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Public parks are public land

Is one’s ‘right’ to not be exposed to tents in parks as important as another’s right to safety, community, or shelter?

Economic CrisisHuman Rights

Toronto’s Alexandra Park became a safe haven for residents experiencing homelessness amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Toronto Police cleared an encampment in the park on July 20. Photo by Michael Swan/Flickr.

[We’re] trying to help the people experiencing homelessness by putting them in a place where they can get more supports, and also establish the principle that public parks are not places people can legally, safely or in a healthy way live and that everybody is entitled to the use of those parks.
—Toronto Mayor John Tory, press briefing, July 21, 2021

On June 12, the City of Toronto posted notices around the various homeless tent encampments that had become centres of community over the last year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic. Placed at Trinity Bellwoods Park, Moss Park, Lamport Stadium, and Alexandra Park, the announcements informed residents they could either leave voluntarily, or that police would evict them forcibly. The unhoused denizens would be allowed to pack two bags of their belongings while the rest of their things would be moved to a “facility” from which they could later retrieve them. Residents would then either be directed to a respite site, or a city-run shelter.

These evictions have been violent. The most recent one, on July 20, resulted in tents and belongings being destroyed and thrown around (or away) while hundreds of police and private security guards kettled activists, arresting them one by one. Encampment support volunteers, which included journalists, mental health workers, and harm reduction professionals, were concussed, pepper sprayed, and beaten.

The evictions have been ushered in with a sense of urgency, scattering unhoused residents across the city. To add insult to injury, just days later, Alexandra Park became the site of a private film set.

The rapid conversion of these public spaces, from a site of refuge for the most vulnerable into a private rental area, is sadly predictable. Public spaces, and especially parks, will always be vulnerable to state violence and the forces of privatization.

The given defense of encampment evictions

Public spaces are inherently contentious in a liberal capitalist state like Canada. This country is (or is founded on the principles of being) a liberal state. The most basic tenets of liberalism are individual freedom, individualism over collectivism, and tolerance, applied equally across all rational individuals. One of the biggest challenges liberal states face, then, is the fact of competing and reasonable needs which arise out of the reality of collective, shared, and diverse life.

This is a thorny field to navigate with respect to public space, particularly public parks—areas where diversity is generally most visible, where one cannot help but encounter a high level of interference from others, and where individuals often have competing needs.

In other words, the problem is: what happens when there are competing needs? How does the state go about deciding what the compromise looks like?

We can see this question being answered right in front of us. Toronto politicians are using the idea that the encampments need to go because their presence infringes on the “rights” of others to use public spaces. This is what Mayor John Tory meant in his most recent press release, when he said that the encampments must be cleared because “everybody is entitled to the use of those parks.” This means that the very presence of the encampments are infringing on other people’s “right” to the park.

But this is a weak argument. Even using rights based, liberal reasoning, certainly the positive right to a home during a pandemic is more urgent than one’s negative right to be unencumbered by whatever they deem to be uncomfortable or unpleasant about an encampment in a public park. After all, liberalism is supposed to value rational needs. Establishing an encampment for shelter and community during a housing crisis and a global pandemic is certainly a rational response to a need the state has not just habitually failed to meet, but consistently votes against acting on.

So is it true that police, at the behest of municipal authorities, clear the encampments because they are wanting to make sure the parks are for everyone? I think not. It’s worth further noting, too, that renting out the space to a private corporation limits general community access to the park more than any number of encampment residents could.

Is one’s “right” to not be exposed to tents in parks as important as another’s right to a community, to safety, to being able to sleep at night without being exposed to COVID-19 in a shelter? Of course not. The only line of reasoning that could uphold such a ridiculous argument is one that places profit over people.

The clearing of encampments has nothing to do with community safety, park aesthetics, or user-friendliness—it has everything to do with maintaining control over land and ensuring capitalist access to it.

Public spaces are contentious spaces

Access to public spaces has been at the forefront of discourse throughout the pandemic. In Ontario, playgrounds and sports amenities were restricted, a move that both public health officials and land use experts decried as a poor decision, both because the virus was unlikely to spread outdoors, and because restricting such access would disproportionately impact those living in lower income, racialized, or more densely populated areas.

However, long before the pandemic, there had been a steady trend across Canada of public spaces being restricted through surveillance, policing, or in Toronto, semi-privatization and the rise of “Privately-Owned Publicly Accessible Spaces” (called POPS). There is also the common design practice of structurally manipulating public spaces through the installation of “hostile architecture” to deter behaviour like skateboarding, loitering, or sleeping on benches.

A bar structure on top of a vent outside Toronto General Hospital before an uproar prompted its removal.

There are also implicit, embedded “proper” uses of public spaces. Certain uses are deemed acceptable because they fit more naturally within the status quo of legitimate activities. Sleeping in public parks is viewed as inappropriate, but conducting a yoga class, or slacklining, is perfectly fine. The sound of raucous conversation coming from encampments is frowned upon, yet an outdoor, multi-evening Shakespeare play is not seen as disruptive. What is allowed and what is not is heavily coded by class, race, and gender. Heightened evictions, surveillance and policing are efforts at homogenizing public spaces (and therefore, superficially reducing what the liberal state sees as conflict).

Public parks are also one of the few spaces left within capitalist society where one does not need to purchase something to be there. It should not surprise us that the City of Toronto moved quickly to rent out Alexandra Park to a private film company, or that privatized “semi-public” spaces are being promoted by the city as the future of public space. After all, privately owned public spaces don’t have to deal with people sleeping in tents, because individuals or unaccountable profit-seeking entities have total control over what happens in those spaces. Those “public spaces” have become “private property,” that hallowed liberal category the state points towards anytime it needs to defend its own violence.

There are many reasons encampment residents have given for wanting to stay in their tents: city shelters are common sites of violent assault or theft, they are unhygienic, and lack any semblance of privacy. City shelters are also state institutions: they resemble prisons, or hospital wards, towards which many people experiencing homelessness have traumatic relationships. There is the additional fact that 38 percent of those experiencing homelessness in Toronto are Indigenous persons. Removing them from encampments and pushing them into state institutions demonstrates an ongoing commitment to acts of colonial violence. Public space and public parks are land. In Canada, land is the resource that has enabled the settler state to maintain control. Controlling access to land and ensuring only particular activities are allowed on it is an explicit exercise of colonial power.

The political imaginary of public parks

For figures like John Tory, public parks exist in the political imaginary as apolitical social fodder; they are a nice thing to have around, and they can be a convenient place to stretch one’s legs, read a book, or maybe watch the kids run around the splash pad. This is the image of a public space as a sterilized arena of homogenous upward mobility.

What’s more, this notion of public spaces is a fairy tale constructed by and for the capitalist liberal settler state. Contained within this ideation is a tension that is always bubbling up and over in conflicts around the use of public spaces, and as a result, we see them being privatized and policed, sometimes violently. Public spaces are public land—meaning, they are land that is owned by everyone, and land that people ought to be able to use as needed, when needed. Public parks, in particular, contain many possibilities for what they can become. They can be spaces of collective, radical, and transformative action; they can be spaces of socialization, of leisure, of political organization. And, perhaps most poignantly, they can be a home.

Mary King is a writer, activist, and artist based in Toronto. She holds an MA in philosophy, and her thesis was on the disappearance of public space in cities. Her fiction can be read in Grain Magazine, filling Station (forthcoming), and her poetry can be read in The Sunday Night Bombers.


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