Archives for category: fantasy geography

I support new phone apps like Drift, that encourage people to get lost in their own city.

In the tradition of the Situationists and psychogeography, smartphone apps like Drift give you random sets of vague directions to follow along city streets that you may be way-to-familiar-and-perhaps?-bored with, allowing you to perhaps re-find the wonder and fantastical nature of reality in your mundane-due-to-routine caused-by the superstructure life.

My friend Rachel puts it well on the Pop Up City.

Losing yourself in your city with a smartphone directly references the Situationists in 1960s Paris, who would use maps of London to negotiate the streets — and is a pretty lovely activity.

It’s also a great subversion of technology that makes it very hard to be lost these days. Laptops and smartphones, with their internet maps and GPS are constantly there to remind you where you are, and how to get here or there. Knowing where you are all the time makes you feel dull, unpracticed in the business of figuring things out on your own — it makes it hard to feel that rush of being lost, the heightened senses of personal reorientation and calibration between you and your eyes and stomach and heart’s orientation to space and the world. It’s about using the technology that puts you in a malaise to get out of your malaise.

Trying to find directions to brunch tomorrow from our hotel in downtown Portland, I discovered a neat little psychgeographic game that I just might try one day, and would like to share with you.

I call it google-drift. And it’s easy to play.

Step one:

STEP 1 >> On google maps, find walking directions from wherever you are to somewhere you need or want to get to: perhaps as close as the falafel shop down the street.

STEP 2 >> Along the blue line that will appear as your route, drag the points randomly all over the map: this can be as close or as far away from the intended starting point and destination as you wish: it’s up to you to calibrate the game to match your walking mood.

STEP 3 >> Repeat step 2 until you get a loopedy loop, non-sensical, backwards and forwards kind of route.

STEP 4 >> Print the route.

STEP 5 >> Follow the directions to a tee.

STEP 6 >> Enjoy the non-sensical nature of your walk, look up, and find things you never have before.

Your Urban Geographer has recently uprooted himself, again, and has moved back to his stomping-grounds of last-summer, Halifax, for — at least — another summer.

Coming back to Halifax doesn’t just mean I have to get re-aqcquainted with the peninsular city-proper — for, as you read my begrudging description from last summer — Halifax is part of the greater Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), an crazy-big political entity spanning 5,491 km² (compared to Toronto’s 630km²).  As I explained last year, while there is definitely a need for regional governance, it should not replace the local. The HRM has lumped together downtown Halifax, it’s surrounding suburbs, and extremely remote rural and fishing villages that have little connections to Halifax, yet are governed by the same council.

The very large HRM — dense peninsular Halifax is barely visible on the above map in a bay near it’s south-western edge.

Yes, coming back to Halifax, it’s about time I was re-acquainted with the HRM.

And this summer, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be getting to know it in a very meaningful and thorough way.

In response to the positive elements of such a large political entity, the networks of communications that have inevitably emerged between Halifax and it’s surrounding communities, and the Halifax Regional Municipal Planning Strategy (RMPS), which outlined targets for smart growth, the Ecology Action Centre’s Built Environment Team (specifically, the wonderful Jen Powley) has established the Our HRM Alliance.

Unsurprisingly, given the pattern of politics in Halifax and environs, much of the development since the establishment of the RMPS has been anything but sustainable. Sprawl and thoughtless car-centric growth — large private homes, business parks, and shopping malls built over formerly undeveloped land — continue to define the growth of the HRM and the actions of very powerful developers.

And that’s where Our HRM Alliance plays an important role — acting as a watch-dog of HRM development and giving people a platform to mobilize on issues of growth and sustainability.

The Our HRM greenbelting strategy

As Jen Powley’s assistant, I will be helping her combat the desires of non-progressive developers as the thoughtful of HRM try their hardest to hold back the loose and undisciplined tentacles of sprawl that continue to spill out of Halifax. I will be getting to know these areas, hopefully visiting them, and will be attending many-a-urban planners’ meetings, public consultations, and mayoral candidate panels.

Helping Jen the last few days has lead my imagination to picturing a Halifax that had a chance to be better designed.

