The Public and The Private: Spaces of Exclusion

An Essay by Kalina Nedelcheva

Audio Transcription

In the West, space is usually defined as belonging to someone who determines the parameters of access and expectations on etiquette, while also assuming maintenance responsibility. As such, spaces can be private, abandoned, on sale, or on lease; they can also be public or mixed-use. 1 The exact utility of these definitions is a consequence of 19th century industrial capitalism, which decisively separated the public and private spheres—the family unit (private) became increasingly detached from economic production and political decisions (public).2 For densely populated cities like Toronto, the availability of open and accessible spaces where citizens can congregate plays a major role in facilitating social interaction and cohesion. It also works to diminish the aforementioned divide. In her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban activist Jane Jacobs defines the perfect condition for this: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”3 Considering Toronto’s colonial history, as well as its present-day growing income inequality4 in the throes of gentrification and the free market, it becomes difficult to claim that the city’s infrastructure fits this model of inclusivity. In fact, it is moving away from it as Indigenous land claims continue to be ignored on the basis of Western practices of legitimization,5 while low-income people, youth, and artists move out of the city due to financial issues. In a diverse and multicultural metropolis, both private and public spaces become sites of exclusion.

Indigenous Nations, for whom such concepts as private and public do not exist, lived off the land in and around Tkaronto6 in harmony. All Peoples shared a territory under the Dish With One Spoon treaty. The agreement positions the land as shared but also autonomous—one will take but always leave enough for others, with care for the land to ensure its continued abundance and vitality for future generations. In stark contrast to how settlers negotiate borders and conquer land, the conditions in Tkaronto today are divergent from practices of sharing with care and respect for each other, for those who are different, and for nature. This began with the Toronto Purchase of 1787 between The Crown and The Mississaugas of the Credit. On this occasion, Deputy Surveyor-General John Collins acquired 250,880 acres of land from the Indigenous community in exchange for 10 shillings (this was roughly $60 CAD in value in 2010, but hardly that much in 1787), 2,000 gun flints, 24 brass kettles, 120 mirrors, 24 laced hats, a bale of flowered flannel, and 96 gallons of rum.7 Despite the difference in interpretation of what actually transpired, Douglas Laforme attempts to set the record straight in 2017: “our understanding in 1787 was that this land was to be made freely available to the settlers, that these ‘gifts’ will be given in perpetuity, and that no one, in fact, can own the earth.”8 Given the centering of the land and all it has to offer, as well as the absence of public and private distinctions within the context of Indigenous practices, Douglas Laforme’s account is perfectly sound.

In the late 18th century, when settlers occupied North America, the land transitioned from fluid and boundless to property, giving way to strict personal uses, as well as control over resources and accessibility. John Warkentin offers a visually descriptive account on this:

“Surveyors laid out the first grid plan for the town of York, as Toronto was called until 1834, on the lakefront just west of the Don River. As the city expanded westward, streets were surveyed as far as Yonge Street and beyond. Queen Street, called Lot Street until 1844, was the northern boundary of this early urban plan. To the north were large, privately owned estates called park lots that became farms and were later subdivided into urban lots.” 9

Originally, the areas east and west of the townsite were reserved for government and military uses, respectively. 10 As the city grew, the military reserve was gradually sold off in lots to retiring British officers and friends of the military command. Hence, the conditions of ownership, and by extension use and access, were defined by authorities and elites.

Observation of historic events and participation in the socio-political and economic discourses of the 21st century position change and revolution as strenuous processes that happen very slowly. The claim that both public and private spaces in Toronto are built for and still favor upper classes is not an outlandish one. Observing the lineage of ownership contextualizes the present-day purpose and etiquette of specific sites in the city, unpacking not only the family histories of private estates, but also public claims to land that are rooted in an invisible exclusionary mechanism. The case of Allan Gardens displays how the legacy of past owners informs its image and the conditions of its use today as a municipal park and conservatory maintained by Toronto Parks, Forestry, and Recreation Division. During the founding of York, Allan Gardens was part of Park Lot 5. The 100 acres of land was patented by Sir David William Smith—the first Surveyor General of Upper Canada—who capitalized on loose land regulations.11 In 1819, William Allan (Moss Park Estate) became the owner of Park Lot 512 and his son, George Allan, who grew up to be a lawyer and Toronto’s 11th mayor, inherited the property from his father in 1953. A few years later, Allan donated five acres to the Toronto Horticultural Society who utilized it as a private garden. Formed in 1834, the THS became an integral part of Toronto and was led by several Mayors and government officials who influenced its use and access. The Municipal Government of Toronto took charge of the gardens in 1864, allowing THS to maintain the space but only in return for making it publicly accessible. Later, in 1888, the City acquired the land fully due to THS’s financial difficulties. The park came to be known as Allan Gardens in 1901 and later expanded on two occasions.13 Focused on developing an upscale, aesthetically pleasing, and prosperous urban metropolis, the City seamlessly continued to insist on elitist values, which played a foundational role in Allan Gardens’ development. The first contradiction in the notion of public space arises from bylaws that gatekeep access by defining inappropriate behavior (which can be tied to cultural customs or economic conditions). The first contradiction in the notion of public space arises from bylaws that gatekeep access by defining inappropriate behavior (which can be tied to cultural customs or economic conditions). Volunteer community initiatives are often met with resistance by authorities who weaponize these regulations and, in effect, “stop people from making public space theirs.”14

