We Need To Talk About Privately Owned Public Space

The end of my PhD is in sight. I think. I’ve got a year of funding left, and I’m very motivated to complete within that timeframe. Accordingly, I’m racing to finish my experiments so that I can get into the thick of dissertation writing. For those who aren’t familiar with my research, I study the psychological impacts of urban design. Specifically, I am studying how being surrounded by skyscrapers can influence how we feel. It seems like a question to ask as our cities build upward at a rapid pace. What happens when we can’t see the sky? There’s a limited amount of research out there that examines this question, and none that uses neuroscientific methods to measure psychological and physiological responses to these buildings. To understand this phenomena, I take pictures of urban environments with a 360 camera and bring them back to the lab where I use virtual reality to take a closer look.

Yesterday, I was in Toronto to get some stimuli for an upcoming experiment. I was walking around the Financial District and snapping pictures of tall buildings I was interested in studying. My first stop was the Royal Bank Plaza, at the corner of Bay and Wellington:

I started taking pictures, and soon after, was told by who I assume was the building’s security guard, that I was not allowed to take pictures of the building because it was private property. I told him that was ridiculous and that I could take pictures of whatever I wanted while I was on public property. He proceeded to tell me that the sidewalk was private property. In the spherical image capture below, you can see where I was standing. I was as close to the edge of the sidewalk as you could possibly be without falling off.

I challenged him on the idea that the sidewalk was private property and then asked for his identification. He covered his badge and told me to “just leave.” By that point, I got what I needed, and didn’t feel safe, so I left.

I walked over to a nearby tall building at 145 King St West and within minutes had another security guard outside telling me I wasn’t allowed to take pictures on their property.

As you can see here, I was on what would appear to be the sidewalk. By this point, the frustration was mounting and I told him I was not going anywhere and asked him to provide a clear boundary as to where their private space ended and the sidewalk began. He wasn’t capable of answering that question, so another, more helpful, security guard came out.

Here’s a video of our interaction:

When I asked him where the defined line between private space and public space was, he said his “best interpretation” was a non-existent line. He just pointed to non-delineated portion of the sidewalk. When I told him I was on a sidewalk, he replied by saying there were “no defined limits.” I then pressed him to give me an exact boundary so that I could just continue on with my day. He did his best to ask his superiors where the property line was. Their response, as you can hear in the video, was “we have to ask him to leave, if he wants to take photos of the building, he can contact property management.”

“Now, more than ever, we need public space. Politics are dividing us and technology is isolating us. Public space is where people from different walks of life, with different belief systems, come together to co-exist and connect. Our future depends on it.”

I tweeted about this yesterday, and received a response from Brad Ross, the Chief Communications Officer for the City of Toronto, who said that “anyone can make pictures of anything they want from the sidewalk…buildings, people, anything.”

So, considering that fact, why was I bothered by three security guards in the span of 30 minutes for taking pictures of buildings while standing on the sidewalk? I think, largely, because of what they are told by their superiors. I don’t think we can blame security guards for this problem; they are doing what they are instructed to. The security guard I engaged with in the video was the friendliest one I spoke with that day, and did his best to get a clear answer from his superiors, who came up short. If I refused to move from the sidewalk, what would have happened? Where was I “allowed” to be? Why was I being targeted?

When I was a mental health occupational therapist, many of the people I worked with spent a lot of time on the streets, in both public spaces and privately owned public spaces (POPS). Most of them were “visibly” from a low socioeconomic status and would regularly get hassled by security and the police for occupying these spaces. They were treated horribly based on how they presented. And, it’s completely unacceptable. No one, regardless of how they present, should be harassed. I can’t believe I have to say this.

To be honest, before heading out yesterday, I was worried that I’d get hassled as a brown-skinned bearded man taking pictures of buildings. I was legitimately worried people would think I was a terrorist. I had a similar experience of being questioned by security guards when I was in London UK, last summer, doing the same experimental work. London has a history with terrorist attacks, so I was particularly aware of how I’d be perceived there. I guess I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about this in Toronto. I was wrong. That said, it’s difficult to know why people treat you the way they do, which is part of the psychological burden of being a person of colour.

My experience speaks to a significant threat to our daily life. As more and more private corporations take over our cities, we risk having them encroach on the little shared space we have. I was standing on a sidewalk and got harassed. Can you imagine what would happen if I was actually taking pictures of a building in a POPS? To make things more complicated, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what is private and public space. Marginalized people are experiencing significant structural violence in these grey areas. And often, physical violence. Just for existing. Particularly street involved people. I’m a person of colour, but I also have significant class privilege, and I was still kicked off a sidewalk for doing something completely legal.

Now, more than ever, we need public space. Politics are dividing us and technology is isolating us. Public space is where people from different walks of life, with different belief systems, come together to co-exist and connect. Our future depends on it. And, so, we must treat it with the appropriate amount of delicacy and importance.

Cities need to pay more attention to the implications of allowing POPS. If our politicians and policy makers truly care about equity, justice, and wellbeing, they should be concerned by the extent to which corporate interests have taken over our cities. At this point, it seems that these spaces are inevitable. The realist in me recognizes that it would be naive to suggest that we can just ban them overnight. But, we need to be more conscious and mindful of how privately owned public spaces are operated. If we aren’t, we risk losing the public realm, and possibly, each other.

(featured picture was taken in a privately owned public space in Vancouver. Someone appropriately changed the sign 😏)

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