A nice crowd was in attendance at the third "Café des z'architectes" at the lovely Maison d'architecture du Québec. About 50 people came out to hear - and contribute to - some different perspectives on the question of what is public space, to whom does it belong, and who enjoys the benefits of such spaces.
Cynthia of pouf! had the chance to share her views on these questions through the example of Parc Gallery, which at present is in a kind of public space limbo. Despite its 80-year history as a space made for the public, by the public, and despite its current, successful use as a green meeting place for a diverse community, the City has not yet reversed its decision of c. 2007 to privatize the land, a decision that was made with a view to permitting real estate development on this historic site.
Cynthia showed images of the park, historically and today, and argued that it is not only legal recognition that makes a space public; it is also what people choose to do, together, in and with a space.
|21 February at la Maison d'architecture du Québec|
The discussion that followed the five presentations circled around examples of European city spaces as idealized answers to the question of how to design and use public space; questions of who has the right to city space, and as so often happens, the homeless were discounted as not being part of the public who may enjoy parks and squares.
This is certainly not the opinion of pouf! We see the public realm, as Cynthia argued on Tuesday night, as constituting those spaces where one has the right to share in the use, and to debate the use, of space. A space where one privileged group decides for other, less privileged groups what may or may not happen, is not particularly public. Such a space is much closer to the definition of private space. So even though Square Viger was held up over and over again as an example of "failed" public space, in fact it is an excellent example of how the public defines and redefines the spaces at its disposal. Homeless individuals and their dogs occupied Charles Daudelin's sculpture, Agora, for years before being evicted in summer 2011. They made creative and practical use of a space that the city had virtually abandoned. See the work of Lindsay Cory, MA candidate, Concordia University, for more info.
Even if such appropriations make some people uncomfortable, they are a very clear reflection of the realities of the city, and the many different sorts of people who make up the city. Are we to hide such realities in pretty parks with perfectly functioning fountains? Are public parks only for business people on their lunch breaks, or families on weekends?
Despite the best efforts of the organizers and moderator Peter Fianu (and many audience members) the topic of the evening shifted from the public space to private space - condo developments, and spaces that look like public spaces but are in fact managed - aménagé - by private corporations, who can decide what does and doesn't happen there. And in that conversational shift, perhaps we saw the answer to the evening's central question.
If that is the case - that homeowners are the ones who profit from the "public" realm, among a few others - then it is all the more important that new and future homeowners in "District Griffin" and Les Bassins du nouveau havre choose to help fight for the continued freedom and flexibility of public space in Griffintown. Isabelle R. was at the MAQ on Tuesday night, and she did just that - speaking eloquently and passionately about Parc Gallery and her experience as a dog owner in the city. Bravo Isabelle!
Many thanks to Noémie Despland-Lichlert and Sophie Gironnay for inviting pouf! to participate, and to Alain Laforest and Sophie for making their excellent interventions throughout the evening. One thing is certain: if a public space is a space created in and through debate, discussion, even conflict, then the MAQ was such a space on Tuesday night. And we are all the better for it.