Episode 04

Parking Lots for the People

Eunice introduces their boss, Paul Kulig, who shares his big thesis about Toronto’s suburbs and the walkable city. Then Eunice takes Erika and Lauren to Jane and Finch, where the community has reclaimed an unused corner of a mall parking lot as a proud public space called Corner Commons—a National Urban Design winner! Also: truth bombs.

Show Notes

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.

Paul Kulig, OAA, MRAIC 

An architect and urban designer, Paul is a Principal at the Toronto and Ottawa studio of Perkins&Will and serves as the local Urban Design and Transportation lead. His work for both public and private sector clients is shaped by a strong commitment to the public realm and a deep understanding of the roles social equity and economics play in city building. Over his 20-year career, Paul has led numerous award-winning projects for key public spaces, vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods and urban infrastructure including The Meadoway – a 10-mile long naturalized electrical transmission corridor with five multi-use water-crossings; the Water’s Edge Transformation at Toronto’s Harbourfront and the West Toronto Railpath – a linear trail connecting Toronto’s western neighborhoods with the downtown. Research forms a key part of Paul’s work and he has been invited to contribute to several publications on Tower Renewal and sustainability in affordable housing. He is also a frequent public speaker and organizer, presenting on topics including sustainable community design, public health, and active transportation. 

Check out the studies and references for all our statistics shared at the beginning of our show. 


Eunice’s Parking Space Math: 

A Parking Space: 

= 1.5 people per vehicle 

= 6 people per outdoor patio 

= 10 bikes per bike rack 

= 30 people every 15 minutes per bus lane 

Check out this awesome photo representation of parking space math. 

Using this opportunity to share the Bloomberg CityLab article focusing on the car dependency differences between Europe and the US.  

Compared to Europe, the United States has: 

  • Higher government subsidies for road maintenance 
  • Lower taxes for drivers 
  • Stricter zoning policies that prevented more mixed use in our residential areas thus requiring longer distance to reach amenities  
  • Less support for transit systems post-World War II. 


Cars & Opportunities 

  • Many women sought and enjoyed the independence provided by the automobile and welcomed the opportunity to travel. 
  • Widening income disparities and rising costs of living means access to a reliable car gives people flexibility to live farther from job opportunities so they can live in more affordable housing. 


Parking Reform: 

Many other cities around North America are going through parking reform, so that’s when policies are put in place to restrict or discourage the building of more parking. In Toronto, we removed parking minimums for new residential developments. It promotes more sustainable forms of transportation, and also for the developer that means lower construction costs! 

Chemical Exposure!  

Introducing Coal Tar Sealant: This is a sticky mix used to seal pavement and made of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a probable carcinogen. These pollutants can migrate into household dust as coal tar sealant breaks down and is tracked in our shoes. PAHs have lasting impacts, “emerging evidence also suggests that babies exposed to PAHs while in the womb may be more prone to asthma and other ailments, and may have lowered IQs.” 

Coal Tar Sealant is inconsistently banned across North America. Early bans were in Austin, Texas. Studies of workers using coal tar sealant have shown that they have higher levels of PAHs compared to asphalt workers. 

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that enough coal tar is spread to cover 170 square miles each year. And studies have shown that homes near these treated parking lots have polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons 25 times higher than normal. 

Parking can mean idling 

Explore the example of  Hunt’s Point neighborhood in the Bronx. Child asthma emergency visits are significantly higher than the rest of New York City. The U.S. Department of Energy states “Idling reduces your vehicle’s fuel economy, costs you money, and creates pollution. Idling for more than 10 seconds uses more fuel and produces more emissions that contribute to smog and climate change than stopping and restarting your engine does.” Idling has financial and climate implications for you – so it’s really not worth doing. 


The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres,  said in July 2023 that “global warming has ended, the era of global boiling has arrived.” 

Dark, paved parking lots contribute to high heat because they absorb and retain heat in a natural phenomenon known as Urban Heat Island. Researchers at Pace University found that the surface temperature of a parking lot was 59 degrees hotter than a grassy lawn, which impacts the air temperature. This can seriously impact those we love, including kids and pets who are closer to the ground. 

We reached out to other colleagues at Perkins&Will and Nelson\Nygaard and got their hot takes and some great recommendations for rethinking parking lots. 

Hot Takes: 

  • Nelson\Nygaard’s favorite parking lot is the one that is never built, saving land, the environment, and client money.” – Phil Olmstead 
  • I generally challenge any design measures that inflate parking lot size beyond the necessary (e.g., landscape requirements, extensive pedestrian circulation). I also challenge any flex use ideas (except weekend popups and the like). Again, either you need the parking or you don’t. We shouldn’t be building parking for peak use (see Strong Towns’ Black Fridayproject).” – Martin Leitner 


Parking lots of Note: 


Book Recommendations 

Corner Commons is a pop-up public space, led by the Jane Finch Centre, a local community-based organization that focuses on poverty reduction through resident engagement. The pop-up is a reimagination of a corner of the Jane Finch mall parking lot, an unofficial and historical community meeting place. Follow them on Instagram!

About Jane Finch Centre: Based in northwest Toronto, the Jane/Finch Centre (JFC) is a multi-service, community-based organization with a strong focus on poverty reduction through resident engagement, capacity building and anti-oppression. We have a long history of innovation and response to community needs and priorities. For over 40 years, the Centre has been collaborating with local residents, community leaders, grassroots groups, organizations, and institutions to strategically enhance the health and well-being of the Jane-Finch neighbourhood. 

This episode, we talk to Ernestine Aying, Community Design Coordinator, and Clara Stewart-Robertson, Manager of Community Planning and development at the Jane/Finch Centre. 

Here’s an article Eunice wrote with Clara and Ernestine from the Jane Finch Centre on Corner Commons: https://spacing.ca/toronto/2022/01/24/corner-commons-creative-placemaking-on-a-suburban-scale/  

Ernestine Aying is the Community Design Supervisor at the Jane/Finch Centre. She has a Bachelors of Design – Environmental Design from OCAD University and is interested in community-focused and collaborative design. She has coordinated Corner Commons for five years and has been involved in public space projects for nearly a decade. 

