critic, editor, producer and director, as well as the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of BASHY Magazine.

In the summer of 2019, while walking through the perpetually buzzing Yonge and Dundas Square — Toronto’s little-sister imitation of New York City’s Times Square — I encountered a homeless man. He was Black like me, young like me and judging by his accent, Jamaican like me. All of this undoubtedly contributed to my motivation to stop and chat with him. But I had also long ago resolved to never cross the street, avert my eyes, pretend I didn’t hear, or ignore someone experiencing homelessness. I imagine it must be dehumanizing and isolating — not to mention a key contributor to mental illness — to have thousands upon thousands of people pass by you every day and for most of them to pretend you don’t exist. I stopped to talk to him.

Though I don’t remember how we got there, he ended up telling me his story. He had been in Canada for a few years, working a full-time job, living independently, hoping to get settled enough that he could sponsor his mother to join him in Toronto. Then, six months prior to our meeting, he was suddenly laid off. Without any close friends or family in Toronto, and unable to find another source of income — leaving him without the means to even fly back home to Jamaica — he became homeless within weeks. He intimated to me that he now struggled with depression and suicidal ideation. For him, the worst part about being homeless was not the hunger, packed shelters or sleeping outside, but that people do not see him as human.

“They don’t even look at you,” he told me, his voice straining against tears. 

Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square.

And we don’t. We know that experiencing homelessness is not a crime, and we know it shouldn’t be a judgement of an individual’s worth to society. But our actions, policies and design decisions speak louder than thoughts. Regardless of whether we show compassion on a personal level — and many of us don’t — the way our cities are built and policed reflects an assumption that there is some key human quality or virtue missing that makes people experiencing homelessness less worthy of humanity. In a public realm that does not cater to the needs of the unhoused, homeless folks effectively become perceived as intruders into “our” space. 

For instance, when obvious signs of mental illness are present in a public setting – which occurs frequently, since 67 per cent of the homeless population live with two or more diagnosable mental illnesses – we call 911. This criminalizes folks for attempting to survive in the only spaces reliably available to them: those that are public. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to re-shape our social fabric, a public landscape of tents and improvised shelters lays bare the inadequacies of Canada’s social safety net with greater urgency than ever before. 

On sidewalks and in parks and public squares, to be unhoused is to be unwelcome: just consider the rigidly uncomfortable “hostile architecture” of spikes, bench dividers and slanted seats designed to prevent people from lying down – or the “nuisance” tickets selectively issued by the police for trespassing, loitering or sleeping in parks. 

Bench on the sidewalk, with curved armrest divider in centre
Slanted benches with strategically placed middle armrests make it all but impossible to lie down. PHOTO: Cara Chellew
Bench with low separator bar in centre of the seat
Accessibility Measure or Exclusive Architecture?
Public space researcher Cara Chellew examines the subtle but meaningful differences between inclusive design and hostile architecture.

Even on the rare occasions that public assets are leveraged to provide housing, the community response evinces an apparent assault on the natural order. When COVID-19 respite shelters were opened to provide emergency shelter in affluent midtown Toronto, the CBC reported community members likening the situation to “living in a nightmare,” while shelter residents complained of discrimination. “The vast majority of us are good people, but apparently we are offensive that we even exist,” shelter resident Jen Reece told the CBC. “Oh no, somebody has to see somebody being poor for a minute.” But whose space is it anyway?

Housed or unhoused, our public spaces belong to all of us. And yet, we, the housed, sometimes feel that we deserve more ownership of our city and its amenities because we are in the privileged position to afford a private space to rest our heads, eat, congregate with loved ones and even indulge in our vices. Individuals who are not housed must, unfortunately, do all of the above — to live — in public, for all to see. Our shared environments, then, must function as more than just settings in which those who are housed can play, shop and do business; they must function as places where the unhoused can live, learn and recover.

Given that unhoused folks are also members of society — of our community — it stands to reason that our collective spaces ought to be designed for their needs. Instead of wishing the “homeless problem” away by herding people into particular areas of the city the rest of us can knowingly avoid — such as the corridor of Sherbourne between Dundas and Queen in Toronto — what if we did something radically different and instead utilized our shared assets to provide resources and services that can support unhoused people in getting back on their feet? 

