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Cross-posted on Spacing Toronto, and co-written with Brendan Stewart 
Note: this article was written in the summer of 2019, and is reflection on WexPOPS, the pilot project of plazaPOPS, a high-impact, low-cost and community lead approach to enhancing strip mall landscapes in Toronto’s inner suburbs. plazaPOPS emerged from my thesis research while working toward a Masters of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph.  You can read my thesis here

WexPOPS is a pilot of the plazaPOPS project, an initiative spearheaded by Daniel Rotsztain, aka The Urban Geographer, and Brendan Stewart (OALA, CAHP), professor of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, and former Associate at ERA Architects.


In an interview supporting his recent book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can help fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg points to an idea that many urbanists take for granted, but that the general public may not: “[T]he social life we experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a context for it. It can be supported or undermined by the places where we spend time.” In other words, there is a relationship between the design of our physical environment, and the social life it enables, or not.

Klinenberg urges his readers to think about the types of places that foster connections and relationships between people and that build strong communities not as nice to haves, but rather as an essential infrastructure that buttresses the foundations of democracy, inoculating society from many of the challenges that define our current moment. He argues that “social infrastructure” will only become more critical as communities are forced to adapt to the challenges associated with climate change.

Closer to home, the Evergreen Foundation’s Towards a Civic Commons Strategy proposes a similar vision for “a network of public places and facilities that enable communities to learn, celebrate, express collective actions, collaborate and flourish, together.”

Inspired in part by these ideas, we’ve been working for over a year on an experiment to test the potential of creating a type of civic commons/social infrastructure within the ubiquitous strip mall parking lots that define the main streets of post-war neighbourhoods across the country, and which are home to millions of Canadians.

Open from July 5th to August 17th at the iconic Wexford Plaza at Lawrence Avenue East and Warden Avenue in Scarborough, WexPOPS is the result of more than a year of community consultations, planning and design work, and a collaboration involving 19 Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) students from the University of Guelph, graduate business and planning students from the University of Toronto’s Rotman CityLAB fellowship program, a 15-member local working group, and a partnership with the Wexford Heights BIA.

The City of Toronto’s Public Realm Unit, Scarborough Arts, the TRCA, the Arab Community Centre of TorontoMural Roots, the Working Women Community Centre and a number of local businesses who supported the initiative in various ways, including the Kirakou family, who own the Wexford Restaurant and the entire plaza and generously hosted the project.

Funded by Parks People’s Public Space Incubator Grant, generously supported by Ken and Eti Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation, as well as the City of Toronto’s BIA Kickstarter Fund, WexPOPS proposes a big idea: to test the viability of exchanging parking spots for a community gathering space all on private commercial property. It’s a new take on POPS — privately owned public space — and experiments with the city building potential that commercial business owners can exercise by enhancing community life in the neighbourhoods they serve. Hopefully, they’ll also seeing an uptick in business.

Similar strip malls are found throughout Toronto’s inner suburbs and in post-war neighbourhoods all over Ontario and Canada. In many cases, especially in Toronto, the retail remains vibrant and local, serving as important settings for community life, and features numerous restaurants and shops serving food and offering goods from all over the world. The Wexford Heights BIA, a two-kilometre strip running between Victoria Park and Birchmount along Lawrence Avenue East, features over 60 restaurants, and has been celebrated by food columnists as a major dining destination.

The project grew out of Daniel’s fascination with the strip malls he frequented in his youth, culminating in his 2018 MLA thesis at University of Guelph, which was overseen by Dr. Karen Landman and Brendan Stewart. It builds on Daniel’s work as an artist, examining the setting of Toronto’s public life, including All the Libraries Toronto, his documentation of all 100 public library branches in the city, as well as a recent residency at Yorkdale Mall that asserted the centrality of private shopping centres in Toronto’s social geography.