Clara Stewart-Robertson is the Senior Manager of Community Planning and Development at the Jane/Finch Centre. Since joining the organization in 2011, Clara has developed and supported a wide range of large-scale, multi-year projects, from community space planning to inclusive economic development to service design. Projects have included the Jane-Finch Community Hub and Centre for the Arts, Corner Commons, Jane-Finch Community Benefits Framework, and Jane Finch Initiative planning study with the City of Toronto. Drawing on her background in community engagement, planning, and design, she takes a place-based, equity-driven, and systems-change approach to all of her work. 

Dr. Zhuang was featured in our last episode, You Can’t Google This, and she joins us again today to talk parking in suburbs. 

This episode features music and audio from:

I’ll Be Bach” by Jon Björk/Epidemic Sound 

Through the Alleyway” by Jon Björk/Epidemic Sound 

Careful Thoughts” by Spectacles Wallet and Watch/Epidemic Sound 

Clean Cut” by Bonkers Beat Club/Epidemic Sound 

Audio from the 2021 Small Business Market at Corner Commons courtesy of Flaunt It Movement. Flaunt It Movement is a grassroots youth-led organization that fosters self-love and highly-esteemed representation of all women through creative, community projects.

Bonus Clip

Hear from a Corner Commons Artist-in-Residence  

Lila Nguyen is an Intern Architect from the Toronto studio of Perkins&Will. Armed with a Master of Architecture degree from McEwen School of Architecture at Laurentian University, her journey is deeply rooted in her upbringing within the Jane and Finch neighborhood.  

Growing up amidst the rich tapestry of Jane and Finch, Lila became acutely aware of the social injustices entrenched within her community. This awareness ignited her passion to utilize architecture as a potent tool for fostering inclusivity within public spaces. 

Lila was an Artist-in-Residence at Corner Commons, featuring her art piece “Distorted Views”. “Distorted View” serves as a profound symbol, offering a poignant reflection on perceptions of the Jane and Finch community. The chiffon’s gradient subtly embodies the diverse perspectives held by observers within this vibrant community, illustrating the multifaceted nature of reality as perceived by each individual. Embedded within the installation is the thematic essence of ‘motion,’. 

Hear from Lila here: 


Inhabit Series 3 Episode 4: “Parking Lots for the People” 

[low Inhabit rumble as the clock winds up] 

Inhabit Chorus: Inhabit. 

[clock ticks] 

Eunice Wong: Hi. It’s Eunice here. We’ve been talking about Toronto this whole season, so I guess it’s about time [ticking clock fades] I introduce Paul Kulig. Like me, he’s a native Torontonian. He also happens to be my boss and the urban design practice lead in our Toronto and Ottawa studio. As you can imagine, he’s got a lot of theories about urbanism and placemaking in this city. So before we get into the meat of this episode, let’s have him remind us of the context we’ve been setting all season long. 

Paul Kulig: Uh, how do I put it? The bigger kind of thesis I have about Toronto is that you’re seeing a displacement from the center through just economic growth and development—you get the same story in New York or in LA or San Francisco as you get in Toronto, any, any city that’s got a kind of booming economy— 

Eunice Wong: OK, see. Paul’s always contextualizing Toronto by making these comparisons to other similar urban growth centers throughout North America. We all share, you know, these growing pains that relate back to our big themes th roughout the season: economics, [I’ll Be Bach” (instruments stem) by Jon Björk/Epidemic Sound cues in] immigration, suburbia, technology, multiculturalism. And Paul’s gonna remind us that these are all complex and interconnected themes and pieces of our histories that should always be our starting point. It’s all important context for today’s episode. 

Paul Kulig: And so immigrants or vulnerable populations like immigrants—my parents—would have had the privilege of coming and living in a kind of central city—a walkable, 15-minute neighborhood, right?—when it was affordable. And so they were able to benefit from the proximity of shops, community, culture, places of worship, churches, and uh jobs, transit, all of these wonderful things that we take for granted. And yet, probably since the 90s in Toronto, immigrant landing pads have not been in the central city. They’ve been in the kind of 60s suburbs. And so it’s just that much harder to take advantage of what the city has to offer. They’re not necessarily 15-minute walkable cities. And so there is a kind of struggle that comes with attaining the same economic opportunities layered on with racism layered on with the continuing affordability crisis, right? So you’ve got racism, place, and economics all kind of coming together. And so part of the work underlying a lot of what I do is just how do we kind of afford those opportunities that were granted my parents—and by extension me—to every subsequent team of immigrants. 

[“I’ll Be Bach” turns to a single melodic line.] 

Eunice Wong and Erika Eitland together: Inhabit is a show about the power of design. 

Eunice Wong: I’m Eunice Wong. I’m an urban designer at Perkins&Will. 

Erika Eitland: I’m Dr. Erika Eitland, a public health scientist. The last few episodes, we’ve been in the suburbs of Toronto—in these immigrant landing pads Paul’s talking about. We heard restaurant owners talk about how those challenges of affordability, politics, racism, economics, shaped their lives— 

Eunice Wong: And also how they shaped their built environments. And the sprawl of the suburbs, they also affect how people get around, what public spaces they have access to. [“I’ll Be Bach” crescendoes.] So that brings us to what we’ll talk about today, apublic space that’s hidden in plain sight: parking lots. 

[“I’ll Be Bach” ends.] 

Erika Eitland: Really, Eunice? Sexy. 

Eunice: Mmmm, parking lots. [giggles]  

Erika Eitland: Parking lots, here we go! 

Eunice Wong: I mean, I think you’re gonna love this because I love that we’re getting a full episode to break down parking lots. [Erika: OKaaay.] But don’t you worry. I have fun facts to keep you entertained.  

Erika Eitland: You better.  

Eunice Wong: OK, are you ready? I have one to kick us off. 

Erika Eitland: OK.  

Eunice Wong: Cars spend 95 percent of their time— 

Erika Eitland: Neeeeeding a car wash. 