In Tokyo, this accessible public washroom (designed by Fumihiko Maki) is part of an ambitious city-wide program to introduce inclusive public amenities throughout the city.

We have already seen a similar idea play out with the advent of supervised injection sites, typically situated in and around public spaces shared by homeless folks. Supervised injection sites have had a variety of positive impacts, including reduced injection behaviour, municipal cost-saving, and decreased overdose risk, according to a 2014 report by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network. The same report also suggests that supervised injection sites, “do not lead to any significant disruptions in public order or safety in the neighbourhoods where they are located.” In other words, our public spaces don’t need to be protected from the homeless, they need to be leveraged for the homeless. 

Toronto’s StudioAC has proposed transforming disused trucks into accessible public showers – while doubling as a canvas for works by local artists.

People experiencing homelessness require a variety of supports to get back on their feet. They range from: accommodation for disabilities, educational opportunities, employable skills training, mental health and substance use support, access to transportation, a safe place to shower, kitchens in which to prepare healthy food, access to phones, computers and of course, a physical address. 

Here are a few ideas for addressing these needs:

  • Fit public bathrooms with the amenities required for a shower and staff them with attendants that could provide a friendly face while handing out hygiene products. These public shower spaces could have dedicated hours of operation each day to increase dignified access.
  • Repurpose out-of-use TTC buses as mobile service hubs, equipped with wifi, laptops and staff support. These mobile hubs can provide case management, mental health support, educational opportunities and skills training. (In a similar vein, local designers StudioAC have proposed converting big rig trucks into public washrooms and showers).
  • Provide an address attached to PO Boxes – perhaps rebranded as suite number – to reduce the stigma for those seeking employment.
  • Introduce clear guidelines to ensure public design standards that eliminate hostile architecture while maintaining accessibility.
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While crowded parks and social distancing circles capture the urbanist imagination, COVID-19 exacerbates more fundamental spatial disparities.

These are simple ideas. And in a country as wealthy as ours, they can be executed quickly. Rather than trying to make homelessness invisible by moving unhoused folks away and hiding them from view, let’s try to solve the challenges that impact all of us by applying creativity and innovation to support people experiencing homelessness in the spaces we all share. Improvement instead of displacement. Now, more than ever, we will all benefit from a public realm that works for all of us.

As for that Jamaican man I encountered at Yonge and Dundas, I often think about how he is doing and if the world has been any kinder to him since we met. I wish I didn’t have to wonder. In the future – if we have leveraged our public spaces for the most vulnerable among us and invested in the proper supports that universally allow folks without shelter to become housed – we will know that everyone who falls on hard times will have a real second chance. 

Asante Haughton is an advocate for social justice causes and a storyteller specializing in narratives detailing the impact of family trauma on mental health. A veteran of the speaker circuit, Asante has presented across the globe, including a pair of TEDx talks. Asante was also named a CAMH 150 Difference Maker, recognizing his contribution to Canadian mental health discourse. 

An aerial view of Fort York / Tkaronto, looking over the Gardiner Expressway and the Toronto Island Airport.

Understanding place is an integral part of Indigenous design. The simplest way to explain the difference between colonial views and Indigenous ways of thinking is to look at how places are named. Consider Fort York vs. Tkaronto; the former is a reference to a military presence and a cathedral town in Britain, the latter means “the place in the water where the trees are standing.” While some may see something primitive in Indigenous Peoples’ deep reverence for nature, the reality is that we are all completely dependent on it for sustenance and happiness. 

Decolonization of this Toronto landmark begins with recognizing that it, like many places in Canada, was formerly inhabited by Indigenous people. Tkaronto would have been home to the Haudenosaunee, Mississaugas, Anishnawbe and Wendat peoples for thousands of years. We, as Indigenous people, see this as an important place to start “re”-conciliation. In our practice of architecture, and as Indigenous people, we approach place through a deep understanding of the site’s environs and the history imbedded there, including study of the area’s natural processes and of the beings that have made it their home. Documenting the history allows us to see that our sites are alive and they change over time, which can in turn affect the approach we take in designing and building contemporary spaces.

