Every day this month, I’ve biked from central Malmö to Alnarp, as small rural community just outside the city and the home of SLU, the university I’m currently doing an exchange at.

The bike ride takes about 45 minutes, and in this short distance, I pass through many distinct landscapes: neighbourhoods within Malmö itself, a highway interchange zone, industrial Ärlov, a bird reserve, and rural fields, all before getting to Alnarp.

Despite being within biking distance, because of all these landscape changes, Alnarp feels very, very far away from Malmö. And phenomenologically, it is. As I’ve explored before in past posts, distance matters less than feeling in determining how “far away” a place is.

Like the short ferry ride between downtown Toronto and Toronto Island, whenever a change in material reality is experienced, places seem very far away, no matter how far the distance.

And on my bike ride from Malmö to Alnarp, I experience many changes in material reality.

The city drops out, and then I peddle through the land of highway interchanges. The bike path weaves up, down and through bridges and overpasses, floats over the expressway and in between unkempt shrubs. At night, hundred of rabbits scurry between the vegetation, lending this landscape an even more ethereal quality.

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The land of highway interchanges

Then, there is the land of the sea – the bike path borders a bird reserve, and the horizon extends infinitely. The smell oscillates from the salty murkiness of the coastline to an almost candy-like scent from the nearby garbage processing plant. The matted grasslands and water channels, the hawks, ducks, geese and crows flying around – this is a wholly distinct material reality where my thoughts expand as my breath shortens to keep up with small inclines.

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The land of the sea

Finally there is the land of the fields.  Naked patches of deep black soil envelop the bike path, and linear bands of trees, bent in the wind add directionality to this change in material reality.

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The land of the fields

I arrive at Alnarp tired, dazed and feeling distant. Despite this being the distance of roughly the distance of Toronto’s Ferry Terminal to Davenport Rd  and Dufferin (still very much in the city, and a commute I made often last I lived in Toronto), the many changes of material reality make Alnarp very much a distinct place, and my life in Southern Sweden is characterized by inhabiting many places at once, despite occupying the footprint of a tiny portion of the City of Toronto.

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Map comparing distances in Toronto and Malmö – the red line represents my bike ride, and the short distance that takes me through so many changes in material reality. 

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If you follow me on twitter or instagram you’ll already know about my social media campaign #actuallyasea

Basically, we call Lake Ontario a lake, but I think doing so is an injustice to this massive, powerful, majestic body of water. As I’ve written over at Spacing Toronto, Lake Ontario is actually a sea. The way we talk about things says a lot about our relationship to them, and calling a body of water a lake serves to domesticate it, and dominate it.

A lake is something knowable and safe. Calm waters that you dip your feet in at the cottage.

A sea is a more appropriate word for what Lake Ontario is, and by calling it a sea, we can elevate the status of the waters in our minds and understanding Toronto as “a city by the sea”. We often call the Great Lakes, collectively, “inland seas”, but rarely give them the sea treatment individually. My campaign has mostly focused on Toronto because Lake Ontario is the sea I know best, and the campaign has to start somewhere!

Since writing that post on Spacing, the campaign has really taken off. Many friends and strangers have begun to tweet and instagram using the tag, and a growing body of photos and other documentation is charting the potential of understanding Lake Ontario as the Sea of Ontario (or Ontario Sea, if that floats your boat).

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An example of Instagram posts tagged #actuallyasea. Thank you to @theholygasp, @lindsayzv, @sammytangir, @am__eh and @studiojaywall for your contributions!

I’ve also been gathering more evidence to make the case that Lake Ontario is #actuallyasea, and am excited to provide an update on the campaign:

i. Toronto’s First Nations

In the original Spacing article, I failed to acknowledge Toronto’s First Nations history and their relationship to these massive bodies of water. As a white-settler geographer, it is my responsibility to acknowledge and centre First Nations histories as much as I can, and I apologize for this oversight.

In no way can I speak for the Wendat, Haudenosaunee, or Anishinaabe cultural view points, but many online resources have compiled interpretations of the Great Lakes from a First Nations perspective.

A resource I often use is the Decolonial Atlas. The blog has an entry called The Great Lakes in Ojibwe  that shares the Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe) names for the Great Lakes, as it “is the most-spoken indigenous language in the Great Lakes basin.”

The Great Lakes are known as Nayaano-nibimaang Gichigamiin, or, the Five Freshwater Seas. Lake Ontario is known in Anishinaabemowin as Niigaani-gichigami, or the Leading Sea.