Eunice Wong: [chuckles] Parked. 

Erika Eitland: Wait, what? 95 percent of the time? [Eunice: Yes. Parked.] I mean, I think that makes a lot of sense. [Eunice: Mmhmm.] But I don’t think I ever thought about it that way. You know, I’m always thinking like, vroom, vroom, you’re in motion. [Eunice giggles.] And yet, I’m also like, Oh, you’re the source of our climate crisis and carbon dioxide emissions—since they account for a fifth of the global CO2 emissions. So, I’m just saying: passenger vehicles [whispers] not the best. 

Eunice Wong: [whispers] not the best. [aloud] I mean, I think this is why we’re friends, [Erika: Mmm.] because we love stats like this? So I have some quick parking lot math to do with you. [laughs] 

[“Through the Alleyway” (instruments stem) by Jon Björk/Epidemic Sound cues in.] 

Erika Eitland: [snickers, then giggles] That’s what my day was missing. 

Eunice Wong: Yes, math. [laughs] 

Erika Eitland: OK. Let’s do it. [skeptically] 

Eunice Wong: Ok. So a single parking spot fills one car. [Erika: OK.] The average car occupancy is 1.5 people per vehicle. 

Erika Eitland: So basically, it’s worse if you’re single.  

Eunice Wong: [laughs with eye roll] Yes, sure. But let’s say you are single, but you have a lot of friends. 

Erika Eitland: OK. I can work with that. It’s like my twenties. We’re good.  

Eunice Wong: Exactly. So take that same one parking spot and transform it into an outdoor patio. [Erika: (swishy sounds) Transformed!] Yes. [swishes] Magic! You can now fit six people now getting together for a beer or coffee. [Erika: Ooooh.] Make sense? [Erika: OK, great.] And if you think even bigger—you know, think about the whole lane of parking spots—make it a bus lane, and that bus could serve—what?—like, 30 people? 

Erika Eitland: Oh, wow. OK, so you go from like 1 or 1.5 people, sitting in that car to [Eunice: way more people] like, three people. [Eunice: Yeah.] That’s pretty incredible. 

Eunice Wong: Exactly. 

Erika Eitland: OK, let’s just run with this a little bit, Eunice. Imagine if an entire parking lot was a … park park. [Eunice: (laughs) a park park] See what I did there? [Eunice: Yeah] No? Yeah? Anyway, here’s a real question I have for you, friend. Why are their parking lots at bars? Like, in high school, people, we learned “Don’t Drink and Drive” and yet we have parking lots for bars. 

Eunice Wong: I know. I mean, it is totally backwards, right? And I was spending some time looking at the Long Beach, California, zoning code— 

Erika Eitland: What do you do this on a Friday night? What the heck?  

Eunice Wong: [laughs] Yes, I don’t wanna talk about it. [Erika: Oh, gosh.] But even in their zoning code, they still require 20 parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of a tavern, like a bar use. [Erika: Whaaat?] Yeah. Like, these are places where, you know, their sole purpose is to sell alcohol. And even they have a minimum parking requirement. [Erika: This is bonkers.] Bringing this back to suburbs, parking spots end up being this critical indicator of the struggle that other suburbs are tangled up in all across North America units. 

Erika Eitland: Eunice, this is even beyond the suburbs, right? [Eunice: Mmm, mmhmm.] Like, I’m in rural Massachusetts, and we see this struggle just play out in a different version. You know, this once thriving mill town that had a bustling Main Street with all these small businesses, parking was really critical back then. But when all of these factories closed and the communities fell on hard times, those parking lots become the remnants of past times. And so it’s still something that our decision making in our town has to be responsive to, even though we don’t have the need or the capacity for it. 

Eunice Wong: Oh yeah. Like, so much of our decision making comes back to the car. You know, where to store the cars, how they shape our landscapes, making sure, you know, there’s enough gas stations. Generally, just how we allocate and use space is driven—you know, get it? driven [Erika: Mhm. Yeah. Nice job.]—by parking. And I mean, it’s almost like we’re contorting ourselves always as designers to [Through the Alleyway ends] make parking work.  

Erika Eitland: Hm.  

[Brief pause] 

Eunice Wong: I kind of want to be really clear that in this world—in our urban design world—thinking about parking lots isn’t about cars being good or bad. We’re not trying to always make it, you know, the enemy. For designers, it’s a lot more about how we use that open space and who has access to it. 

Erika Eitland: Listen. I thought I would never say this until we researched and recorded this episode. But parking lots are complex. I mean, from a health, social dynamics, climate perspective, there’s a lot going on. But I think there’s actually a lot of potential in our parking lots. [Eunice: Yep.] And I would say I have, you know, a better relationship with them [Eunice snickers] since this episode. Because before I really only saw them as a health risk or an indicator of our sedentary car-dependent existence. [pause] But I’m feeling better.   

Eunice Wong: I’m glad you’re feeling better. Love that for you. [Erika: Thank you. Thank you.] I mean, I mean, it is so true. And, you know, to help unpack this, in this episode, we’ll first jump in with some context—our favorite. Parking lots do have so much potential, like you said, if we actually started seeing them through the lens of the person or the pedestrian instead of the car. So to do that, we’ll invite back Dr. Zhuang from Toronto Metropolitan University to share her hot takes on parking. And after that, we’ll be leaving Yonge Street, you know, where we were on our food tour for the last couple episodes. We’re gonna head westbound towards Jane Finch, [sounds from a neighborhood market fade in] another growing suburban neighborhood in Toronto. And we’ll be there to visit Corner Commons, a parking lot turn pop-up public space, which was designed and built by the local community. 

Katie at Corner Commons: What do you like about Corner Commons?  

Corner Commons Market Speaker 1: The locationnnnn…  

Erika Eitland: OK, buckle up, people. We are getting into a juicy episode. And we’re gonna kick this off with some history and research behind parking lots. 

Katie at Corner Commons: Mo.  

Mo at Corner Commons: Yeah, yeah.  

Katie at Corner Commons: What’s your favorite thing about Corner Commons? 