WexPOPS also builds on Brendan’s citizen engagement Tower Renewal work with ERA Architects, including parking lot to community space conversion projects at the East Scarborough Storefront (2010 – 2015) and Ridgeway Community Courts (2015-2017) in Mississauga.

The final design of WexPOPS features a series of modular planters, benches, tables and umbrellas, all clad in marine plywood and trimmed in cedar. Occupying ten parking spaces, the installation creates a comfortable and sheltered ‘room’ in the middle of the parking lot, and frames dynamic views of the strip mall behind. The carpentry was done by Guelph-based Ben O’Hara Design, and all of the components were designed as modules that could be re-configured into different arrangements to suit various future site conditions, and also to flat-pack for easy assembly and storage.

Six design concepts for the project were developed through a series of community workshops by student teams in a graduate community design studio at the U of G this past winter, and the ideas most favoured by the working group and a wider online engagement were incorporated into the final design. For example, one student team developed the colour scheme for the project, which includes vibrant red, orange and yellow and was inspired by the spice markets of the Middle East. Another student team proposed a space of lush and immersive greenery, an idea that resonated in the community and which dominates the final design.

In all, WexPOPS features over 500 plants, which are planted in colour-coded pots: red denoting native perennial wildflowers and grasses, orange for annuals, and yellow for edibles. The pots were created from salvaged recycling pails from the university, and were painted and drilled for drainage. The annuals and edibles were grown in campus greenhouses and donated to the project. All of the native plants, grown by Native Plants in Claremont, will be donated to the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, to be planted in a local stretch of the Meadoway this fall.

Twelve local youth from an after-school program run from the Arab Community Centre of Toronto across the street have been hired as site supervisors, stewarding the site through daily watering, waste management and other set-up tasks.

At night, LED lighting within the benches creates a welcoming atmosphere, and the illuminated strip mall signage creates a dynamic backdrop. During several evenings this summer, including an upcoming event on August 17th, the WexPOPS stage (with a mural designed by Echo Railton and painted by community volunteers) offers music and dance performances by local artists, co-curated by Scarborough Arts as well as urban ecology workshops lead by the TRCA.

WexPOPS is meant to be a hub of social activity for the local community, but also to attract visitors from beyond — a desire articulated by our working group, whose members wanted to `put Wexford on the map.’ The space features a neighbourhood business directory which encourages people to patronize the local restaurants and businesses (and eat takeout in the space), as well as a ‘dot map,’ which prompts visitors to place a sticker on a map showing where they live. This data will help the team evaluate the impact and reach of the project. The signs were donated in kind by CAS Signs Company, a printer located in Wexford Plaza a few stores down from WexPOPS. The ‘Wexford Wish Tree,’ inspired by the shape of the sumac and CNC milled by local AC Waterjet, poses a different question every two weeks and invites visitors to write their answers on a horticultural tag and tie them to the tree for others to read.

WexPOPS may be popping down after August 18, but the proof of concept has already inspired many to reconsider the potential of privately-owned strip mall parking lots as community gathering places, including, perhaps most importantly, the Kirakou family — the property owners and our project hosts. To more concretely determine the project’s impact, the plazaPOPS team is conducting a public life study, modeled on methodologies pioneered by Denmark’s Gehl Architects. We are also studying the impact on parking and local business activity. The Rotman students, guided by Prof. Rafael Gomez, prepared a background study that informed the research design.

Project findings will be published later this year in an exit report, but already, many working in the urban design, community arts, and economic development sectors have noted the potential for applying the plazaPOPS concept beyond Wexford Heights, understanding the value of creating space to support the social life of communities in strip malls across Toronto, Ontario, and Canada.

photos courtesy of Rotsztain and Stewart


More information about the project and its design and planning process are available at www.plazaPOPS.ca and via twitter and Instagram at @plaza_pops. You can reach the team at plazapops@gmail.com.

IMG_8582.JPGWith all the euphoria that spring day, it was hard to choose the perfect spot to watch the Raptors victory parade.

