What’s Public About Public Space?
Head outside with hosts Eunice Wong and Dr. Erika Eitland as they kick off a new season focused on public space. Together they unpack the tension between who designs our public space and who occupies it. They also explore the power of design, policy, and research with Zahra Ebrahim, CEO and co-founder of Monumental, an organization that specializes in deep, community-led approaches to policy, infrastructure, and service design. Is public space really for everyone?
This season, most of our recordings and interviews take place in Toronto, whose name originates from the Mohawk word Tkaronto, meaning “the place in the water where the trees are standing.”
We acknowledge the land we are meeting on is the traditional territory of many nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples, and is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. We also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit.
The Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI) defines “public realm” as:
“the publicly owned places and spaces that belong to and are accessible by everyone. These can include municipal streets, lanes, squares, plazas, sidewalks, trails, parks, open spaces, waterfronts, public transit systems, conservation areas, and civic buildings and institutions.”
The legal definition of “public place” in the U.S. is:
“generally an indoor or outdoor area, whether privately or publicly owned, to which the public have access by right or by invitation, expressed or implied, whether by payment of money or not, but not a place when used exclusively by one or more individuals for a private gathering or other personal purpose.”
UN-Habitat has this to say about public space:
“[It] takes many spatial forms, including parks, streets, sidewalks and footpaths that connect, playgrounds of recreation, marketplaces, but also edge space between buildings or roadsides, which are often important spaces for the urban poor. Public space forms the setting for a panoply of activities—the ceremonial festivities of the multi-cultural city, trade for the commercial city, the movement of goods and people, provision of infrastructure, or the setting for community life and livelihoods of the urban poor—e.g., street vendors or waste-pickers. Having sufficient open public space allows cities and towns to function efficiently and equitably.”
Here’s how the Inhabit team defines public space:
A place where an individual or a community can be comfortable and empowered to be their most authentic self, without barriers (physical, political, racial, emotional, or even financial—think how a Starbucks makes you buy a latte to sit on the patio). It should confront the existing power structures, reflect the histories, and be co-created with the community. We often focus on public spaces as places that evoke joy, but we believe that they should also cover the entire range of human emotion (hence the series title!), including providing place for refuge, to mourn, to protest, or to rest.
In this episode, we visited Couch Monster: Sadzěʔ yaaghęhch’ill, a 4,032 kilogram bronze sculpture of an elephant originally constructed from discarded couches. For reference, a female Asian elephant can weigh up to 4,050 kilograms!
Less than a year before the Inhabit team arrived on the corner of Dundas and McCaul Streets, sculptor and contemporary artist Brian Jungen, of Dane-zaa heritage, transformed this corner of public space by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).
For more information about the sculpture and artist, check out this AGO overview.
- 66%: A 2018 survey of 2,000 people found that 66% of women had experienced sexual harassment on the street or in a store.
- 12%: An analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study, which follows over 100,000 U.S. women nurses, found a 12 percent lower rate of all-cause mortality for women living in the greenest communities compared with the least green communities.
- 3%–5%: In a study in the journal, Nature, women residing within 250 meters (820 feet) of a major roadway had 3%–5% increased odds of low birth weight and preterm birth compared with women living beyond the 250-meter threshold. For information on birth outcomes and traffic-related air pollution in a Canadian context, check out this 2008 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
Jane Jacobs (1916–2006) was an urbanist and activist—and a legend in the urban-planning world. She was a journalist, not a planner, but her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities introduced fresh and groundbreaking ideas about how cities function.
As the chairperson of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, she famously spearheaded local efforts opposing Robert Moses’s urban-renewal initiatives in New York City. In Toronto, she led the Stop Spadina campaign, which prevented the construction of a major highway through some of the cities’ liveliest neighborhoods.
Check out the 2016 documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.
Her advocacy and legacy inspired the founding of Jane’s Walk in 2006. In honor of her life and to activate her ideas, a group of Jane Jacobs’s friends and colleagues encourage anyone to lead a walking tour in their city on the weekend of her birthday, May 4. Today over 500 cities around the world participate, and the movement grows every year.
This year Producer Lauren participated in the annual Jane’s Walk events in her hometown of Atlanta.
The first female gnome did not arrive on the scene until 1962.
“Context” redefined: The planning and design industry typically uses the word context to refer to the built environment surrounding a study area (e.g., a site, a building, a community). However, here on Inhabit we want to push the industry to “study” more than the streets surrounding a site or the population of the census tract.
We want context to be driven by additional information, such as cultural histories, public health, resident voices, and an acknowledgment that context is always evolving.
Zahra Ebrahim, co-founder of Monumental, is a public interest designer and strategist and an established bridge builder across grassroots and institutional spaces. Her work focuses on community-led approaches to policy, infrastructure, and service design.
Zahra led one of Canada’s first social design studios, co-designing with communities and leading some of Canada’s most ambitious participatory infrastructure and policy programs. She also built and led Doblin Canada, Deloitte’s Human-Centred Design practice, which engaged diverse sets of stakeholders in design-led approaches to address complex organizational and industry challenges.
Zahra has taught at OCADU and MOMA and is currently an urbanist-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities. She has been recognized as a Next City Vanguard Civic Leader, Ascend Canada’s Mentor of the Year, one of “Tomorrow’s Titans” in Toronto Life magazine, one of WXN’s Top 100 Women in Canadian Business, the 2022 Lake Superior Provincial Park Artist-in-Residence, and most recently as one of the Urban Land Institute’s WLI Champions. She is currently a board member of the Toronto Arts Council, the Canadian Urban Institute, and board chair for Park People.
Visit their website to learn more about Zahra and Monumental’s co-founder, Dr. Kofi Hope.
In this episode, Zahra shares methods and findings from her Quayside research, which led to the development of six “building blocks of public space.”
She also spoke directly to the power of Inhabit’s three love languages:
- Design: Designing for context is about the physical and the emotional. Project for Public Spaces has a guide to What Makes a Successful Place?. This wheel diagram is a helpful starting point for understanding factors that influence placemaking from both a social and built perspective.
- Policy: Give me a sign—specifically, one that empowers people to use, navigate, or rest in a public space. This 2021 study by Svennevig gets into how the content on signs impact a whole range of human behaviors. Like we say in this episode, it gets even messier when we think of signs in the context of ownership, authority, and power.
- Research: Mix up your methods. When doing research for a project, make sure you’re thinking both quantitatively and qualitatively, including talking to the people on the ground. The term citizen science, per Ben McAteer, refers to the inclusion of everyday people in the practice of science—for example, in data collection and interviews—with the goal of empowering participants in the research and design process.
Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich writes in the Harvard Business Review:
“When we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively.”
Producer Lauren spots the power of public space in a few unlikely places:
- Robert Frost’s classic poem “Mending Wall”: Do good fences make good neighbors?
- La Brega Season 2 Episode 7, “Vamos Pa’ Plaza”—The Center of Everything”: Puerto Rico’s Cinnabon chair immortalized in a reggaeton classic.
- Still Processing, “How a Highway Divided a Community in Philadelphia”: You can fight urban renewal even if you aren’t a fancy journalist—or oh, by the way, a white woman.
- Amicus, “The Lawlessness of Property and Ownership”: Profit is ten-tenths of the law?
This episode features music courtesy of Epidemic Sound:
- “Careful Motion” by Spectacles Wallet and Watch
- “To Clarity” by Airae
- “Home Is Everywhere” by Claude Signet
Inhabit Season 3 Episode 1: “What’s Public About Public Space?”
[Keys and dog-leash chain jingle over Inhabit deep rumble. Cheerful, quirky, melodic track” Careful Motion” cues in.]
Eunice Wong: Peanut, you wanna go for a walk? [gasp of excitement] Come on, let’s go.
[Knob turns, door opens, closes. Sound of footsteps down the stairs.]
Eunice Wong: Alright. Welcome to Season 03 of Inhabit! [Eunice chimes in “Take 1.”] I’m Eunice Wong. I’m an urban designer out of the Toronto and Ottawa studio of Perkins&Will. Toronto has been my home for more than 20 years, so I’m excited to invite you to my hometown this season as we head outside. [Eunice: “So cold. Come. So many people walking—”] Plus—exciting!—Erika and producer Lauren are headed to Canada. [sound of people laughing and playing outside] We’re gonna talk spaces that surround and connect every building: [sound of snow melting and dripping in an alleyway.] our sidewalks, our parks, our plazas, or just a little porch that we sit on and watch the world go by. [sound of helicopter flying overhead above] So we can understand why public space plays a critical role in our daily lives.
[Sounds of kids laughing and chatting, getting ready to sled down a snowy hill. Sled slides into the distance. Dog barks. Footsteps tromping through the snow.]
Eunice Wong: OK. Peanut, let’s go home.
Inhabit Team: Inhabit.
[“Careful Motion” fades out.]
Erika Eitland: Hello, hello, and welcome to another season of Inhabit, a podcast about the power of design. I’m Dr. Erika Eitland.
Eunice Wong: And I’m Eunice Wong. Erika, let’s just get right into it.
Erika Eitland: I think we need to. First off, Eunice invited us to Toronto for an incredible four days. And I will let you all know that I am still missing my morning coffee on the 13th coolest street in the world. Shout out to Ossington! Hello! [Eunice laughs: “Woo!”] But in all seriousness, I think I’m really still processing the level of generosity, the sharing, the learning from all the people we spoke with. And I’m so excited to share that with everyone this season. [Eunice hmmms.] I just want everyone to be on this journey with us. Our buildings are critically important. But the context and surroundings are just so important to understanding the public-health impact of our built environment.
Eunice Wong: OK, good. At least you learned something while you were here!
Erika Eitland: OK. Alright. No need to be sassy.
Eunice Wong: [laughs] OK, but pop quiz. I’m curious now that, you know, you spent your four days here in Toronto, you’ve done a little bit of that processing, how would you respond to this question: What is public space? Or why public space?
Erika Eitland: [snickers] You know you gotta start with the why with me; otherwise, we’re not gonna get to the answer. No, I think, you know, public space is just, it’s about public health. And we often say oh, we spend 90 percent of our time indoors. But if I think about that 10 percent that we get to spend outside, you really want to make it count, especially when, evolutionarily we were designed to be outside. So when I think about public space and how I might define it, I see it as recreation space, workspace, play space, [Eunice: Mmmm.] space for our families, our lunch, our parking… All of this is, you know, I think a bit squishy. I’m curious, as planner extraordinaire, like, how do you define public space?
Eunice Wong: OK, if I put my nerdy planner hat on—and this is gonna get kind of boring—but the legal definition of public space is technically public land. So it’s our right-of-way, like our roadways, our municipal parks, sometimes our sidewalks…
Erika Eitland: Does this include private parks? Or, like plazas in front of, like— Because I think of those as, like, public, but kind of private?
Eunice Wong: Yeah, so… OK, so there’s this distinction—messy distinction—[Erika: Okaaay.] between public and private space. And, you know, for the non-planning folks–-
Erika Eitland: Like me—
Eunice Wong: —Yes, like you. [Laughs] They don’t think about public and private, right? You don’t think about those boundaries that way. You just think of public space all as just general open space. [Erika: Right.] So, for example, if you wanna be outside with your friends, you don’t think about where that property line is.
Erika Eitland: Never has that crossed my mind.
Eunice Wong: Exactly. So maybe this, like, planning voice in my head makes this clear distinction between— You know, the building: that’s the responsibility of architects. The outside, that’s the responsibility of planners and urban designers. But we need to be pushing those boundaries a bit more and crossing those lines.
Erika Eitland: I think that’s really important, this idea of like crossing those lines. In public health, when we talk about outdoor exposure, we’re not actually accounting for those legally defined boundaries that you’re talking about—which I think may lead to misunderstanding the full variation of human experience and our open space. And what I mean by this, like, really simply is how does this distinction between public and private influence who owns that private space? How do we maintain maybe the public space? Who’s hanging the signs, like, no loitering and please don’t have your pet poop in my garden? Because it all ultimately impacts, like, who has true access, who feels a sense of belonging. And I really feel, in the rural community that I live in, we have, like, plenty of open space, but is that actually public space?
Eunice Wong: OK, this is when it gets juicy! [Erika: Mmmm, OK?] And frankly, yes, very messy. There’s no one recipe and a set of ingredients that makes one successful public space that works everywhere—especially if we want to get into defining what the heck the word public even means: you know, who that includes, what that excludes. So yes, open space can be public space, but it brings up so many other follow-up questions: Is it safe? Is it comfortable? How is power displayed or shared? Is it accessible, joyful, or well programmed? I can’t kind of get those voices out of my head.
Erika Eitland: Hmmm. I think this is a perfect moment to turn it over to the people in Toronto— the second t is silent; don’t be an amateur like I was—
[Sound of cars and pedestrians sloshing through slushy streets at the corner of Dundas and McCaul Streets in Toronto. Melodic track with rapid repetitive piano “To Clarity” cues in.]
where producer Lauren asked people passing by the Art Gallery of Ontario if they thought a large sculpture with benches at the corner of a busy intersection felt like public space.