Mo at Corner Commons: I love the color and the fact that it’s all hand built. That means so much to the community. So I love that.  

Katie at Corner Commons: Yesss, hand-built and the color. Great, you see the aesthetics! What about y’all over here. We got a teacher. An ed-u-cator.  

Corner Commons Speaker 2: Educate us!  

Katie at Corner Commons: I love how you were talking about representation matters earlier. We need more teachers who talk about that with their students. So good job. What does Corner Commons mean to you?  

Corner Commons Speaker 3: Don’t be shy!  

Corner Commons Speaker 4: Uh, we support each other.  

Katie at Corner Commons: Supporting each other, yes. Here in Jane and Finch, we love to support people. Would you like—  

[Corner Commons market fades out] 

Eunice Wong: I don’t think parking lots are what people think of when we talk about public space. Period. Parking plays such a big role in how our cities look and function, which is what makes them, you know, contested spaces, especially in the suburbs. You know, you’ve got Person A on one end that’s pushing for more parking. You know, “The only way we can accommodate more people in our growing cities is more parking.” But on the other end, you’ve got Person B, you know, they— Maybe they got back from a trip from Copenhagen and they kind of want to force feed that same planning and behavior into a context here that’s just completely different. And honestly, you know, for you and me—for the rest of us, kind of in the middle—we probably don’t think about parking at all, maybe until we personally are actually faced with finding a parking spot ourselves. 

Erika Eitland: Right. Like, how did it become the status quo to think to ourselves, “Oh, of course there’s going to be parking when I get there!” 

Eunice Wong: Yeah. And I think we need to see how we got here. We both know for sure this didn’t happen overnight. [Erika: Mmhm.] You know, it’s written into our policies and our codes. And, you know, we know how long those take to adopt. 

Erika Eitland: Seriously. This is the central argument of this Bloomberg CityLab article I was reading the other day. Basically, compared to Europe, the US has higher government subsidies for road maintenance, lower taxes for drivers, stricter zoning policies that prevented more mixed use and residential areas and therefore requiring us all to drive longer distances to reach amenities like doctors, groceries, entertainment… And there was less support for transit systems post World War 2. So that is literally decades in the making. 

Eunice Wong: Yikes. There’s a lot more to this than I thought, right, like economics, operations, zoning— 

Erika Eitland: But also, I would say cultural, right? Like, I mean, in the same article, they had this stat: For trips under 1 mile, Americans drove 70 percent of the time compared to only 30 percent of the time in Europe. So it’s a mix of this, yes, environment, policy, but also our conditioned behavior. So it’s no surprise when we design like this beautiful, net-zero, sustainable building that we just drown it in a sea of paving and parking around it.  

Eunice Wong: Oof. Yeah, I can rant about that one forever. [Erika: Mmhmm.] But the history of cars and parking lots isn’t all that bad? [Erika: OK, go on.] Like for women in the beginning of the 20th century, for example, the car created mobility independence. Even all the way to today, you know, if you think about widening income disparities [Erika: sure], rising cost of living [Erika: definitely], cars can give people opportunity and access that they may otherwise not have had. 

Erika Eitland: Yeah, and I’m here nodding along with you. But I’m just so skeptical. As a public healther, [Eunice: fair.] like, I think these are the three big things that stand out to me. And so, I apologize, I’m about to throw a lot at you, but, like, as we were reflecting on this— [Eunice: Bring it on.] Yeah, I was like, [Careful Thoughts” bass and instruments by Spectacles Wallet and Watch/Epidemic Sound cues in] There is no joy in parking lots—and this is why. So first thing is chemical exposure. You know, we see a sleek parking lot and it’s got that smell, [Eunice: ew, yeah] that glow. Well, my friend, beauty is only skin deep. And that face-lift is coal tar sealant. [Eunice: Yum] Mm. And it is a sticky mix of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, also known as PAHs, and it’s a probable carcinogen. And the US Geological Survey estimates that enough coal tar is spread to cover 170 square miles every single year. 

Eunice Wong: Whooooa. Every year? Oh my god.  

Erika Eitland: Then, you get to the health part of this, and studies have shown that homes near these treated parking lots have polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons 25 times higher [Eunice: What?] than those that are not treated. So parking lots? Doesn’t just stay in the parking lot. Brings me to No. 2, which is what we talked a little bit about on our first episode when it came to signage. Parking can mean idling. When I was living in New York, one of the big things that had come up for me was Hunts Point. This is a neighborhood in the Bronx. It’s a key distribution area for food in New York City. Childhood asthma emergency visits are 63 percent higher than the rest of the city. To me, the question is then why? How did that happen? And it’s because you have these idling refrigeration trucks that have to keep the food cool, and meanwhile, they’re just [Eunice: hanging out] casually polluting Hunts Point. Luckily, you have federal dollars coming in right now that are finally helping redevelop this area. So they’re improving circulation. They’re increasing train access for food and getting rid of these diesel trucks. All’s to say, like, parking doesn’t mean that you’re really bad if we are thoughtful in our design. [Eunice: Yep.] OK. Last point. Very important. I’m talking heat. [Careful Thoughts instruments drop and melody comes in] You know, we have the Secretary General of the UN saying that global warming has ended and the era of global boiling has arrived. [Eunice sighs] So I love that, Antonio, but by all means, let’s put in more heat-absorbing asphalt, OK? And then, when you have more asphalt, it also means less water can get through. So what happens when you have these heavy rains like we’re seeing all summer long? [Eunice: Right.] Flooding, people. [Eunice: Yeah.] We got flooding now. So…so many things, you know, from a health perspective. 

Eunice Wong: So many truth bombs. But Erika, how about you put some of those feelings in the show notes? We’ll continue the rant there. 

Erika Eitland: I could and I will. I mean, I think what takes time is to do that research. And when you start to realize that parking means chemicals, air pollution, extreme heat, [Eunice: Yeah] and exacerbating everything  from asthma to flooding, you just feel a little bit like frozen about where do we go next. 