The case of the homeless Torontonians and poverty activists who set up camp in Allan Gardens in 1999 illuminate another instance of active exclusion as urban tactic. The goal of the four-day protest was to establish “a safe park” where homeless people could stay without being harassed—be that by cops or the disapproving gaze of the wealthy. Instead of working to make public space inclusive and build substantial resources that can support low-income populations, the City ended the protest with a pre-dawn police raid. A group of students responded by holding a vigil in the park for a number of months. 13 These issues of inaccess continue today because “[this is] a city of socio-spatial polarization.”14 In a 2010 study, David Hulchanski examined the income change from 1970 to 2005 and determined that Toronto is divided into: “a city of an increasingly prosperous, predominantly white, high income population in the center; a shrinking city of both white and racialized middle class people in the outskirts; and an expanding city of the low income and racialized population in northeastern and northwestern neighborhoods of the city.“14 In practicing self-awareness in immediate surroundings and in examining the historic conditions from which these environments manifest in the first place, individuals form sophisticated understandings of the public space divide and the precarity of access. Through such discourses, issues of homelessness, racialized communities, and Indigenous rights 15become illuminated and unignorable. While elites have the foundational advantage of these spaces, organized communities have strength in number. Echoing the words of Jane Jacobs about the capabilities of cities, urban parks are public because citizens continuously insist that they are.14

Only through understanding how we are implicated in these contexts of cultural, socio-political, and economic struggle—whether it is through family lineage or use of the land—can we begin to take action and design the city to allow equal access. In his paper, Intercultural Public Spaces in Multicultural Toronto, Michail Galanakis argues that interculturalism (as opposed to multiculturalism) can provide lucrative ground in exploring the possibilities of coexisting peacefully with one another. At its core, interculturalism stakes claims to the right to difference and the right to the city—the former being about “recognizing the legitimacy and specific needs of minority or subaltern cultures'' and the latter about “the right to presence, to occupy public space, and to participate as an equal in public affairs” (Henri Lefebvre, Sandercock and Attili (2009: 219-220)).14 As such, interculturalism demands critical attention to the existing relations between different citizen groups, as well as their connection to the City and its expectations. In contrast, multiculturalism is more concerned with aesthetic presentations of inclusivity. Interculturalism responds with kindness to difference, but it is also rooted in learning about other cultures and adjusting social habits in public spaces to facilitate coexistence in productive ways. In other words, such practices for social cohesion zoom out of individual interests, which are at the core of ownership, to expand into collective prosperity. The onus here falls on recognizing privilege and addressing it; it also stresses organizing as citizens to demand equal access and participation in the design, management, and maintenance of public spaces for all. Only then can we truly foster social cohesion and move toward building a better future.

Works Cited

1Mixed-use projects may include any combination of housing, office, retail, medical, recreational, commercial or industrial components.That is, they are considered to be a balance of public and private space.
2Rosenberg, Elissa. “Public and Private: Rereading Jane Jacobs.” Landscape Journal , vol. 13, no. 2, 1994, pp. 139–144.
3Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Vintage Books, 1992.
4Hagan, Shelly. “Income Gap in Canada Widening at 'Dramatic' Pace, CIBC Says.” Financial Post, Financial Post, 19 Jan. 2021,
5The despite between The City and Indigenous communities about Snake Mound and High Park's burrial grounds is an instence where The City sought to legitimize claims based on Western methods.
6The Mohawk word for ‘Toronto’; it means: “the place in the water where the trees are standing”
7P., John. “Remembering the Toronto Purchase and Its Settlement: June 8: Snapshots in History.” Local History & Genealogy, Toronto Public Library , 10 June 2018.
8Laforme , Douglas. “What Could Canada Have Been If the Treaty Process Was Fair?” Torontoist, 7 June 2017.
9Warkentin, John, et al. Creating Memory: A Guide to Outdoor Public Sculpture in Toronto. Becker Associates in Association with the City Institute at York University, 2010. p.50
10Heritage Preservation Services . 2016, Heritage Property Research and Evaluation Report,
11S. R. Mealing, “SMITH, Sir DAVID WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–.
12Lundell, L. (1997). The Estates of Old Toronto. Erin, Ont.: Boston Mills Press. p.56
13Please refer to the info page on Allan Park.
14Galanakis , Michael. “Intercultural Public Spaces in Multicultural Toronto.” Canadian Journal of Urban Research, vol. 22, no. 3, June 2013, pp. 67–89.
15Not within the parameters of this short analysis, but please refer to High Park.

Kalina Nedelcheva is a multi-disciplinary artist, writer, editor, and emerging curator who is based in Toronto, Ontario. Currently a graduate student in the Criticism and Curatorial Practice program at OCAD University, Kalina is interested in methods of unlearning and critical theory. Her drawings have been shown in numerous exhibitions, while her self-published zines explore philosophy and disruption of media. Her work has also been published in publications like Peripheral Review, Sidedoor Magazine, BUST, Spring! Magazine, and more.