Lauren Neefe: Pardon me, I’m doing a podcast…Can I interrupt you for a second…Can I ask you a quick question about public space?
Person 1: Sure.
Lauren Neefe: Do you feel like you’re in public space right now?
Person 1: I would say so. Yeah. Define public space, though—
Person 2: Like, you don’t have to get past a fence to go here. So that’s why I feel it’s public. Maybe it’s not, maybe.
Person 3: It is a public space.
Lauren Neefe: OK. What makes it feel public?
Person 3: It’s wide open, access to everybody.
Person 4: Because it’s, like, the middle of the street, right?
Person 5: There’s a whole bunch of people I don’t know.
Person 6: There are no restrictions. You can be here as long as you want to.
Person 7: I love this space. It’s convenient place. Yeah, I think it’s good.
Child 1: The salt on the sidewalk, it’s like a service that Toronto does. [giggles]
Person 8: There’s people with different needs. There was someone struggling a little bit by the bus stop. [Children laugh and play and make goofy noises in the background.] There’s people here hanging out with a laptop and visiting with friends. So it just feels like everyone’s welcome here.
Person 9: Oh, I feel comfortable. And I come because the sculpture attract my attention. And I think it’s very nice.
Lauren Neefe: Ah, you like the sculpture?
Person 9: Yeah, I like it.
Lauren Neefe: What do you see?
Person 3: Elephant on a ball. [chuckles] Looks great!
Lauren Neefe: Do you like the elephant?
Child 2: Yes. Did you make it?
Lauren Neefe: I did not make this elephant.
Child 2: It’s so big. I want to climb up there.
Lauren Neefe: Oop! [giggles]
Does that area over there feel less public than this area right here?
Person 10: Um yeah, kind of.
Person 6: Yeah.
Lauren Neefe: Oh, tell me more about that.
Person 10: Just ’cause this looks like a very elaborate piece of art. It might be expensive, I don’t’ know. But I think this will also count as public property?
Lauren Neefe: Public property or private property?
Person 10: Well, I’m not sure. This is an art gallery. So property of some kind, yeah.
Lauren Neefe: But right here, on the sidewalk,
Person 10: Yeah, the sidewalk is—
Person 6: The sidewalk is fine. We’re fine here.
Child 3: And that place is more public than underneath the elephant.
Lauren Neefe: What makes you say that?
Child 3: Because the elephant is like part of the gallery, so it’s like even though there’s nothing there, it’s like there’s something there.
Child 4: It’s like there’s a rope—an invisible area that you’re not supposed to touch.
Child 3: Yeah.
Lauren Neefe: Y’all are brilliant. Thank you so much—and super generous. Have fun, y’all.
[“To Clarity” fades.]
Eunice Wong: So people don’t really know if a space is public or private. And the kids at the end there I think really summed it up best. There are these invisible ropes around our public spaces that make them uninviting or make you feel like you shouldn’t be there.
Erika Eitland: Yeah, and Eunice, I think it’s those ropes or walls that are actually created societally, emotionally, and culturally, politically, racially. And I think it’s our individual and collective history that tells us if we belong or not.
Eunice Wong: Yeah, and as designers what we should be doing is removing these ropes or walls and creating design that really empowers people to enter our spaces with a sense of belonging. How can we give everyone a key to their city?
Erika Eitland: Yeah, I feel like we’re opening the season with so many questions, but Inhabit listeners, never fear, we will answer them with the help of our guests and some new segments. You all know I love some “History in Five Key Dates,” a segment that we had in past seasons. But we do not have time for that this season! We got you covered, though, with a segment we’re calling “Numbers, Names, ’Nomes” that’s going to break down the relevant context and terms. Now everyone may think ’Nome stands for Nomenclature, but I am committed as a researcher to find important gnome facts. [Eunice: Oh no.] So stay tuned.
Eunice Wong: So this season, we talked to a lot of people—no gnomes—but you’ll hear them in a new segment called—drumroll, please—“Cue the Neeeeerds!” [laughs] where experts, practitioners, and locals share their hot takes and answer some of our pressing questions. This episode our nerd is Zahra Ebrahim, the CEO and co-founder of Monumental. She calls herself a “public interest designer,” and her work is centered on advancing a collective agenda.