Eunice Wong:  I mean, thanks for breaking it down. I think as a designer, I think about parking mostly, you know, by the space it takes up, right? But the fact that all this bad stuff is impacting our bodies and our environments, I mean, huge yikes. [Erika: (snickerss) Yes.] But even from a human perspective we’re also assuming that everyone can afford to buy and maintain cars. [Erika: Yes.] But when there’s as many as—I looked this up—2 billion parking spaces in the US, you know, what about the nondrivers? [Erika: What?] Yeah. 

Erika Eitland: Uhhh, well, we’re probably just making their lived experience harder, [Eunice: Mmhm.] like getting groceries and doctor’s visits. You know, I think, especially for people who don’t have cars, I think we need to, like, remember who those people could be, right? It’s maybe a grandparent that shouldn’t be driving anymore. [Eunice: Yep.] And yet, how are they going to get basic resources and maintain their independence?  

[Careful Thoughts melody and bass ends on a haunting oboe] 

I just have so many questions, Eunice. 

[Brief pause] 

Eunice Wong: I mean, to be a bit more positive, I do think we move in the right direction. [Erika: Hmmm.] A lot of other cities around North America are going through something called parking reform. [Erika: Sure.] So that’s when policies are putting in place to restrict or discourage the building of more parking. [Erika: OK, great.] So recently in Toronto, we removed parking minimums for new residential developments. So this promotes more sustainable forms of transportation. Also for the developer, that means, you know, lower construction costs. 

Erika Eitland: I mean, I think that sounds goood. [Eunice chuckles] You know, I’m getting there. But I think if, you know, this is an isolated example, it would limit opportunities for real restorative environmental justice, though. 

Eunice Wong: Yeah, I mean, totally. Like, parking reform is helpful in reducing the amount of new parking that we’re required to build. But we still have all of this land covered in parking today. [Erika: Right.] Like, everywhere. [Erika snickers: Yes.] And we can’t get rid of all this parking, you know [Erika: Sure.] but how do we—and I think this is my main point—like how do we create a less hostile and more healthy environment with these lots that we have today? [Erika: Sure.] So I think this is a good time to bring back a part of our conversation with Dr. Zhixi Zhuang from Toronto Metropolitan University. Last episode, we shared her insights about community engagement. In this episode, I think she can really help us look at parking lots from another perspective. So she gives some specific examples of how a parking lot was important public space for seniors in the context of COVID and especially in an immigrant neighborhood.  

Zhixi Zhuang: Like, the seniors, the Chinese seniors, they use the shopping malls, they practice the fan dance, the Tai Chi, and doing the— 

Erika Eitland: I did Tai Chi this morning. I was watching Globurbia this morning [Zhixi: Awesome.] and I literally in the mirror was doing moves and I was like, I feel, I feel a little bit better right now. 

Zhixi Zhuang: Exactly, right? Like, this is how they really utilize this limited space, despite the constraints in the suburbs, where you only find cars and segregated land uses. But these senior immigrants, they really created their own space. And it’s beneficial for their mental health, physical health, and also the feeling they are welcome [Eunice: Mmhmm.] in this new society. Because they’re kids, their grandchildren, they are all in school, at work. They are left alone, right? They just like— How to combat the social isolation and loneliness? And they utilize this space—the suburban shopping mall spaces—to hang out, to do exercise, and build social connections. And this is also one way of promoting social inclusion in this multicultural society. So I found it fascinating, because I supervise students in the suburbs—for example, Agincourt in Scarborough, the inner suburb of Toronto, where people utilize the parking lots to share foods and to do the tailgating, they eat foods in the back of the trunk. Especially during COVID time, we are so isolated, we lost those social interactions and the social gatherings. They’ve lost all those opportunities. But businesses, they are really resilient, especially immigrant businesses during the COVID time. They, they become resilient, and they think about how to modify their menu. [Through the Alleyway fades in.] Even just the parking lot in those so-called ugly strip malls in the suburbs. They become really, like, vibrant public spaces and to promote to support social interactions and to even, like, serve the needs of the community. 

Eunice Wong: My takeaway here from Dr. Zhuang’s example is that there are resilient neighborhoods and communities that are making it work—you know, that are really experiencing parking lots as public spaces. This is proven to be important especially in areas where there’s little or no park space or no investment in creating even just more comfortable areas for people to hang out. [Erika: Totally.] So once again, we’re bringing back our special guide Paul to speak to this point. 

Paul Kulig: I mean, Toronto’s kind of known for its main streets, right, like Queen, that are just literally kilometers’ worth of two-story kind of Sesame Street, Main Street kind of stuff that checks all the urbanist boxes—15-minute city, walkable city, all of that great stuff. Unfortunately, all the houses cost $2 million a pop, right? So all of that really great Jane Jacobs rhetoric about small businesses and opportunities is just impossible because they’re boutiques and $2 million homes. But all of that activity still exists in these postwar strip malls—and I’m talking specifically about the horizontal strip malls, individual ownership with the two bays of parking in the back that are incredibly vibrant economically. And they’re so not because of any planning policy, but because of benign neglect, right? They’re there because they’re cheap, and they’re cheap because they’re ignored. And yet there is life there. And so what the struggle sometimes is is people that want to then either use those parking lots for something different, right? So the Wexford Pops was a program that did a little pop-up in the parking lot—set up some patios, and along that strip of Lawrence you’ve got a lot of really great restaurants and the kind of food scene that’s happening. You’ve got other people that are just trying to do more commercial-type things versus lining up your cars really perfectly. 

Erika Eitland: All right. I appreciate the final point there about the activity and life that happens in parking lots. But backup now: benign neglect? [Through the Alleyway ends on a strong downbeat.] I mean, benign neglect is our prevailing strategy for cultural preservation? Yikes. 


Eunice Wong: Yeah. That’s kind of the painful truth. And, you know, are parking spots public space? A lot of the evidence we went through today points to no—you know, the history of the car, the health rant and truth bombs you dropped. [Erika: Yes!] But Dr. Zhuang’s and Paul’s example of what a parking lot can do points to yes. 