I have also heard Gichigami translated as “big water”, “large sweet water”, but what matters is the languages’ distinction between bigger and smaller bodies of water.

Of course, there are many, many cultures and nations today and historically that lived in the Toronto and Great Lakes region, and Anishinaabemowin does not represent all these perspectives. I am striving to understand more about Toronto’s First Nations history and support (not co-opt) the voices of others, so please let me know if I have made any mistakes or oversights.

ii. The Caspian “Sea”

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One of the most contentious parts of the #actuallyasea campaign is that people can’t accept that there is no technical definition of a sea. As I mention in the post, the term sea is more cultural than scientific, and there is no hard and fast definition of lake vs sea. Despite that, most people are inclined to say “Lakes are freshwater, seas are salt water”, and dismiss the entire campaign as fanciful whimsy.

In the Spacing article, I cite the Sea of Galillee as the primary definition-jammer. Known as a sea, it’s technically a lake, and is a fraction of the size of Lake Ontario. Its sea-status makes this biblical body of water worthy of its myth and power.

I always knew that the Caspian Sea was also a potential definition-jammer, but I only recently confirmed that the large body of water between Europe and Asia is (according to Wikipedia) “variously classed” as the “world’s largest lake” of a “full fledged sea”. The Caspian Lake is #actuallyasea as much as the Great Lakes are! Though its salt water, it is a distinct body of water separate from the ocean, and thus could be interpreted as a lake. How confusing! Exactly! According to the fantastic instagram account, AMapADay, “the ancient inhabitants of its coast perceived the Caspian Sea as an ocean, probably because of its saltiness and large size”.

If Lake Caspian is #actuallyasea, and has been known as such for millennia, well then, it’s about time we call Lake Ontario the Sea of Ontario.

iii. The Swedish sjö

One of the things that really jumpstarted the #actuallyasea campaign was when I was showing a friend from Sweden around Toronto, and she kept referring to Lake Ontario as a sea. As I write in the Spacing article, “In Swedish, sjö refers to both lakes and seas, so she wasn’t technically wrong”.

As you may know, I’m currently living in Malmö, Sweden for the next five months – and it was only a matter of time I confirmed this confusion of terms.

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Vänern and Vättern, the Swedish sjös, and the Baltic Sea to the east

And yes, sjö does refer to both lakes and seas. Specifically, it refers to the two large bodies of water in southern Sweden surrounded by land, but is also the term used to describe the Baltic Sea. (It also turns out that sjö is pronounced completely differently than I had initially thought. Instead of syo, it’s more like hweh – how bout that.)

For some context, Vänern, one of the Swedish sjös is 5650 square kilomtres, and Lake Ontario is 19000 square kilomtres. Lake Ontario is most definitely #ActuallyaSjö

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Those are the updates for now – in the mean time, check back on the campaign as it continues to grow on social media, and contribute your own photos of how Lake Ontario is a sea by tagging #actuallyasea!

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I’m from Toronto – Grid City. I like a good orthogonal city plan. A city where North is up, South is down, and East and West, are, you guessed it, side to side.

Well, Toronto is not exactly a perfect grid. As Dylan Reid has explored on Spacing, Toronto is in fact a series of micro grids, stitched together, with some exceptions for topography that even the imperially-decreed gridded city plan couldn’t ignore. But that’s a fine detail, a technicality. The macro grid – the one that made up of Toronto’s major streets –  is based on a series of 2km-spaced concession lines, and it defines how the city is organized.

Growing up in Toronto, City of Grids, I think, is part of why I have such a keen sense of direction. People in Toronto, they use cardinal directions to direct people where they need to go. “Go north on Bathurst, then west on Eglinton” they’ll say, and it makes perfect sense. As a result, I have North permanently etched into my mind as essential to understand where I am.

Even when a city’s grid doesn’t match the cardinal directions, a perfect grid means that people use cardinal directions anyway. In Montreal, what people call North is in fact more North-West. In Guelph too. Rather than constantly say “go north-west, then south-west”, people have collectively adjusted the meaning of north in the local context.

Other cities – where the grids aren’t so reliable – aren’t like this. In Halifax, an otherwise perfect grid bends around the Citadel and Common. The grid dissolves into spaghetti as the straight elements (the roads), navigate rounded elements (the Common). As a result, people are more inclined to say “Go up Robie”, “Go down Agricola”, instead of cardinal orientation, and it just makes more sense.