HRM’s population is 390 000 people, but spread over a density of 10.4 persons/hectare (compared with London’s 49 and New York City’s 104.3). Imagine HRM’s population with a greater density. Imagine if the patterns of growth of peninsular Halifax spilt out over the arm and into Sackville, Fairview, Bedford. Imagine if the density of Dartmouth was not stunted by narrow minded developers and it continued to build a city in its immediate surrounding areas. Imagine if Halifax’s streets were as endless as Toronto’s — streets like Manning and Palmerston that extend infinitely north of Queen — and interesting, dense, messy urban blocks spread throughout the area, beckoning exploration, fostering rich communities.

Imagine that the previously independent small towns of the HRM bled more gracefully into each other, rather than the cut and dry dramatic intervals of hostile suburban sprawl that are now in between them.

This line of thought lead me to thoughts of reclaiming the Mackay bridge from the exclusive use of cars. This bridge is beautiful, but deplorable. A glorified highway in the sky, it terminates on the Dartmouth side at a highway exit, an impossible environment for a pedestrian. What if we were to extend residential and commercial out and over the bridge, serviced by pipes and wires dangling high above the narrows? It would be whimsical, reminiscent of the Parisian residential bridges of the 19th century — and so symbolic of a movement of smart, thoughtful growth.  An urban geographer can dream… can’t he ?

Most North American cities have the same post-industrial elements: immense tracts of industrial wasteland, highways, designated green spaces and those middle-spaces along train tracks, on the sides of ravines, beside highways, that are extremely lush, green, and wild but are not officially parks.

These liminal green spaces, not quite full parks, yet too big to just be borders between one part of the city and another, are fascinating to walk through, and using them as a link between urban neighbourhoods, industrial fringe-lands and official parks offers a simulating terrain for hiking. These areas are the epitome of post-industrial urban wilderness. Negotiating thick bush of wild weeds and trees, scaling desolate highway-scapes, climbing over fences and above blasted granite rock walls — these are the spots that urban-nature reveals itself and beckons its exploration.

I highly encourage a post-industrial city-hike to shift your perspective on the very attainable feeling of isolation and solitude, today exclusively associated with “untouched wilderness”, that exists in our urban environments. Though there are no official routes or paths, years of desire lines and natural paths make navigation intuitive, as your eyes follow the natural contours of the land, identifying paths that have been fostered by uncountable individuals in the past lead to wide and navigable routes through otherwise thick brush and hard steel and chain link fences.

I took an urban-nature industrial city-hike the other day with my brother. If you’re in Halifax, I highly recommend this route: follow Barrington north all the way to Seaview Park/Africville — veer toward the harbour and Mackay Bridge. Pause. Take in the splendour of the spectacular bridge as it stretches beyond conceivable perspective into the distance toward Dartmouth. Follow the coast negotiating natural paths, weeds, and rock faces until Seaview Park. Watch the dogs and the people interact. Catch a glimpse of the Bedford Basin — completely polluted, yet beautiful. Jump the north fence of Seaview park — run across the raging highway — hope and skip over the median, over changing car-currents, safely to the other side. Find a desire line, scale a cliff, up and over the train tracks, and through the public housing, depositing yourself back into a different kind of urban nature, the far more organized, neat-lines of North End Halifax suburban paradise. At this high point, atop the rock that is Halifax, enjoy 360 degree views of the eery beauty of this industrial urban-wasteland-wilderness.

Many branches of contemporary human geography seem to be in a conundrum. Maps and models of reality continue to be produced in immense quantities, conclusions are made that the maps and models are ineffective since they fail to capture certain non-quantifiable elements of reality, yet these maps and models continue to be made. In response to the relatively-made-up quality I have noticed in efforts to quantify geographic phenomena, for my GIS (Geographic Information Systems, essentially computerized maps), final project I decided to instead explore cognitive geography – something that could never be rendered accurately on a computer – with the intention of creating beautiful maps that evoked questions and stimulated reflection, rather than tricking myself into thinking that the maps I made were accurate or representative of reality.

Here are some of my final maps. They don’t really mean anything…but the idea that we all have a different city in our heads, yet can function perfectly well with each other is a lovely thought.