Erika Eitland: Hmmmmm. OK! Let’s keep saying yes—or maybe “yes and.” Yes, parking lots can be public spaces—you know, they don’t just have to be chemically rich places that absorb heat. But they can be beautiful, vibrant, well designed, green filled with music and people. 

Eunice Wong: I have the perfect example for that. [Erika: Of course you do.] Um, I’m excited to queue up this private parking lot turned pop-up public space called Corner Commons—[Erika: Say that five times fast.] [Eunice laughs] pop-up public space?—that we designed with the Jane Finch Centre. But most importantly, it was truly a process led by the neighborhood. 

Erika Eitland: What is, first of all, a pop-up public space? I had to say it slowly. 

Eunice Wong: Parking lot pop-up public space. 

Erika Eitland: So what is it?  

Eunice Wong: So a pop-up public space, in this case, is a temporary installation. [Erika: OK.] In Corner Commons, that’s typically around the summer months. It’s set up and it has benches and  event spaces, like a stage, planters, shade structures— 

Erika Eitland: Alright, neighborhood context matters. And I’m just curious, you know, before we get into this juicy example, how is Jane Finch different than maybe some of the other neighborhoods we’ve been in already? 

Eunice Wong: So the Jane Finch neighborhood is another one of these postwar suburbs of Toronto. Historically, it hasn’t really gotten the type of investment the neighborhood really deserves. There’s a lot of stigma, and right now it’s undergoing actually a lot of pressure and change. So there’s new light-rail transit coming through. There’s a lot of new development, you know, condos going up. So generally for  the residents, there’s a lot of feelings around gentrification and displacement. [Sounds of chairs moving around and people talking in a room] So without further ado, I’m excited to introduce my good friends from the Jane Finch Centre [Lauren: Alright, who wants to go first?] Clara and Ernestine. 

Ernestine Aying: I can start. So my name is Ernestine Aying, and I work at the Jane Finch Centre. I’m the community design coordinator, so mostly focusing on a lot of public-space projects and community-infrastructure projects, making sure what we’re doing is collaborative and community led. Ummm, that’s me! 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: And I’m Clara Stewart-Robertson, senior manager of community planning and development at the Jane Finch Centre, which means I support our green change team and our community development team. Together we do a combination of community planning, design, and development work that’s in partnership with residents and community leaders, grassroots groups, and other stakeholders.  

Lauren Neefe: Can you describe Jane-Finch?  

Clara Stewart-Robinson: Depends who you talk to, and really, like, Jane-Finch is made up of micro communities. 

Lauren Neefe: Are you in Toronto?  

Eunice Wong: Yeah. 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: Yeah, we’re in, like, northwest Toronto. 

Erika Eitland: What’s, like, the history here? Like, how did this neighborhood come to be? 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: A bit of a growth from Downtown and, like, evolution of Toronto’s inner suburbs in general through, like, the 60s, early 70s. Like, a lot of it got built out as a place to house people and ideally create this middle-class neighborhood where people would live in the homes and the apartment buildings. But there is also kind of perceptions of it being poor people from Downtown that were pushed, encouraged to move out into buildings here and concentrate here. So it never manifested as what planners, of course, thought was going to be a lovely, suburban, middle-class neighborhood, but there’s hints of that and like the bungalows from that era. But very much, like, a mixed-income neighborhood, but those community members we work with most are more working-class poor. 

Eunice Wong: Can you talk a little bit about some of the pressures on this community, or issues? 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: A lot of it is manifesting from light rail transit that the Province is building and City of Toronto and its Transit Commission will eventually operate. But that has been something in the works for many, many years through many iterations of plans for improving transit in the city and in the neighborhood. But it’s now under construction—the Finch LRT—and so this neighborhood is more interesting. There’s more incentive from a development and real-estate perspective to live here, to build new buildings here, to move populations in. And that also coincides with policies on the Provincial and City level that support that growth to happen here. And so now we’re seeing—I think we are tracking about 20 or 30 different projects in the neighborhood. New condos, new rental buildings going in around the existing towers. Or across the street from our building here, we have two large malls that were built decades ago that are both looking at long-term redevelopment of their entire sites—one more actively than the other—and another third mall on the other corner of the intersection that’s also looking at it. So it’s a very real pressure people have been feeling from the Finch LRT. And then changes in management of existing buildings and the rent increases and renovations that have followed from those, it’s more and more visible, the change and growth that’s happening. And so people may not be able to stay here as business owners, as, as residents and as, as families over the coming years as these projects get built. 

[Sound of conversation and laughter continues underneath Erika’s narration] 

Erika Eitland: So this context was grounding—and it doesn’t sound too different from some of our American cities. But then this is where things got interesting. Ernestine jumped into Corner Commons, which is the project that brought us to Jane-Finch community in the first place. 

Ernestine Aying: Yeah, I mean, we can kind of talk about the history of the site. I think that the site that Corner Commons is in—the Jane-Finch Mall parking lot—is right at the heart of Jane-Finch. So it’s right at the intersection of Jane Street and Finch Avenue. [Erika: Oh, here.] Yeah, it’s there. And it’s long just been an area where people gathered, and, like, it’s a rallying point to the neighborhood. If there was community events happening, sometimes happen in that parking lot. If protests were happening, it would be happening on that intersection. So we’ve heard from a lot of people that this space is very important to the neighborhood. It’s been such a focal point—but at the same time hasn’t necessarily been enhanced in any ways to kind of support these things. So Corner Commons kind of came about to find a way to enhance that space to support further activities like that. 

Erika Eitland: So it’s just a parking lot? 

Ernestine Aying: It’s just a parking lot! Yeah. 

Erika Eitland: OK. 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: It’s a special parking lot.  

Eunice Wong: In a mall. 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: Yeah.  

Erika Eitland: The Jane and Finch parking lot. 