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In Newfoundland, at least, according to my friends, directions are much more story-based than cardinal- based.  St. John’s is pretty loopy city, and the small downtown grid quickly dissolves to negotiate the city’s various hills and steep slopes. Here, instead of “Going north on Prescott Street”, directions are more based on stories, and landmarks. “Go past Rosie’s Convenience, and make a left”.

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As you may know, I am currently living in Malmö, Sweden, and will be exploring the Skåne region for the next five months.

Malmö is especially disorienting to me because, as this post’s title suggests, the city is almost a grid, but, it’s not quite a grid. Two streets that I think are parallel end up veering away from each other, and intersecting at other points, as the map below highlights.

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I’ve explored how different cities present different flavours of disorientation, and as kinds of disorientation go, this might be the toughest challenge so far. I’m so sure I know where I am, using my Toronto infused griddy-knowledge, only to be constantly lost, and going in the wrong direction. In almost making sense as a grid, but then not being a grid at all,  it has been a humbling, getting lost experience (and this is a good thing).

This posts title was inspired by The Almost Nearly Perfect Peoplea less than perfect exploration of Scandinavian culture by Michael Booth. 

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See also

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Ever since I moved to the island in the winter of 2014, I’ve been fascinated with its shifting and changing, a symbol of the instability of even human geographer. Originally a sand bar created from deposits of sediment at the Scarborough Bluffs and Don River, it initially changed shape with every season and storm, until it was infilled in the 1930s to its currently fixed form.

But Gibraltar Point, as I’ve explored on this blog and in my first post on Spacing Toronto, is the last bit of wild, shifting island. And it is eroding fast. The above GIF is a thirty year period, and if you look closely at the Island’s southwest, you can see the land slowly receding.

I wrote about the current situation in the Globe and Mail, and had the chance to speak with several island characters including Jimmy Jones who grew up on the Island when it was fully inhabited, Warren Hoselton, the head of Parks and Recreation for the Island, long-time visitor artist Shoshanah McKay, and Ethan Griesbach, a project manager with Toronto Region Conservation Authority. Read it here.

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In late October, Glo’erm and I put up a fake development proposal sign on the lawn of Old City Hall in Toronto. The proposal included a 90-storey residential tower, while the heritage building would be converted into a parking garage. At the bottom of the sign was a link to a website that featured several other, increasingly absurd, parody proposals.

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I guess pranking is still in style, because the stunt was covered by every local news outlet in Toronto, with many thinking it was real. The project struck a chord with a city anxious about how fast it is changing.

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Some of the comments on CityTV’s coverage of the story, ranging from outrage to… outrage

After articles in blogTO, the Toronto Star, Metro Toronto, and Canadian Art, and some hilarious TV news coverage where they created animations of the proposed buildings actually coming out of the existing structures,  I wrote about our motivations in the Globe and Mail. (We were initially anonymous, but decided to reveal ourselves to explain the ideas behind the project and keep the conversation going, not to mention some good press).

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The signs in the print edition of the Globe and Mail, October 29, 2016

As soon as the article was published, there was a vast amount of criticism regarding my position. One critic called it “NIMBYism dressed up as art”, despite my very clear stance that development is needed, but that doesn’t mean it has to be so extreme and uncontrolled. I do agree with most of the critiques, and my knowledge about the state of development in Toronto has expanded greatly from this experience.

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Basically, the reason we’re getting so much “hyper-density” in Toronto, is because of what is known as the Yellow Belt – huge swaths of Toronto zoned as Neighbourhoods, and protected from development that doesn’t meet the character of the area. This means that people can use the official plan to reject even gentle, mid-rise density from these neighbourhoods. With a rapidly growing population in Toronto, that density has to go somewhere – and its landing in neighbourhoods where there weren’t many previous residents to defend them, like along lower Yonge Street and Liberty Village. One planner described it as a stress ball: if you squeeze the ball, all the pressure has to go somewhere, and it’s popping up as a extremely high density in certain parts of the city.

I was able to express a more nuanced view in an interview with NOW magazine.

Inclusivity is important: Toronto has an affordable housing crisis, and its important to increase the supply of housing so that the city remains accessible to all. The development proposals we are critiquing are not the answer: they are not affordable, and their extreme heights do not contribute to a higher quality of life.

I stand by our initial critique of an opaque proposal process that leaves most Torontonians out of the decision making process. When you go to a public meeting regarding a development proposal, that meeting is only accessible to a certain segment of the population, who have the time and knowledge to be able to respond to a fully formed proposal that will probably be built. At those meetings, as critical urbanist Jay Pitter has said more than once, the most important question is who is not at those meetings, and why aren’t they there?