Google satellite imagery that covers the entire globe is a relatively recent technological innovation relative to the history of cartography. Yet, it has been around long enough that over the years, Google has updated the aerial imagery in many parts of the world many times.

This happens more often than you might expect. In fact, in very major cities like New York, Google offers almost monthly satellite imagery from 2004 on, and  even some images from as far back as 1978! (though the quality is understandably much poorer from earlier dates).

On Google Earth, one now has the ability to flip through the various editions of satellite images over the same geographic space, enabling the experience of a city in one of its most fundamental forms: as a constantly changing, dynamic entity, as opposed to the static image that online Google maps offer.

Check out this progression back in time of a small area of Greenwich Village in New York City:








Click on the thumb nails to see a bigger image. Google provides images almost monthly for more recent years, but data becomes more disparate from earlier dates. The satellite imagery from 1978 is almost illegible at this scale.

Though pretty amazing, this feature is  somewhat meaningless to someone unfamiliar to an area of a city, but even to someone very familiar with an area or/of a city. It’s very hard to detect what must be incredible change between 1978 and 2009. An aerial view lacks certain features that are significant to our urban experiences, namely, people, store facades, trees and plants, urban furniture. Instead you get a more generalized sense of change, and meaningful differences register only with major redevelopments.

Take this example near in downtown Toronto:





Notice how the golf course in the middle disappears between 2002 and 2006, and buildings on the right are slowly developed and multiplied on this tract of formerly light industrial land west of Fort York and East of the Skydome. Expect major condo-ization here in the years to come.

The change in land is registered meaningfully in these aerial images.

Another incredible example from Toronto is the ability to visualize the frontier of suburbanization at the city’s edge. These shot are from the Major Mackenzie/Bathurst area, a spot that has seen the transformation of many farms into suburban developments recently:



With close examination, one can see the transformation of farmland to suburban developments, especially in the centre of these photos.

Street view is a relatively more recent innovation, and I am excited for the opportunity to similarly browse through time on the street-view scale – this will most definitely provide a rich and interesting perspective on the way cities change over the years; a plane on which both the subtle differences and major redevelopments of the same street corner will, as never before, be able to be visually experienced. The US street view photos were taken in 2003, and compared to the most recent additions (Romania!), are of very poor quality. An update is immanent, and I can only hope they enable the time-travel function as they do on Google Earth.

The impact of this on our conceptions of space and place is immense. Never before have we had the ability to concretely visualize the change of a place in such an “objective” way. The advent of street-view time travel will definitely further impact our sense of space and history in the city.

This winter I’ve been incredibly perceptive of Montreal’s incredible snow removal capabilities. As soon as there is a dumping of snow, armies of trucks of a myriad of shapes and sizes immediately unleash themselves onto the street, prowling every block until the snow is sufficiently dealt with.

There is a certain order to the way the removal teams approach the snow. First, a regular plow clears paths through the streets, two paths for two lane streets and so on. By doing this, however, a very large ridge is made that divides the street, making crossing it very dangerous. A second team deals with this: the first vehicle shoots the snow on the street into a humongous truck, who then eventually dumps the snow into the St Lawrence river (the environmental aspects of this are pretty questionable, I bet).

This is followed by an additional team, who artfully plow the remainder of the snow, and clear paths on the sidewalks. Normally, large banks are left on the side of the road, cutting the sidewalk off from the street. Here, the natural path phenomenon emerges in one of it’s most excellent and least predictable states: random paths between the road and the sidewalk, that some brave souls had the initiative to first establish.

Every now and then, however, Montreal’s snow removal crews annihilate these snow barriers that emerge between the street and the sidewalk. It’s always amazing to walk on the streets once this has been done – one feels liberated! Again able to cross the street at one’s own whim.

My roommate, Zoe, returned from Southern Ontario yesterday, confusedly reporting that there was much more snow in London and Toronto than in Montreal. Montreal is notorious for being a much snowier city, explaining her surprise.

I owe this to Montreal’s excellent snow removal service. It’s incredible how modern technologies have been applied to overcoming the harsh weather in this city ( – I often comment on how odd, and brilliant it is that people carry out their business despite these never-ending arctic storms). This city is too good at snow removal to just leave the snow on the street.