Ernestine Aying: Jane-Finch parking lot. Yeah. 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: I guess the history of the intersection as a whole is really strong. And maybe because of, like, our smaller communities, history of violence in the neighborhood, that people haven’t always felt safe crossing over from north of Finch to south of Finch and moving across the neighborhood. And, like, the main intersection has always felt like a place that’s more neutral and safe for people to come together. And so whenever we try to have, like, a community event or public meetings, we’ve always tried to keep it as close to Finch as possible, because that feels most safe and welcoming. And so that parking lot, because it’s in that space has played those roles that can’t happen other places in the neighborhood.  

Lauren Neefe: Does that make it privately owned public space? 

Eunice Wong: Yes— 

Ernestine Aying: Technically.  

Eunice Wong: Technically. It is a POPS. Or whatever. I was trying to break down— 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: What a POP is?  

[Everyone laughs[ 

Eunice Wong: What a POP is. I just kept saying it, and I was like, Oh, OK.  

Clara Stewart-Robinson: It’s, like, an existing…POP. Not like— [Everyone laughs] You think of it, like, in Toronto world, with, like, new buildings, when they get built, there’s often these, like, I call them, like, forgotten spaces, like, in front— Because, like, the City won’t let you build right up to the intersection, we need to create some kind of public plaza and so they become POPS. Yeah. 

Erika Eitland: So having not visited and knowing now it’s winter, and like the sort of, the true glory of it all isn’t going to be sort of actualized by us today, I was wondering if either of you would just like [Eunice: Describe it.] kind of paint the picture for us—of like, what it has become. What does it look like? What does it feel like? Like, at the human scale, you’re in a parking lot, but now it’s something different. 

Ernestine Aying: Yeah. Imagine walking through [Everyone laughs.] Close your eyes. So it takes roughly around 40 parking spots. So it is quite large. There is brightly colored ashphalt designs that follows kind of the topography of Black Creek neighborhood, where we’re at. Seating and planters kind of line the entire space just to add some vibrancy to this gray parking lot. 

Erika Eitland: And you guys painted it? 

Ernestine Aying: Yes. It’s hand-painted.  

Clara Stewart-Robinson: It’s hand-painted. 

Erika Eitland: Hand-painted parking lot. All right. 

[Everyone is laughing] 

Ernestine Aying: I think that— 

Eunice Wong: With really good paint!  

Clara Stewart-Robinson: Thousands of dollars of paint. 

Ernestine Aying: Yeah. Stuck on there. [Giggles] You can walk there now and it’ll probably still be on there. 

Erika Eitland: What’s interesting about how you even started, “This crisp day…” It’s asphalt, so it must be so damn hot in summer. 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: The conditions at Corner Commons— It is an amazing space when you have it painted. We’ve color-coded the furniture, so you can sit in a yellow chair in like the yellow zone painted on the ashphalt, and it envelops you as a space. But then the wind comes, and then the garbage flies across the parking lot, and, like, cars come right up against you. And you can, like, smell and hear the construction on the street. [Erika: Full sensory experience.] Yeah, like six-lane traffic on Jane and on Finch, like tractor trailers. It’s a busy place, and it’s loud, and you kind of adjust to, like, how loud and hot and smelly it is. But it’s still welcoming and relaxing when you’re actually sitting in a chair next to the planters 

Erika Eitland: What do you think it means for the community to have this space just be recognized and beautified and energize and having this little yellow enveloping corner. 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: It’s really big, because there’s been so little investment in the neighborhood over the years. To see something new happening is really big. And then I think because they see us—our team, our community partners, other residents—on site actually, like, building it, and we’re there all the time. They see our energy. 

Erika Eitland: I heard you’re great with a hammer. 

Clara Stewart-Robinson: Yeah, yeah. We have lots of tools. But like we’ve literally gotten dirty, we’re like on the ground painting this ashphalt. We’re drilling in these like slats of wood to build this furniture from scratch that’s been designed with community members. People can tell that it’s hands on and how much labor and love is put into it—and that it’s for them and not for people from the outside or just a mall pet project to, like, be attractive and be a marketing ploy. I think people see that genuine aspect of it. So it makes that investment even more special and is why the space feels safe for people. Like, I’ve heard from folks that, like, they don’t know who may have built it, actually. And they don’t know, like, if the mall’s behind it, if a community organization’s behind it. They probably don’t know the Jane Finch Centre coordinates the project, but they can tell in what it looks like and how it’s built that someone put love and energy into it. And it feels different than every other public space in the neighborhood that way. 

Eunice Wong: Can you talk about why it feels different from all the other public spaces? Because there’s a lot of capital-P parks, and, you know, there’s a ravine. And, like, if you look at a map, you’re like, Oh, so many public spaces! 

Ernestine Aying: I think that throughout the project, our main emphasis was making sure that it was community led. So having a community working group of resident leaders and people who are part of local community groups and organizations to provide guidance on how this project should progress and make sure that we’re touching base with community as often as possible to show you, like, “This is our ideas. What do you think? We could totally like scrap this and do something new.” So having that feedback obviously is different than those parks that are just in the neighborhood that are just generic parks [Eunice: not maintained] with the bench not maintained. Yeah. This is being maintained. The community has a say in what’s in it and taking part in the building process as well. So Corner Commons is built with a lot of community volunteers, a lot of youth volunteers who help out. So I think that that’s, you know, a sense of pride and like, “I built that planter.” And, like, bringing your friends over and, like, hanging out in the space, I think, really makes it a special place. 

Eunice Wong: We have to run. [Everyone laughs. Erika: OK.] But no, just thank you. I think as architects and designers in our black turtlenecks or whatever we romanticize— 

Erika Eitland: Don’t judge me. 

Eunice Wong: Oh, yeah. Sorry. Didn’t notice that.  

Lauren Neefe: I’m wearing one tomorrow. And Saturday.  

[Everyone laughs]  

Eunice Wong: I think we, like, romanticize public space. And this is an example of, No, that’s wrong, and here’s why. And also, like, the struggle and obstacles to even get this built, I think it’s important to share the story. So thank you for sharing with my American friends and non-Torontonians. 

[Corner Commons Market fades in.] 

Ernestine Aying: Thank you for learning about Canada! 

Katie at Corner Commons: What’s your favorite thing about Corner Commons?  