As we reconsider place names, the terms we apply to place-making likewise merit closer scrutiny. When it comes to the word inclusivity, most people will think of accessibility – maybe AODA standards or universal design principles. But I want you to think about inclusivity in a way that encompasses not just every-one but every-thing. The flowers, the rain, the animals, the insects, the sun, and then humans. We have forgotten that we share this world with millions of other species, and it is time we start thinking about not just what we design but how we design, in a manner that acknowledges that humans are only one part of this enormous system. This is the first step to producing design through Indigenous knowledge: We must appreciate that we are part of a system that is larger and, in many ways, more important than ourselves.   

Humans were placed on this earth with unique gifts that have allowed us to dominate the landscape. Now, imagine this same landscape through a larger lens, one that zooms out from humanity to all living species. As we work towards an equitable urban realm that helps reconcile differences in physical ability, race, caste and social status, and the human-imposed artificial hierarchies that are echoed in our architecture and urban landscapes, we must also ask ourselves what would happen if we placed ourselves within the system, as opposed to above the system. What benefits would we realize through understanding the importance of our connection with nature – with rain, with the life energy of amphibians? How would this approach help to heal our cities, making them not only a safer place for humans, but a safer place for all living things?

All of these big questions reflect the same philosophy – one that removes us humans from having domination over the land and places us in an equal partnership with the world around us. Decolonizing the way we think about design and architecture and the processes by which we create the built environment begins with taking humans off the top of the pyramid and placing them as an equal part of a circle.   

A graphic showing the difference between a hierarchical system (represented as a pyramid) and connected system (represented as a circle).

This may all seem like a lofty dream. In fact, it’s ancient knowledge. Here are a few ways in which this approach can impact the design process and well as the final result:

Consultation vs. Relationship-Building

Consultation has long been deemed an important part of Indigenous design, as it directly relates to our cultural practices of consensus building through conversation. I like to think of “consultation” more as relationship building. Whereas a consultation process is often viewed as a finite – even perfunctory – practice, a relationship continues on long after the architecture is complete. It’s not about just checking a box; it means that conversations continue from pre-design all the way through the design process.

In our architectural practice at Two Row Architect, we put this way of thinking into action through several rounds of initial consultation. We typically like to start with talking-circles, where we would pose a series of open-ended questions about the project to a group of around 10 people. These questions would be answered one-by-one, each round ending with a discussion. This engagement helps direct the design process; it also strengthens the community of stakeholders through open dialogue.

A graphic illustrating the difference between linear thinking (represented as a straight line between two points) and cyclical thinking (represented as a circle).

Landscape as a Resource

You don’t need to read a book on the science of biophilia to experience how healing it is to take a walk in the forest. Placing nature first in our approach to design benefits humans and the natural world. Our landscapes should not be a secondary thought; they should drive our design approaches, especially in urban environments where nature has been stripped to isolated trees in a concrete prison.  

What would happen if we approached urban landscapes as a resource, where we planted not only for aesthetics but for function? Food equality and access to food is a major issue around the globe – it is for this very reason that the UN’s World Food Program has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. By prioritizing our landscapes and then planting them in a manner that supports growing our nourishment we can begin to address issues of food security.

In Two Row Architect’s work with Biindigen in Hamilton, Ontario – a project driven by Indigenous service providers – we have put community, family, health, food and ceremony at the forefront. Urban agriculture has led the layout of the site, with the buildings’ massing melting to create the best angles for food production. The built form has in fact followed sun and wind angles; in this way, it is reminiscent of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where the preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings demonstrate how well our forebears understood the benefits of their natural surroundings. 

Place-Making vs. Place-Keeping

This type of land stewardship is called place-keeping. Embracing its benefits is key to an Indigenous approach to design. One way to view this practice is to attempt to understand the capacity of any given landscape by thoroughly investigating what it can support. This is accomplished by studying the history of the site, including the displacement of its natural systems, and giving great consideration to the seventh generation looking forward. A design based on place-keeping takes into account the full lifecycle of site and place. It’s not about signifying an Indigenous presence through token iconography. Place-keeping is understanding the importance of that place for all living things.   

A distant view of the Toronto skyline from the Lake Ontario waterfront, depicting the city within a natural context.