I love the way many European cities’ train stations are woven directly into the fabric of the streets.

I mused about this with regards to the ticket-free barrier to the platforms at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, and now that I’m a regular GO train user, can appreciate that Toronto’s Union Station has a similar system.

But what’s different about Union Station is that the platforms feel very cut off from the city. They are a space apart, separated by concrete gangways, claustrophobic staircases and glass doors.

Copenhagen’s Central Station is different: wide open staircases connect the platforms directly with the street, and there’s a seamless transition from station-space to city-space.

I think the benefits here are more intangible. There’s a feeling of accessibility to a train system that presents itself so openly at street level. It injects dignity to the potentially inhumane scale of rail infrastructure.

Looking forward to investigating more of northern Europe’s rail-street connections.

Exciting news, dear readers!

For the third time, your Urban Geographer has returned to Northern Europe in the wintertime for an extended period of travelling and exploring. I sure do love darkness and rainy cities (totally sincere)!

This time, my home base is Malmö, Sweden, where I’ll be doing a semester abroad for my Masters in Landscape Architecture at SLU in Alnarp (a little town just north of Malmö).

Malmö is just across the Oresdund strait from Copenhagen, and all day bus and train connections connect the two cities, effectively creating one economic region – many live in one city and work in the other.

I’m excited to get to be on the edge of Denmark’s largest city while getting to know Malmö, a city I know almost nothing about. As I explored long ago on this blog, second order cities are often more exciting to explore than their first order “global” counterparts. The lack of expectations means the city can be a more authentic version of itself, unlike the highly romanticized streets of central Paris, or New York.

I’m also excited to once again share my thoughts and observations on this blog. A lot has changed since I first began blogging at the Urban Geographer six years ago: the rise of social media and smart phones means that I have been sharing shorter thoughts via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. This blog is undeniably the perfect way to share certain kinds of ideas, especially exploratory and theoretical ones inspired by my travels. So, sorry for the hiatus, glad to be back! (I’m also cross posting these on Facebook, just so you know).

But back to the title of this post. The brick work I’m referring to is the many jaw-droppingly beautiful, yet simple brick structures throughout Copenhagen. The interlocking bricks create elegant patterns, and the geometric building material takes on a warm, organic feeling.

I saw buildings like these during my time in Amsterdam, and am coming to associate this kind of beautiful brick work with Northern Europe.

Enjoy these photos, and once I amass another collection, perhaps I’ll make a sequel to this post.

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto

Plan of York Surveyed and Drawn by Lieut. Phillpotts, Royal Engineers. Map courtesy Library and Archives Canada and accessed from http://oldtorontomaps.blogspot.ca/

While gazing over old maps of Toronto, I often long to experience the city before its landscape was so significantly altered. What was it like when the water went right up to Front Street, before infill extended the shoreline by almost a kilometre? How did the Lower Don River feel when it meandered into a vast marshland at its mouth, before it was straightened and channelized?

That’s why I was so excited to visit Long Point last week. A sandy peninsula protruding into Lake Erie, Long Point feels like going back in time to an earlier version of Toronto Island — when it was a wild, sandy and ever-changing spit still connected to the mainland.

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As Lake Erie shares Lake Ontario’s crumbly shoreline, Long Point is the result of almost the same geologic phenomenon that created Toronto Island — eroded sediment swept by the currents of the lake to create a sandy peninsula and protected bay. The most notable difference is size. While Toronto Island was originally a 9km spit, Long Point is about 40 km.

Unlike Toronto Island after 1858, Long Point is still connected to the mainland. It briefly enjoyed island status after a powerful storm in the 19th century severed a channel through its middle, but was reconnected when sediment washed back to fill the gap. The same would have probably happened in Toronto if there weren’t so much interest in maintaining the Eastern Gap, giving ships easy access to Toronto’s deep harbour and the markets beyond.

Long Point on Lake Erie. Image courtesy of canmaps.com

Beyond its tentative connection to the mainland, Long Point’s form has not been significantly altered by human activity. Whereas Toronto Island was largely fixed by depression era infill projects transforming its ever-changing fingers of sand and marsh into the archipelago of islands we know today, Long Point has maintained its fluid form as a constantly shifting (and hard to map) sand bar.

Compared to the few patches of forest along Toronto Island, Long Point is a vast wilderness. Designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, most of the peninsula is conserved explicitly by the Federal Government and Parks Ontario, and inadvertently by the Long Point Company, a private organization that has maintained the spit for hunting purposes since 1866, strictly limiting public access.