Corner Commons Speaker 5: I wanna say the same thing, just community engagement and everyone coming out here and showing some love.  

Katie at Corner Commons: Yeah, showing some looooooove. Thank you.  

Erika Eitland: Mmm. I love that. But Eunice, as a public healther, I can’t unknow that parking lots are sources of chemical exposure, air pollution, and heat, right? I mean, honestly, as I reflect on this, I’m realizing: Whose fault is it? It’s asphalt’s! [Eunice groans.] See, I did that. [Eunice: Yeah, I like it.] But you know, what’s amazing is the Jane-Finch community didn’t see asphalt as an ally—which I love in this story, because it’s shouldn’t be— But they added and maintained plants, they provided shade and seating, reduced heat by adding paint that reflects the sun. Ahh!  

Eunice Wong: And they added color! Don’t forget color! 

Erika Eitland: Of course. Oh my god, and so unnecessary. And I think this is what makes it a true oasis amongst the hustle and bustle of city life. They reclaimed this space for people, not cars. Corner Commons is really an incredible example of it becoming a source of joy and connection, but also unlocking the possibility that a parking lot is never just a parking lot. 

Eunice Wong: Mmmm, Erika, nothing is “just,” right? Just a parking lot. Just Erika. [Erika: Just Eunice!] Just a bench, just a plaza. You know, the work that has gone into building this space, working with neighborhood groups, iterating the design— All of that has actually inspired the developers of the site. [Erika: Interesting.] So like we talked about in the interview, the site is going to transform dramatically over the next few years, but this advocacy from the community has actually led to a collaborative process with the land owners and the developers [Erika: Wow.] to create a formal permanent version of Corner Commons, hopefully to protect some of that cultural importance that this space holds. 

Erika Eitland: I mean, this is particularly inspiring because it means that consistent care goes noticed. And no matter how scrappy the team—like Inhabit—people can see value in creating thriving public spaces. 

Eunice Wong: Rewind to Season 1: Design is a public health intervention. [Erika: Yes!] You taught me that: Improving the quality of life. 

Erika Eitland: That’s it, right? And then simultaneously, like, what I’m learning is that imaginative, fearless leadership can lead to alchemy in the design process. You know, when you can go from a history of violence to a community hub filled with pride and ownership. Or, you know, the seniors Dr. Zhuang mentioned. [Eunice: Right.] Their parking lot is the center of socialization, exercise, and belonging. 

Eunice Wong: Personally, through planning school, I was never really pushed to think about these parking lots or roadways in this creative way. [Erika: Shocking.] Yeah. But working on Corner Commons, working with the community, it really pushed me to think about these types of spaces in much more creative ways. So, for example, we designed a library in Toronto with a plaza, there’s lots of planting. It does, yes, serve as a parking lot on some days. [Erika: Sure.] But then other days, it flips over to become, you know, a really rich and comfortable spot for cultural events or farmers markets. If we design with that kind of intention and local knowledge from the beginning, the space can better respond to community need. 

Erika Eitland: I like this example because for most parking lots, they’re just inherited facets of our built environment. But, you know, the intentionality of that design team means we don’t have to simply just make it work. 

Eunice Wong: All the time we celebrate resilience and adaptability of communities. [Erika (sarcastically): Ooooohh!] But what is the history that required them to be that way in the first place? 

Erika Eitland: Totally. And I want us to move to public spaces that are restorative, enjoyable, accessible and healthy from the beginning. 

Eunice Wong: From the beginning. Yes. And that’s where we’re headed. In our next episode [Clean Cut” by Bonkers Beat Club/Epidemic Sound cues in.] are going to shift to other jewels of our communities: parks. 

Erika Eitland: The research tells us: Nature is good for your health. But why do all community members not have equitable access to fabulous parks? We’ll get into that next time on Inhabit. 

Eunice Wong: You are listening to Inhabit. I’m Eunice Wong. 

Erika Eitland: I’m Dr. Erika Eitland. We have a fabulous website at inhabit.perkinswill.com. There are show notes, research, pictures, and links to all of the resources and references we shared today. 

Eunice Wong: A heartfelt thank-you to Dr. Zhixi Zhuang again for her brilliant wisdom. Thank you to Clara and Ernestine at the Jane-Finch Centre for giving us the behind-the-scenes of Corner Commons. And Inhabit listeners, if you’re in Toronto, please check out this beautiful pop-up public space this summer at Jane and Finch. You can get updates at their Instagram @cornercommons. 

Erika Eitland: Have you seen our amazing illustrations by Julio Brenes? Find them on Instagram and follow us @inhabit.podcast. This season, you’ll be hearing Dr. Lauren Neefe from time to time, who also produces and edits the show. Our music is from Epidemic Sound. 

Eunice Wong: Inhabit is a member of the SURROUND Podcast Network, which means we’re cousins with some of the best architecture and design podcasts around: Clever, Deep Green, Design Tangents, Barriers 2 Entry. We’re all on surroundpodcasts.com. 

Erika Eitland: And special thanks to our advisory board: Mide Akinsade, Yanel de Angel, Patricia Forman, Casey Jones, Paul Kulig, Yehia Madkour, Angela Miller, Rachel Rose, Kimberly Seigel, Gautam Sundaram, and Stephanie Wolfgang. 

Inhabit Chorus: Uh, People first and foremost, Places, Power, Design, Change, Now. 

[Clean Cut” fizzles out. Corner Commons market fades in.] 

Lauren Neefe: A Perkins&Will podcast. 

[SURROUND mnemonic] 

Katie at Corner Commons: Oh, Tina’s making sales. OK. Get yo’ money. You know my favorite thing about Connor Commons is?  

Corner Commons Speaker 6: What is it, Katie?  

Katie at Corner Commons: [cackles] Honestly? Really and truly, the people. Because every time someone puts on an event over here, it’s absolutely amazing. The community comes together. So round of applause for Corner Commons for even thinking of doing something like this. Shout out to y’all. Y’all did an amazing job. Give it up for Corner Commons, y’all. Thank you to the team. [Sound fades out.] They’ve been here before us. They stay here after us…