The value of place for Indigenous people is not found in dollars per acre; it is rooted in the understanding that the land is what allows us all to live. Developers would never demonetize the value of a parcel of land; in reality, they do the exact opposite in the pursuit of the exceedingly narrow aim of profit. It takes strength to value the whole and not just the part – that is, to ensure that what is built is best for every-one and every-thing and not for just the bottom line.  

Universal Inclusivity

The Indigenous Hub in Toronto Promises a Brighter Future
Integrating facilities for healing, education and childcare in one purpose-built project, the Indigenous Hub promises to provide a safe space informed by Indigenous design tenets.

Respect for all living things: This is what I call universal inclusivity. This is inclusivity that goes beyond physical abilities, race, gender, and into species, climate and the land itself. By keeping-place for all we push towards a greater acceptance of the various users of the place. Respect for the site, attained by educating ourselves of the space’s intent, is key. It makes everyone aware of the importance of all who inhabit the space, and this education–awareness component supports safe relations, similar to the way we respect religious sites because we understand their history.

The design of safe spaces goes beyond making people feel physically safe. Created landscapes should support health across all aspects of life, including mental health. How we think about safety itself needs to similarly extend to protection of our health on many levels. Through approaching design in a manner that addresses more than just the basic human need of shelter and by acknowledging that the world around us plays a significant part in our health, physical and mental, we start to realize that inclusive design is not just about reconciling our human relationships. It is really about understanding how we constitute one piece that fits into the larger cycle of the earth.  

Matthew Hickey is a Mohawk from the Six Nations First Nation and a licensed architect with 12 years of experience working in an on-reserve architecture firm. As a senior partner with Two Row Architect, Hickey’s focus is on regenerative design – encompassing ecological, cultural and economic principles. His research includes Indigenous history and the adaptation of traditional sustainable technologies to the modern North American climate.

As we enter yet another phase of the COVID-19 era, great thinkers across public health and planning are conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing major aspects of urban living. Yet these conversations often lack context. How we re-imagine our cities to ensure our health and safety feels imminent – because it is – but it is not novel. Acute, intense periods that force us to consider how health should influence urban life, pandemics are recurring scourges that shape our worlds – for better and for worse. But if we truly aim to survive this latest iteration equitably, we have to be honest about the history that brought us here and which learnings will move us forward in a more progressive manner. 

Take Toronto, for example, the city where I now live, work and play. The Toronto we see today, from the land it is situated on to how the city came to be and the neighbourhoods that give it life, has always been shaped by our attention to health. But the shape it has taken has been governed by larger social systems that have ultimately dictated whose health deserved attention. This comes as no surprise (or, at least, it shouldn’t). I notice this emphasis on a privileged group of people constantly: during my graduate degree in public health when professors skirted questions of non-binary genders; over lunch with colleagues who scrambled to address race in light of the BLM protests; and now when government officials present a false dichotomy between the saving the economy versus saving peoples’ lives. 

An aerial view of Toronto. PHOTO: Maarten van den Heuvel

In order to truly understand these inequities, we need to engage with the longer, inseparable histories of public health and urban life in Toronto. Our current, collective spatial memories of the cityscape are deeply informed by them. And they hold a multitude of insights into the deep fractures that COVID-19 has only now laid bare. 

The Land

The land on which Toronto stands has been given many names – Huronia by early French settlers, Wendake by the Huron-Wendat and Ganatsekwyagon by the Senecas, among others – and has been home to many nations. There are records of contact between Indigenous peoples in and around Toronto with settlers since the 1600s. During the process of colonization that followed these initial meetings, waves of Roman Catholic missionaries were dispatched to Turtle Island.

They were swift to condemn Indigenous forms of spirituality, so unlike their own. Like many colonial projects across the world, these missionaries soon “began to undermine not only the beliefs but also the social structures” of the Indigenous people they sought to “save”. They would deem Indigenous ways of knowing and relating to the world “magical”, “primitive” and eventually “psychopathological.” When European psychiatry was first being developed, in fact, it was already being mixed with racist ideologies as a means to exert power.

