Informal Publics

Text + Photos Victoria Beltrano

Like countless other major North American cities, Toronto has been shaped by a complex and evolving set of urban plans, formalized visions and regulations. However, in terms of its political, cultural and social production, the city is also transformed by people’s accumulated engagements with it. These activities can best be described as the informal publics of everyday life. Most often beyond designers’ intentions, these publics reveal less visible urban dynamics and serve a more fundamental role in what French sociologist and urban theorist Henri Lefebvre refers to as one’s “right to the city.”

The busy intersection of Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street in the heart of Chinatown West is no exception. Its public and semi-public realms have a history of being temporarily appropriated by street merchants, ranging from shopkeepers’ formalized sidewalk stalls to more controversial situations not legally sanctioned. Interesting ephemeral examples of the latter are the groups of elderly Asian sidewalk vendors. While the informal acts of these women may seem weak and marginal, they are in fact producing a relational public urban space created by people’s engagement with it, rather than defined by a permanent built form or presence.

The activities of the street vendors in Chinatown are unsanctioned, but for the most part tolerated. When authorities intervene, the women temporarily appropriate the private space of an adjacent vestibule or unattended lobby, placing themselves past the boundaries of public jurisdiction, thereby proving their tactical strength in relation to challenges of authority.

The vendors also appropriate “time” in the formal urban fabric. Their actions reveal untapped temporal use of urban space during sanctioned tenants’ off hours, as in the case of weekend spatial appropriations. Otherwise, underused or invisible surfaces such as ledges, thresholds and doorways are occupied, identifying and creatively expanding the ways in which these spaces are used at various times of the day, week or season.

Finally, through different actions–finding, claiming, bringing their wares to, and participating collectively in these spaces–the women place themselves in a position to see and be seen, seizing an otherwise untapped potential. Demonstrating resourcefulness and ingenuity, they appear to construct their adaptable micro-architectures out of local finds or discards and sell mostly wares that are seemingly homegrown (gourds and greens), made (lotus leaf-wrapped sticky rice) or found (used clothing).

Testing accepted spatial and temporal boundaries, these vendors collectively contribute to the production of a richer, more vibrant urban public. In a city voicing concerns about sanitization and privatization of our public realm, the design community can learn from such participants and their modes of operating. These resourceful, often discrete actions should remind designers that there are lessons to be learned from everyday spatial experts–those who find, actively engage and redesign urban space anew.

Victoria Ann Beltrano is currently studying the role of informal publics and urban social spatial appropriations at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture.