Published on July 13, 2021
Our Chief Program Officer shares what she thinks makes a space great.
What makes a great public space? It’s a simple question, but also a personal one.
While many well-known public spaces are the built with the same values in mind — they’re accessible, inclusive, green, innovative and fun — if you ask someone about their own favourite space, you’ll probably hear about one they have a personal connection to. Maybe it’s somewhere they visit with their family, picnic with their friends, or go to spend a quiet hour reading. Either way, no two people’s answers will be exactly alike.
That’s why we were curious about the favourite spaces of some of the leaders in Canadian city-building. Which public spaces are meaningful to them, and why? What, to them, defines an essential public space?
We’re launching this series with Evergreen’s Chief Program Officer Orit Sarfaty. Orit provides oversight and direction to Evergreen Brick Works and Evergreen’s placemaking efforts across Canada. She’s also lead cultural and capital projects that activated public spaces, including Massey Hall, MOCA, DC’s National Mall and Chicago’s Millennium Park.
She spoke with us about her love of spaces that surprise and delight, the importance of co-design and participatory planning. These are some of her essential spaces.
“One thing that has become really important to me is giving any visitor to a space a sense of co-designing it. There are many ways you can do that — if you have moveable furniture, you’re saying to people that you trust them, that they can use elements of a space as they need to, and co-design it in that way.
A toy library can allow people to borrow toys to play with while they’re in the space. This can be community driven — I remember when I lived by Jean Sibelius Square, people would leave toys for the benefit of the rest of the neighbourhood, which was key for those of us living in apartments with no backyards.”
“I also love spaces that surprise and delight. When you turn a corner and find something you didn’t expect. In Montreal, at Mount Royal, the way the paths are designed you have to wind your way around, catching glimpses of the view as you climb.”
“Participatory planning is a very important part of a public space. It’s messier, it takes longer and it can be more expensive, but it’s how you can create a truly inclusive space.
I worked on a community plan in St. Catharines, where we spent days inside the city’s hockey arena waiting area, trying to understand the elements of the hockey subculture that could be replicated in other community gathering places. It turns out, it was easy access to washrooms, affordable food, open-ended play opportunities for kids and relaxing seating for tired parents.”
“A public space should support those coming to use it, while giving them the space to express themselves. I was a part of Seattle Center, where we encouraged community groups to hold their cultural festivals on public grounds. We supported them through the planning process, and they were able to share their event with the broader public.”
“I also appreciate when a space gives people an opportunity to try new things in public. I’ve encountered sidewalks embedded with steps that teach you how to mambo. If you do that next to a stranger, you both feel equally silly. Your guard is down. You’ve connected through this unexpected moment of lightness and made a connection with them.
You can see that in the Children’s Garden at the Brick Works — it has so many elements that encourage children and parents to engage in active, hands-on activities from climbing structures to water play features.”