But then my thoughts wandered. What if Montreal did leave the snow on the street? There would surely be enormous snow banks on every street corner – piles of snow that would act as structures characterizing a streetscape for an entire season – mountains of snow that would impede vision at every distance – places where people would break through the snow banks and impromptu ‘doorways’ would emerge, dwarfing the natural paths that emerge from the current state of affairs.

If the snowbanks weren’t cleared, I imagine that often, natural paths through the snow would be replaced by ones that went over the snow. Ephemeral staircases emerging here, a slide, improved with each use there. Some residents would proudly maintain their snow structures, adding architectural elements on sunnier days with packing snow. Others would neglect the snow structures outside their homes, leading to dangerous and forboding entrances and exits through the mountain-banks.

I owe the theory of “seasonal snow structures” to my brother, who has reported their existence in the less snow-removal-able Halifax. And Ted,   helped imagine the snowy structures that would exist if Montreal wasn’t so capable at dealing with the snow.

When I sit in my living room and watch the street, I am amazed by the leagues of municipal snow removers, working “quietly” in the night so that the people of Montreal can enjoy their city the next day, unhindered. The yellow and black trucks and plows that patrol the streets are another instance where one can contemplate the odd nature of the urban –  an intense concentration of human activity; so many interests and motivations and reasons for why Montreal is here, and why I am here in Montreal; the weather patterns that bring in squalls and storms; the architecture and behaviour that has emerged because of them – this is the city – the complex urban.

Microsoft’s attempts to compete with Google have been quite obvious over the last year. With the launch of Bing, there now truly stands a search engine that can reach the standards and qualities that Google has become famous for.

The difference between the two is that Google grew organically to its current state, while Bing has been carefully and thoughtfully designed. Responding slowly to meet its users needs, the current Google interface reflects countless actions from its users, and responses from Google’s programmers. We now have access to unbelievable search algorithms that yield exactly the information we are looking for, and functions such as “Instant search” that have made Googling that much easier. There also exists an extensive database of user generated content, and the ease of using Google has played a major role in the open source data movement. Nevertheless, Bing has artificially  created a search engine that meets Google’s standards.

Yes, these companies are search engines, but it has become obvious that their more primary projects are to be the portal (and master?) to all the world’s information. Google Scholar, news, maps, streetview, countless side projects and the Bing equivalents are representative of the immense fishing-nets these technological superpowers have cast out into the world of knowledge.

As a geographer, the maps are of most interest to me. It’s interesting to compare Google and Bing’s approach to cartography. Bing essentially copied the Google model, exactly: with one subtle difference. While Google’s satellite maps are taken from  directly above, Bing maps has the “Bird’s Eye” option; the photos are taken from a slightly lower angle.

The experiences of both maps, as a result, are dramatically different. And ultimately, to the common user, I think Bing has triumphed in this respect. The lower angles provide an easier plane for orientation. The buildings and streets are more recognizable, and the overlaid street map limits confusion. When you rotate to gauge the map, viewing it from another cardinal direction, the image changes to suit this angle, enabling views from the other side of the street. The result is a much deeper and thorough experience than the Google satellite equivalents.

Compare the satellite photos of my corner in Montreal, Duluth and St Urbain:

Bing satellite view is on the top, Google on the bottom

If evoking a sense of place is the name of the game, the Bing map definitely captures the character of the Plateau much more than the Google satellite photos. One can get a sense of the scale of the street and a feel for the architectural features of the buildings. The Google map, on the other hand, is confusing in that this block of triplexes could be any other block when viewed from above.

We have to consider though, that evoking a sense of place is not a map’s job. It’s to orient ourselves, (or if you’re someone concerned with collecting Remote Sensing data, it’s to carry out thoughtful analysis involving light spectrums, or something) and perhaps the view from above that Google provides does a better job of this. I tend to use Google more… I guess it’s habit, or a trust in the natural processes that lead to Google’s highly intuitive interface. But orienting ourselves consists more of the geometry of the streets, and perhaps I’ll adopt Bing maps soon as my “go to”.

In any case, it will be interesting to see Bing’s answer to street view (hopefully nothing too scary…).