Zahra Ebrahim: My name is Zahra Ebrahim, and I am the co-founder of Monumental. Monumental is a unique creation—and I co-founded it with my colleague, Kofi Hope, who has deep experience in academia, social services, public policy—it was a way of bringing our worlds together and saying, There is organized communities, there are institutions who are more ready than ever to think about how to work with community, there’s community engagement, there’s community benefits… There’s all sorts of things that are happening. But really there aren’t a lot of organizations that help actually meaningfully build a bridge to create shared decision-making models, so that people can do all these things together. And so Monumental helps civic institutions—that includes developers, municipalities, some nonprofits—shape policies, strategies, and infrastructure in a more community-informed way. It does sometimes include things like community engagement or community benefits or strategy or research. But really, ultimately, our goal is how do we help very different organizations and communities come together and work in a way where they can understand the interests and agenda and then build shared decision-making models and get some really great work done…that gets to positive outcomes.
Erika Eitland: Such a boss.
Eunice Wong: She was really speaking our love languages of—
Erika Eitland: Uhh, Eunice you’re all about oversharing the love of Zahra, OK.
Eunice Wong: Ohhh no. I knew you were gonna say that.
Erika Eitland: You did that to yourself.
Eunice Wong: But yes, I really was hanging onto every word Zahra was sharing with us, because she was speaking our love languages too, Erika! of design, policy, and research. That’s why we’re gonna bring Zahra back at the end of the show during Cue the Nerds,
[Inhabit deep rumble and “Home Is Everywhere” drum stem only cues in on cymbal and mark tree.]
so she can really break them down for all of us.
Erika Eitland: First, let’s get into the title of this whole season:
[Woodblock starts keeping the beat.]
Design Is Our Key to an Emotional City.
Eunice Wong: You’re probably asking, What the heck does that even mean?
Erika Eitland: I can feel the virtual “huh?”
Eunice Wong: Well, it begins with who. Who designs our public spaces? And who occupies them?
Erika Eitland: When Eunice and I were preparing for this episode, we were reflecting on our intersectional identities, our international experience, and it really became clear to both of us that public spaces are really not for everyone.
Eunice Wong: Oh yeah. There’s this clear disconnect between who designs these spaces and then who actually occupies them. So I did a little research—
[Cymbal and mark tree fade out to silence.]
—as we do. [laughs]
Erika Eitland: As we do.
Eunice Wong: Across the globe, the planning industry is predominantly
[Cymbal, mark tree, and woodblock slide back in.]
white and male, with Canada doing better than most countries with 51 percent of planners being male compared to 61 percent in the UK, 65 percent in Australia, and 67 percent in the US.
[Cymbals and mark tree.]
And these are decision makers!
Erika Eitland: Oh boy, we are not— We’re not overachieving right now. Well, I think this context is actually really interesting, because it makes sense of this statement from Make Space for Girls, which is a UK-based charity for parks and public spaces designed for girls. And they state that most city councils have spent more time and money on facilities for dog waste than they have for teenage girls.
Eunice Wong: Oh. Boy.
Erika Eitland: And that’s just like, outrageous.
Eunice Wong: Oh my gosh, I mean, I love a dog,
[Cymbals and mark tree chime. Woodblock continues.]
—but come on. As two nonmale users of public space, our preferences and our perspectives have not been traditionally accounted for. So this history
[Cymbal punctuates the statement.]
is both personal and powerful, because it really drives our everyday experience.
Erika Eitland: Yeah, and I mean—you’re gonna bear with me, I’m gonna go into a nerd moment—but I think this is really an example of Newton’s Third Law: [Eunice huffs.] For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
[“Home Is Everywhere” drum and instruments tracks fade in: repeated piano riff, plus cymbals, mark tree, and woodblock.]
Eunice Wong: [giggles] Like an allergic reaction!
Erika Eitland: Kind of, but not really what I was going for, but—[chuckles] Men may exert force on female and nonbinary bodies based on their decisions. But this is our time for equal and opposite force to be exerted. So. With that, shall we get into some “Numbers, Names, and—oh, yes—some ’Nomes”?