Everywhere along the route, unprecedented crowds gathered along Toronto’s downtown streets to witness the spectacle of a winning team celebrating their victory for Toronto — a city where it feels like no one ever wins.

You could have joined the crowds gathering at Nathan Phillips Square – already thick by mid-morning. You could have huddled with the spectators along both sides of University Avenue, where finally, our boulevard of grand, celebratory proportions would be used to host a jubilant mass of joyful Torontonians.

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IMG_8578.JPGBut the best part of the Raptors winning the NBA championship was that it had nothing to do with nostalgia. The multicultural and decentralized fanbase crystallized the identity of today’s Toronto, representing a final departure from the hockey sticks, maple syrup, whiteness and wilderness of Canada’s imagined identity. It firmly asserted the existence of what actually defines our lives in Canada, a country of immigrants, where soccer, cricket and basketball are quickly superseding hockey, and where 80% of the population lives not in pristine nature, but the suburbs.

With its decentralized fanbase, the Raptors championship helped assert the public identity of the more suburban corners of the GTA. In parts of GTA we don’t associate with public life – like Brampton, Ajax, and Mississauga – central squares filled up for a communal experience and face to face interactions. With every victory, impromptu parties in strip mall parking lots were stirred up by cars’ celebratory honks as they zoomed along the 6-lane arterials of the inner suburbs.

Though the parade route was planned for downtown Toronto, it would have made just as much sense if it were up Hurontario and into Celebration Square in Mississauga, or along the 401, through Albert Campbell Square, and up the steps into Scarborough Town Centre.

And so, the best place to watch the Raptors parade was not in Nathan Phillips Square or University Avenue, beside the institutional symbols of old Toronto, but down by York and Harbour Streets, nestled between the shiny new condo towers in SouthCore, a neighbourhood that most clearly symbolizes the Toronto of 2019.

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IMG_8469.JPGAs crowds gathered under the Gardiner Expressway, condo balconies slowly fill up with onlookers, new vantage points of a city recently verticalized. From the many uncompleted condos, construction crews watched from scaffolding high in the sky – our very own Lunch atop a Skyscraper. As we waited… and waited, and waited… cheers echoed from under the highway and against the condo glass, a kind of welcoming embrace for these new icons of Toronto’s skyline.

IMG_8562.JPGOne of the best parts of the Raptors playoff run was how it transformed Torontonians relationship to public space, even before the parade. While the Raptors got ever closer to the championship, the sidewalks became extensions of the bars where massive crowds gathered to watch the games together.

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IMG_8569.JPGDuring the parade, typically mild-mannered Torontonians climbed every climbable thing — bus shelters, street polls, scaffolding. Every accessible surface, grass patch and ledge were claimed as public space and filled with eager onlookers. Anonymous spaces became bona fide places: families with young children gravitated to the parking garages by York and Harbour Streets where kids’ sidewalk-chalk covered the highway-like thoroughfare usually hostile to any sort of lingering, let alone play. Banal skyscrapers lining the streets of the Financial District came to life as their occupants pressed against glass windows on every floor to take in the view of the streets filling with revellers.

IMG_8457.JPGWhile I wish so many people would turn out for something that mattered a bit more — a fraction of the people turned up for the climate marches in September — there were indeed political undertones to the day, most notably, the booing of Premier Ford from the GTA crowds who should be his main constituents, bringing politics and sports together in ways it usually resists.

We learnt a lot about ourselves during the Raptors’ 2019 championship run. As the team gets ready to open the 2019/2020 season, the hype now gracing the them will ensure that Toronto’s identity will continue to embrace to the farthest reaches of the region. And after climbing so many bus shelters and ledges, sidewalk chalking roads, and sharing space in jubilation, I hope that Torontonians continue to be emboldened to take joy in occupying our public spaces in everyday life, for sports, and for protests about the things that matter most.