For the Huron-Wendat peoples, this resulted in being rationalized as “insane” and “disease-inducing”. In the 1630s, Gabriel Sagard, a Jesuit missionary, wrote of them

“It is quite within the bounds of belief that these sick persons are not so completely possessed that they do not see the damage they do, but they think they must act like demoniac in order to cure the imaginations or disturbances of their mind…and what before was only a mental caprice…is converted into a bodily as well as mental disease.”

It was through this unfounded characterization that early settlers justified their presence. When they eventually brought infectious diseases from across the ocean, the large casualties among nations and the pernicious stereotype of the “mad Indian” allowed them to justify future land theft where Toronto now exists. 

Yet, many of us living in Toronto today move through the city without feeling the weight of this history. And it shows. Land ownership dominates our access to spaces, within which we must navigate competing “spatial entitlements”, as Jay Pitter and John Lorinc characterize them in their 2016 book Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity. Indigenous nations across Canada who voice their spatial entitlements by reclaiming land stolen from them are often met with violent institutional policing. In public spaces, protestors block streets and railways, all the while facing off against armed forces, in order to advocate for a collective process towards healing our relationship with the land.

They also understand that we must also acknowledge the many other beings entitled to the land, as Mohawk architect Matthew Hickey further reminds us

 “What benefits would we realize through understanding the importance of our connection with nature – with rain, with the life energy of amphibians? How would this approach help to heal our cities, making them not only a safer place for humans, but a safer place for all living things? All of these big questions reflect the same philosophy – one that removes us humans from having domination over the land and places us in an equal partnership with the world around us.”

Configuring our relationships to the land in this “primitive” way means digging through layers of history and unraveling hierarchies among all living things dependent upon it. This philosophy, sadly, also works as a foil for what happens when we don’t. As is abundantly clear, the colonialists caused mass displacement not out of concern for the health of Indigenous people but in order to seize the territory on which they lived.

The City
Painting, Toronto 1834, waterfront (original in Mayor’s office); City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 962

Over a century after this displacement, this same land would become the Town of York, a regional hub with new economic, housing and health challenges. In the 1830s, the region was governed by a select group of wealthy individuals working as “magistrates” whose control over funding gave them great political power over local governments. And it soon became evident that there was a vast divide between regional and local interests in how areas should be planned and developed. Unsurprisingly, this led to growing political unrest. Those in power were mostly “of sufficient income to render them indifferent to the hardships and needs of the average hard-working settler.” When cholera hit in 1832, it was precisely disadvantaged people who bore the brunt of the health implications caused by insufficient infrastructure. 

A lack of appropriate sewage, garbage disposal and clean water meant that the spread of cholera was quick, decisive and along class divides. The death toll is estimated to have been around 200 – for perspective, the city’s population at the time only numbered around 5,000. Understandably, as journalist Noor Javed writes, “the cholera epidemic led to a fundamental change in the way the city viewed itself and its citizens’ interests”, and two years later, in 1834, the Town of York became the City of Toronto – the first incorporated city in the province. In “The Impact of Cholera on the Design and Implementation of Toronto’s First Municipal By-laws, 1834,” Logan Atkinson writes:

“The Boards of Health that emerged from the cholera epidemics, and the delegation to the City of Toronto of virtually complete legislative autonomy in matters of public health, functioned as the first more or less comprehensive excursion of law-making authorities into an arena that, until that time, had been addressed only sporadically.” 

The tensions across political and economic divides in 1832 sound disappointingly familiar in 2020. Even more so because the consequences both then and now are so dire. This context helps frame many of the disconnects between the federal, provincial and municipal policies that have left essential workers in precarious environments. Today, it is not inadequate sewage and garbage disposal infrastructure that makes them vulnerable. Instead, it is their high-risk work environments and the crowded public transit they use to get to them that put people at risk. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), a historically underfunded public transit system, has often run over capacity in many of the city’s low-income neighbourhoods

I consider these conflicting positions from my hastily put-together home office. The nature of my work means I am privileged enough to be able to do so remotely, in a neighbourhood where I can easily bike to pick up essential items. I can reflect on economic injustices that have led to preventable deaths while getting my groceries delivered. Reckoning with these repeated histories means reckoning with our own positionalities: how differential access to spaces for safe mobility and work have been designed in our city with me, and likely many of those reading this, in mind. 

