Skip to main content

The Commerce Court plaza at King and Bay.Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

The sound of gushing water masks the din of nearby traffic on Bay and King Streets. The fountain, the centrepiece of the outdoor plaza at Commerce Court, reminds Stephen Young of the ones in Italy and France – a taste of Europe tucked within a cluster of office towers in the heart of the Financial District.

Standing next to a trio of bronze elephant statues, Mr. Young, the president of the advocacy group Toronto Public Space Initiative, casts a glance over the plaza, designed as part of the complex by the famed modernist architect I.M. Pei. "It looks like the backyard of all these towers," he says. This seclusion is what makes Commerce Court a popular lunchtime destination for nearby workers, who descend from the surrounding skyscrapers to lounge on the stone bench encircling the fountain.

Although the courtyard is privately owned, it is open to the public. But there's no signage indicating that. On a recent Saturday afternoon, with no office workers to populate the courtyard, the place is deserted.

Commerce Court is actually one of the better-known privately owned public spaces (POPS) in Toronto. These are parkettes, plazas, courtyards or walkways that developers agree to build in exchange for height bonuses or permission to bypass certain zoning restrictions. Most POPS can be found at the foot of condos or office towers. Some are nestled into unassuming corners while others are out in the open. But in many cases, people can walk by them without realizing these spaces are publicly accessible.

As Toronto grows, adding tens of thousands of newcomers every year, more pressure is being placed on the city's public spaces – especially its parks, which are becoming the de facto backyard for residents living in densely populated neighbourhoods where private outdoor sanctuaries are rare. But with limited land available and the rising value of properties, creating new public spaces has become a challenge.

"Many people are complaining, quite rightfully, that there just aren't enough publicly accessible places to go to," says councillor Josh Matlow, who championed a plan, recently approved by city council, to identify all the private-public spaces in Toronto. "There may be one around the corner from their home. They just don't know about it yet. And I want to make sure that they do."

The goal is to make these underused spaces more accessible by adding signs, creating an online catalogue and establishing a set of design guidelines to ensure that future spaces will actually look like they are meant for public use. So far, the city has identified 400 spaces which may be POPS. The earliest date back to the 1960s, when the city did not keep clear records of the agreements that created them.

"Typically, they weren't even put into the title or deed, so many developers are now dismissive of those agreements," says Mr. Matlow, who became interested in protecting Toronto's POPS after seeing an increase in the number of development applications requesting permission to build over private-public spaces. The most recent example is at Yonge and Eglinton Centre, where the real estate investment trust RioCan received approval to infill a publicly accessible square with a three-storey mall extension.

The Toronto Public Space Initiative says it's good that the city is trying to make POPS more accessible. "But if they use it as an excuse not to develop their own public spaces, that's a problem because [POPS] don't have the same role in our civic life as, say, Nathan Phillips Square," Mr. Young says. For example, if you attempt to use a POPS to stage a protest, the owner can kick you off. "Private-public space at the end of the day is not democratically controlled and democratically open to the community." This tension was apparent in New York – which worked with the idea of the privately owned public space in the 1960s – when the Occupy Wall Street protests were nearly kicked out of the privately owned Zuccotti Park.

The City of Toronto says POPS are not meant to replace new public spaces but to help balance density and provide a reprieve from the bustle of city living. Toronto has recently gained some new parks along the waterfront, but in the downtown core, where land is more expensive, new public spaces are rare. "As the downtown intensifies, adding small spaces like this – places of retreat and relaxation, places to view public art – becomes a lot more important," says James Parakh, an urban design program manager at the city who is leading the POPS project.

Cheryl Atkinson, an architect and associate professor at Ryerson University, says the increasing density downtown is not the only driving force behind the demand for new public space; there has also been a change in Torontonians' attitude toward public space. "It's completely evident if you spend an evening at Trinity Bellwoods Park how differently people use public space now than they did 25 years ago," says Ms. Atkinson, who led a recent study, called A History of Public Space in Toronto.

Back then, most people would typically go to the park with their family on the weekend. Today, many urban residents are actively using public spaces for daily activities – hanging out with friends, eating dinner, exercising, reading a book. The public realm has essentially become an extension of their homes. Ms. Atkinson says this is partly out of necessity, due to the shrinking size of dwellings, but also out of a desire to live an "urban life," which depends on public amenities.

POPS can play a role in absorbing some of this demand for open spaces, she says. It seems like the best compromise for now, given the lack of new public land, but the city can do a better job of strengthening their existing public spaces, she says.

Back at Commerce Court, Mr. Young points to a hotel-condo looming nearby, a sign that more people are living in the Financial District. He says the owners of Commerce Court could do more with the courtyard to make it an actual destination where people go to hang out – not just to eat lunch on a weekday. "There's a little stage right there. They could hold concerts here." But for now, the only sound accompanying the clatter of passing cars is the water fountain.