As problems go, I guess it’s not a bad problem to have.
Last week, we held a Community Speak where 100 resident leaders shared dinner and discussed the future of their community, KGO. The number of people not only engaged in building a thriving community in KGO, but also leading change initiatives, is ever increasing. So, you may ask, what exactly is the problem? In one word: space. There are so many people wanting to do good work and not enough space in which to do it.
What I have come to know, through participating in local organizing and by endless (and delightful) conversations with architects, planners and designers, is that inner suburban neighbourhoods are crying out for well-designed public space. It’s not just (as some of the place-based literature suggests) about alleviating the “broken window effect” which attributes a poorly maintained physical environment to feelings of powerlessness. Like the downtown core and small towns across the province, if residents of inner suburban neighbourhoods are to feel they are truly civically engaged, they need the spaces to be civically engaged in: spaces designed to be public.
It’s not unusual to hear long-time community organizers in KGO wistfully asking, “Remember the Morningside Mall?” The mall, though privately owned, was the ideal indoor local “public” space. It welcomed everyone, it had event space complete with tiered balconies, it came with opportunities to eat, walk around and spaces for quiet conversations. In the mall, there was an opportunity to gather, celebrate, plan and organize in large numbers in a space that was both casual and welcoming. But times change, and though the original owners continue to be strong neighbourhood supporters, the mall itself was torn down in 2007.
As a neighbourhood backbone organization, Storefront strives to “provide accessible sites for community members of all ages and cultures to find and share solutions they need to live healthy lives, find meaningful work, play and thrive” and we are certainly creative in doing so. Storefront works hard to find spaces for residents and we look to our partners like East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club, local churches, apartment buildings, schools (when the cost isn’t prohibitive), and more and more to local commercial establishments.
And then there is The Storefront’s own space. As most of you also know, The Storefront, housed in a 7200-square-foot old police station, has embarked on an ambitious capital campaign to expand the building. But times are tough and The Storefront has chosen to focus its energy on the increasing momentum for organizing and effecting change in the community – raising the 5 million dollars we need to expand has had to wait. Still, we do our best with the space. It is great space and the youth who designed it (through the Community.Design.Initiative) have made it truly welcoming for all kinds of activities. And we use every corner of it!
Community organizing is reaching an all-time-high in KGO. Hundreds of people are working to improve local physical, social, environmental and economic opportunities. It’s exciting and it’s invigorating! And if given the choice between lots of space and no engagement, or tons of engagement and lack of space, I’d pick the latter every time. Still, as we think about how inner suburban neighbourhoods of this city have become marginalized, I would like to keep the notion of public space in the forefront of the conversation and urge us all to think of the possibilities with our communities being designed so that people could gather together at will to be the change they want to see.
By: Anne Gloger, Director at the East Scarborough Storefront