The lack of investment we see today into ameliorating the built fabric for vulnerable communities is also what made the 1832 cholera outbreak so deadly. In the process of that earlier epidemic, the city’s name change, to Toronto, represented an effort to distinguish it from other new urban centres bearing the same name. Ironically, the misinterpretation of the Indigenous word Tkaronto, which means “the place in the water where the trees are standing,” as “meeting place” would serve as an ode to an earlier history yet attach new narratives to this space. 

The Neighbourhoods
Slum house, The Ward, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 682

A key new narrative was the desire for cleanliness in a growing metropolis. The health department’s early policies prioritized sanitation and infectious disease control. However, these priorities slowly shifted as it became clear that there were profound connections between people’s health and the conditions in which they lived. As University of Waterloo history professor Heather MacDougall writes in “Activists and Advocates: Toronto’s Health Department, 1883-1983,” by the early 1900s, concern over unsafe housing conditions, a “menace to public health,” became the department’s focus. 

In 1911, Medical Officer of Health Charles Hastings published “Dealing with the Recent Investigation of Slum Conditions in Toronto, Embodying Recommendations for the Amelioration of the Same.” Quickly picked up by local newspapers (with headlines such as “Enough Filth in One Block to Turn a Whole City Sick”), his report brought intense scrutiny to the neighbourhoods he studied. 

These “slums” housed people who had few, if any, other options of where to live. Among them was The Ward, a neighbourhood in what is now the downtown core full of a diverse array of recent immigrants who worked in some of the city’s lowest paying jobs. Its story is most vividly recounted in The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, published by Coach House Books in 2015. The Myseum of Toronto also pays tribute to it:  

“[The Ward] became home to many of the immigrants and refugees arriving to Toronto: Irish fleeing the potato famine, Black Americans escaping from slavery along the Underground Railroad, migrant Italian labourers, and finally thousands of Jews escaping persecution in Eastern Europe in the 1890s.”

The Ward’s racial and ethnic diversity was set against a much whiter and conservative backdrop; residents routinely faced racial harassment and violence in what included Toronto’s “first Chinatown”. In advocating for the demolition of unsafe homes, the health department would temporarily improve the physical conditions of the Ward’s residents. But it would also begin a wave of “slum” clearance that lasted decades and was coupled with systemic discrimination.

Without affordable housing, the ethnic and racial communities of the Ward were dispersed to make room for other, more attractive uses of the space in an ever-changing city. Many of the Chinese residents would eventually relocate west and establish a new home along Spadina. Earlier this year, as COVID first entered communities, Chinatown and its residents would again be the target of xenophobic attacks. The once bustling streets, filled with sidewalk fruit stalls and clothing racks, are still trying to recover

Toronto’s Chinatown. PHOTO: Maarten van den Heuvel

It may be easy to forget the Ward ever existed now that a new landscape has been laid on top of it. But in 2015 an archaeological dig in preparation of a new courthouse excavated thousands of pictures, toys and other objects that resuscitated the spatial memory of The Ward and the people who animated it. Unlike in the archived “slum” photographs taken by the health department, they show a vibrant community before it was pushed out. 


In 2007, David Hulchanski’s seminal “Three Cities” report showed that the disappearance of the Ward was not an isolated incident but part of a larger trend in Toronto. It forced us to confront our complicity in allowing for a spatial dissonance between a predominantly white, wealthy downtown core and predominantly racialized, low-income suburbs. But we have yet to confront the role of public health in this history. 

Higher rates of COVID-19 cases in the city’s racialized communities cannot be separated from the fact that these same communities live at an intersection of systems that further marginalize them and put their health in peril: precarious employment that does not offer an adequate number of paid sick days; a built environment that dictates inequitable access to green space and its mental health benefits; and a lack of affordable housing that means that people already dealing with all of the above are slowly excluded from our city. 

As Toronto continues to grapple with a pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in our lifetimes, we need to connect the dots between the city’s spatial memories and its public health history. Only this context will provide understandings of how the city’s current shape has always been attentive to health – in ways that prioritize certain segments of society over others and in a manner mediated by the very same systems of power that COVID-19 has now emphasized.