Eunice Wong: Yeah, you mean nomenclature? [snickers]
Erika Eitland: Yeah, this is getting cheesy, but I’m into it. [smiles] Alright, let’s go. First up numbers. And these are numbers that highlight why I think public spaces are about public health. So 66%: A 2018 survey of 2,000 people found that 66 percent of women had experienced sexual harassment on the street or in a store. 12%: An analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study, that follows over 100,000 US women nurses, found a 12 percent lower rate of all-cause mortality for women living in the greenest communities compared to the least green. 3%–5%: In a study in the journal Nature, women residing within 250 meters of a major roadway (or 820 feet) [cymbals and mark tree[ had a 3 to 5 percent increased odds of lower birth weight [woodblock] and preterm birth compared to the women living beyond that threshold. What do these stats tell us? Well, that as we move through public space, our experience of safety changes. And even when we’re indoors, our proximity to high-quality public space has impacts on our body.
Eunice Wong: Hmm. OK, my turn to share a name. For my planners out there, we know her as the planning icon and legend, Jane Jacobs. [cymbal and mark tree] I have a shirt with her face on it. I love her.
Erika Eitland: Of course you do.
Eunice Wong: She was an urbanist and activist. And the core of her work was really rooted in this idea of “cities for people by the people.”
[Drum and instrument tracks end on cymbal and triangle.]
So, Erika, she’s our girl. She famously fought and [triangle] won against initiatives by male planners and politicians who wanted to build giant roadways and expressways, paving through our neighborhoods in Toronto and New York.
Erika Eitland: Think about how she was protecting women’s bodies based on like the roadway stat without even realizing it. Just—hats off.
Eunice Wong: [whispers] Icon.
Erika Eitland: [whispers] Icon. [full voice] You want to hear about another icon, Eunice? [Eunice: OK.] OK, gnome fact! Gnome fact! [Eunice groans.] I am talking about the tiny fellas who are bearded and wear classic red hats. They are protectors of our natural world. I’m talking gnomes, people. And so these global icons are all over the garden world. But even though they date back to ancient Greece, were popularized in the 18th century in Germany, the first female gnome did not arrive on the scene until 1962. Outrageous.
Eunice Wong: OK, I’m glad you got that out of your system. But we’re moving on from gnome—
Erika Eitland: Oh? OK!
Eunice Wong: —into Nomenclature. Our nomenclature of the day is the term context. So there are social, political, and cultural ways of defining or classifying context. But all of it is influential in the design of public spaces. Context in design is more than what streets surround a site or what the population is in the little census tract you’re in. [Erika: Mm.] And I’ve recently learned this term “citizen science”—which I think you’ll love—is what I think Jane Jacobs would suggest: that we actually need to walk around
[Slushy footsteps along Dundas Street in Toronto, whistling, cars passing, tires squeaking.]
the community or meet with the people that live or work there to truly understand context.
Erika Eitland: And I think that’s actually where we started, Eunice, our journey through Toronto in those four days with you—was just walking the streets. So I think Jane Jacobs was guiding us without us even realizing it.
[Inhabit team meets Eunice’s colleague Ashita and Eunice’s friend Mark on Dundas Street. Bike whizzes by. Big engine revs.]
Eunice Wong: As you know, we’re sharing our love with Zahra Ebrahim, the CEO and co-founder of Monumental with her colleague, Kofi Hope.
Erika Eitland: Other than being the coolest person we’ve talked to in a while [Eunice laughs], she is not just focused on healthy environments, but working towards creating thriving contexts where individuals can realize their dreams and ambitions within a system that is fair, just, and equitable.
Eunice Wong: And this discussion of “thriving context” is really all about our first love language: design. Zahra jumps right into it and explains the power and humility of design. Cue the Nerd.
Zahra Ebrahim: I think you said, What is context? I think part of my working thesis for all of the work that we do is who is context, right? Like, who makes the social infrastructure of a community? How does that determine how people use and behave and their attitudes and beliefs about how they can live? And then how do we fill in sort of— When we think of their wants, wishes, and needs that come out of those attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, how do we speak into those? With design! That’s where design shows up, right? So it’s this layer cake.
The other piece I would just add in is, you know, part of the work that we do—and part of the work that I’ve done through my whole career and now it’s really precisely named—is helping institutions who build in communities understand that before you start any process, you actually have to not just understand what’s happened before—what buildings have been here before, what infrastructure’s been here before—but also understand how that’s affected the people who are there. So we’ve worked on a few revitalization projects in highly contentious spaces where people have experienced change not always positively and more change comes in—and everyone in the community goes, Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold up. Let’s talk about what we’re doing right now. Let’s talk about how we got here, and what we want to do differently this time. And let’s recognize that everyone has powers.
