Toronto's current building boom is intensifying this city in both traditional ways and new ones. The most obvious result is the buildings of all types that have replaced parking lots and smaller buildings, while new parkland has been the result in other areas. There's another type of space that has emerged though too, neither totally private like the buildings and fenced yards, nor completely public like open parkland, but something in between that is being referred to by the acronym POPS, or Privately Owned Publicly-Accessible Spaces in full. POPS are spaces that are operated and maintained by a private entity but which the public are allowed access to.

In November 2012, City Council approved Councillor Josh Matlow’s motion requesting a report which would identify all POPS in Toronto and which would develop a strategy to ensure these POPS include appropriate signage indicating they are accessible to the public. The City's Planning Department has now created draft guidelines to ensure these spaces are designed appropriately and to inform the public that they are welcome wherever POPS exist. On May 28 at City Hall, these guidelines were presented to interested members of the community and developers.

Councillor Josh Matlow of Ward 22 talks to the audience. Image by Marcus Mitanis, 05/28/2014.

As land becomes increasingly limited and expensive, the City has looked to developers to provide new open spaces, mainly through Section 37 and Site Plan Agreements. Since 2000, over one million square feet of new open space has been added to Toronto’s downtown as a result of the development process. The City’s own research indicated that despite the increase in the number of people living downtown, these new spaces are often underutilized. The public is generally unaware that these spaces are accessible to them, mainly due to a lack of signage that would exist if the space were operated by the City. Some spaces are also poorly designed and lack seating, leaving the public with the impression that they are unwelcome. Looking to New York and San Francisco which both require POPS to be clearly marked, the City of Toronto has begun identifying and labelling these spaces as well.

The City has also created a draft series of guidelines designed to ensure that the public is welcomed with appropriate seating, lighting, high quality materials and other associated design elements. These guidelines focus on the role that POPS should play in creating a network of open spaces, respecting natural and cultural heritage and animating the site through active uses and programs. The guidelines define the different open space types and include recommendations for each:

  • Courtyards: Emphasis on signage, accessibility and visibility. Trees and seating should be included.
  • Plazas: Edges along building entrances should be active to animate the space. Seating and sunlight should be major considerations.
  • Gardens: Should be an all-season space and include focal points such as fountains or art installations.
  • Walkways/Mid-Block Pedestrian Connections: Width should be at least four metres. The space should be well lit and include seating, art and plants.
  • Forecourts: Building entrance should be visible and clear of any impediments.
  • Landscaped Setbacks: May include art, patios or display areas. The space should be a seamless extension of the sidewalk.

The rose garden at the Four Seasons is an example of POPS. Image by Marcus Mitanis.

The guidelines also outline a broad set of principles that POPS should follow:

  • Pedestrian Comfort: Views of the sky and ample sunlight should be considered while minimizing wind.
  • Pedestrian Access and Circulation: Any changes in grade should remain accessible and pedestrian paths clearly defined.
  • Public Safety: The space should be visible from the street or other spaces. Lighting and durable materials are vital.
  • Active Edges (Building Entrances and Facades): Animation of the spaces with pedestrian activity is key.
  • Building Servicing: Pedestrian and vehicular paths should be distinct and open spaces located away from servicing.

 Finally, the guidelines include a list of elements that should be kept in mind when designing a POPS:

  • Seating
  • Public Art
  • Soft Landscaping
  • Paving
  • Lighting
  • Weather Protection
  • Other Amenities (bike racks, playgrounds, dog fountains)

An example of the current signage that will be used for future POPS. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Planning Department.

City Planning has identified about 400 plazas, pedestrian walkways and open spaces that may be considered POPS. These spaces will be further refined in order to apply appropriate signage to the sites. Although not mandatory, it is hoped the guidelines will inform the public about POPS while ensuring their design is welcoming for visitors.

The guidelines are expected to be discussed by the Planning and Growth Management Committee at their June 19th meeting. If approved by the Committee and then by City Council, City Planning will go through the process of negotiating with developers to design POPS according to the guidelines and place signage at current and future sites.  

An interactive map will display POPS throughout Toronto. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Planning Department.

Although not currently available online, the guidelines along with a map of current POPS will be introduced at the official website

Were you aware of the initiative underway to mark and introduce guidelines for POPS? What experiences have you had in Toronto's POPS? Comment below to to let us know.