Walking along Long Point’s sandy beaches, you don’t even have to squint your eyes to imagine the feeling of Toronto before it was urbanized. An overgrown Carolinian forest hugs its sandy shore, and beyond the bay, where in Toronto a hulking skyline has emerged, there remains open water, marshland and sky. Port Rowan, tucked into the corner where Long Point meets the mainland has a population of about 1000 – the size of the similarly positioned town of York around 1812.

Long Point marshes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Toronto Bay, 1793 by Elizabeth Simcoe

Long Point boasts its own community stretching the first few kilometres of the peninsula, offering a living image of another era of Toronto Island’s history: when it was covered in cottages and fully serviced by hotels, grocery stores, laundromats and restaurants. Like Centre Island before its town centre was demolished by Metro Toronto in the 1950s and 60s, Long Point’s year round population of 450 swells to 5,000 in the summer.

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Many of the cottages that dot the peninsula are reminiscent of the homes that used to cover the Island and those that were saved at Ward’s and Algonquin Islands. Built right up to the beach, their plain geometry bespeaks the simple pleasures of living lakeside, where all you need is a place to rest your head before heading back to the beach. A few grander cottages evoke the summer homes of the wealthy that were built along Toronto Island’s Lakeshore Avenue.

Despite never having been to Long Point before last week, the feeling of familiarity and connection to Toronto Island was uncanny. Of course, Long Point and Toronto Island are distinct places with their own histories, and comparing them requires a a stretch of geographic imagination. However, a visit to the largely preserved landscape at Long Point offers a portal into the past, its equivalent in Toronto having been changed beyond recognition long ago.

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There are, perhaps, no streets more different in Guelph than Alice Street and Woodlawn Road.

On Alice, a jumble of brick houses have been built up to the edge of the street. Before the rise of big box, Alice Street was a hybrid residential-commercial thoroughfare and the heart of the Italian community with general stores and shoe shops in its reconfigured houses. Many of these shops have since turned back into houses, but have been forever distinguished by their past modifications. The effect is an incredibly unique streetscape, like I’ve never seen before, a street of houses with unique DIY renovations, where neighbours hang out on front porches, cars drive slow – the feeling of village and the height of urbanity.

Those aforementioned big box stores – well, they eventually ended up on Woodlawn Road, a street at the northern edge of the city and home to Guelph’s Wal-Mart, Home Depot and various other gigantic corporate retailers.

Woodlawn is a street no one loves but everyone must visit eventually. When I first moved to Guelph, I ended up there countless times, dreading my visits but in need of inexpensive home items only sold there. Woodlawn is the typical non-place at the edge of every city in North America – characterized by the bright signs of fast food restaurants and the complete rejection of walking as a mode of transportation. There are no public gathering spaces on Woodlawn.

It’s easy to love Alice Street. It’s not so easy to love Woodlawn.

So I mapped both, trying to extend my love of place in general to a place that’s hard to love.

And of course, Woodlawn isn’t a non-place, it’s a real place. By choosing to create an illustrated map of it, I’m trying to find its essence beneath the concrete and beyond the international corporate crust that has founds its way there. By mapping Woodlawn, I discovered unique businesses, residential hold-outs, beautiful groves of trees and desire lines criss-crossing its railways.

The map of Woodlawn is an invitation to explore the Woodlawn Road of your city.  Once you get out of your car and walk, it’s easy to find magic beyond the highways.

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My article exploring the decline (and reinvention) of Toronto’s convenience stores appeared in the May 21 edition of the Globe and Mail.

Because there’s no link to it, here’s a copy of the article downloaded from the newspaper’s digital-print edition.

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The article also beckoned my first letter to the editor! Happy they went easy on me, and interesting to hear convenience stores experienced decline much earlier than I thought. In a city, the only constant is change.

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As my last post explored, Southern Ontario’s physical geography is often ignored, and its landscape is often derided as being flat, monotonous and boring.

Disconnected to the subtle features of the landscape by 400-series superhighways, big box plazas and its relentless grid, its understandable that the infinite beauty of the land beneath the concrete would be, for the most part, forgotten.

Beyond the highways, Southern Ontario’s rich glacial soil has been sculpted into dramatic river valleys, cuestas, waterfalls and the rolling hills of drumlin fields by millennia of water movement.

My map (leading image) is an effort to re-assert the geologic features most prominent in these three very connected cities at the western end of Lake Ontario. Happy exploring!