You know, I think a lot of people—it’s not just in the design and planning and architecture community—I think a lot of people’s eyes roll to the back of their head when they hear about “power sharing.” And I think there’s a very, very clear and simple way to think about it in the context of public space, which is, if all of us are designing it together, when we come into it, you might have capital-A architecture skills, I might know all the organizers in the neighborhood, another person there might know all of the mothers who use all of the play structures and we can get the best insight. Part of “What is context?” is that third piece, which is, you know, really understanding who’s got power and access to different things you need to design a great public space in order to do it. And to do that well, you have to recognize that technical skills are not the only sort of elements of power, right? You have to understand that lived experience is part of that, too.
Erika Eitland: Speaking of context, I’m sure you’ve all noticed the signs placed in parks or in front of buildings: no smoking, no littering, no idling. And those are all dictated by policy ordinances. And in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency provides toolkits to reinforce these policies. But what the heck?
Eunice Wong: Yeah, I mean, signs can limit, control, and restrict the way people occupy or even enjoy space. [Erika: Mm.] And it creates a kind of imaginary code of conduct that can make public space feel less, you know, public.
Erika Eitland: Well, and in the spirit of public health, you know, we talked about this in two parts. One is “risk mitigation”—so reducing exposure to traffic-related air pollution—versus “health promotion”—so improving all those healthy behaviors. But often in our public spaces, signage is only focused on reducing harm, which I think can actually lead to a lot of unintended consequences, [Eunice: Yeah.] whether it’s exclusion, limiting access, or just pure confusion.
Eunice Wong: Yeah, and policy may set the ground rules, right? Think building code or zoning regulations. But I really want to challenge us all, especially designers, that these rules don’t mean that we only need to do the bare minimum. [Erika: Yes.] And I think we’ve really got our priorities mixed up. Like, why are we so focused on telling dogs where to not poop?
Erika Eitland: They don’t even read, Eunice!
Eunice Wong: I know! Well, so true. And we’re not even bringing the same energy or advocacy to the things that really matter. Anyways, [sighs] let’s just have Zahra continue this rant for us with our second love language: policy.
Zahra Ebrahim: When I think about what makes a space a place, I think about that kind of element of delight and texture, where every time you go there, it’s gonna be slightly different. And that’s why you continue to go, and that’s how you build a sense of connection with a place. I think we need more of that, and it’s very hard to do. But it’s really easy to do if you welcome in community, right? And say, like, what are the 20 different uses that this space could be for and then trying to think about the modular elements that help bring those uses to life when they need to come to life. You know, it doesn’t just have to be one static use. So many people walk into public spaces, and—you know, you can’t unsee this once you see it—but they’re littered with don’ts, right? Don’t loiter. Don’t walk your dog. You know, Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. And for a lot of folks, they say, We want to see positive rules. [laughs] right? Like have, you know, beside a bench, enjoy your coffee with a friend. You know, like have an invitation. It’s like, we want to invite people. We invite people to use the space and activate it. But for folks who don’t their agency in the city, actually writing it down and making it visible can do a lot to build social cohesion and sense of place. I haven’t seen it a lot. I’ve seen it, you know, people send me pictures all the time when they do see it. But it’s, it’s once a year, right? I get a text from a small town in Washington State. [laughs] Someone’s traveling and they’re like, Oh, this park says enjoy your day, you know? And I think we don’t do that enough. And that’s what makes a space a place.
Erika Eitland: That is so real. Like, do tell me where I can enjoy a bagel. Do tell me where I can canoodle with a loved one. I would love to know. But where I began fangirling in our discussion with Zahra is when we talked about her methods for community-based participatory research. So in love language No. 3—research—mixed methods is at the heart of it. [Eunice whispers: Yesssss. Yes.] Hashtag Summer Jam.
Eunice Wong: Zahra’s research took her to the inner suburbs of Toronto, where she asked individuals what makes them feel at home in the public realm.
Zahra Ebrahim: There are infinite stories I can tell you from that research, my favorite being that as part of the research, we used WhatsApp to work with folks who live in the inner suburbs across Toronto. We did distance ethnography for a couple of weeks before we did in-depth interviews with them in their homes to talk about, you know, how do they relate to the waterfront, right? And this is part of how we do our process, is going deep with a few instead of broad with many. As part of the WhatsApp prompt, we had said, “Any place that’s not home or work, tell us about it—for better for worse, like, any place in between that you’re moving through in the day. So, you know, you would get voice notes on the bus: “I kind of like the bus, you know, it’s a nice place to watch people.” [laughs] You’d get texts about things people notice: “Oh, I always stop at this place” or “I really actually like my bus stop” or “I really like, you know, the walk to my streetcar stop.”
But one day we got a picture of a plastic chair outside of a Cinnabon in a mall. And this young man from the Thorncliffe Park community in northeast Toronto said, “This is the public space. This is my favorite public space. It’s always free—” This chair is, like, an old security-guard chair, like, you know, the abandoned security-guard chair in a mall. “It’s always empty. I don’t have to share it. It smells nice. No one bothers me. This is my ultimate public space.” And to me, it was such an embodiment of so many things.
One is that people don’t understand what’s public and private, and that doesn’t matter. And we— And we do ourselves such a disservice by talking to people about public space. Just talk to people about what’s not home and what’s not work. Anything else—public space. It is a space you spend time in that we need to know about. You know, that was so clear. The second was that we’re so eager to make collective spaces that we forget that in public space we want to be alone together, sometimes, we want to be together together. And we don’t design along that continuum.
So I think just the idea that he wanted to sit in a chair, he wanted to read his book, but he wanted to be in community, to me was such an indicator that, like, How do we design spaces that triangulate us? So if he’s sitting in the chair, he looks up, someone’s walking into the Cinnabon, he’s the only person sitting there, he’s almost this triangulating object. Someone walks into the Cinnabon, they see a guy sitting there reading a book outside, they smile, they make eye contact, they might say hi. And then the person walks into the Cinnabon and he goes back to his book. Right, and so like, we need to design things in a way that helps us connect.
Eunice Wong: OK, this is truly one of my favorite stories ever. Because, as a designer and planner, it really helps me see what or who we leave out when we don’t go deep in our process—especially when we’re engaging folks in the community. So when we go about our work and we get caught up in the mapping or the site plans, we actually might miss this authenticity.
Erika Eitland: Oh yeah. And I think, Eunice, we leave behind all the people that have their Cinnabon safe spaces.
Eunice Wong: Yes! And we actually miss the interpersonal and the emotional aspects of our public spaces. So I’m really glad Zahra was our Nerd of the Day to remind us that the way we design should be all about supporting human connections.
[“Home Is Everywhere” full mix cues in. Running piano, cymbal, mark tree, and woodblock all together!]
Eunice Wong: So that brings us to the close of our show. But we want to leave you with some questions as we move through the spaces outside.
Erika Eitland: The key to an emotional city comes from reflecting on our mood, relationships, sense of self as we move through space.
Eunice Wong: So our questions for you are: Who do you not see when you’re moving through public space? What makes you feel at home when you’re not at home? When are you in public or private space? Can you tell? Where is your safe space outdoors? Do you have a Cinnabon chair you’d like to linger at? And why do you think public space matters to a thriving community?
Erika Eitland: If you don’t have answers, don’t worry. We have a whole season to get into it.
Erika Eitland: You are listening to Inhabit. I’m Dr. Erika Eitland.
Eunice Wong: And I’m Eunice Wong. Check out our website at inhabit.perkinswill.com. There are show notes, pictures, and links to all of the resources and references we mentioned in the show. And check out our amazing illustrations by Julio Brenes. We also have our very own Instagram account now! Follow us at @inhabit.podcast and tell us what places get you emotional.
Erika Eitland: This season you’ll be hearing Dr. Lauren Neefe behind the mic from time to time. She produces and edits the show. Our music is from Epidemic Sound.
Eunice Wong: Inhabit is now a member of the SURROUND Podcast Network, some of the best architecture and design podcasts around: Clever, Deep Green, Design Tangents, Barriers to Entry. We’re all on surroundpodcasts.com.
Erika Eitland: And once again, thank you to our Advisory Board, which has some new voices this season: Mide Akinsade, Yanel de Angel, Casey Jones, Paul Kulig, Yehia Madkour, Angela Miller, Rachel Rose, Sahar Shirazi, Kimberly Seigel, Gautam Sundaram, and Stephanie Wolfgang.
[“Home Is Everywhere” ends on one last arpeggio.]
Inhabit Team: Inhabit.
Perkins&Will Chorus: People. Places. Power. Design. Change. Now.
[Inhabit mnemonic: snap echoes into empty space]
Lauren Neefe: A Perkins&Will Podcast.
[SURROUND mnemonic: three tones mid, high, low, then static.]