Archives for category: nature-culture

I began thinking of Amsterdam as a watery place when I was living there last year.

The following is a simpler manifestation of the thoughts that form the basis of this piece – thoughts that had my head spinning as I biked along the city’s waterways. 


watery 2

No one told me that Amsterdam was built on the bottom of the ocean floor. I had to piece it together myself – and I only realized after a few months of wandering around.

With canals, constant rain and a maritime tradition, I knew that Amsterdam was a watery place. But I didn’t quite expect a city at the bottom of the sea.

My first clues were in the dialect. Dutch is a water based language. The next tip-off was, despite being several kilometres inland, the presence of salty air.

It finally became obvious when I started paying attention to city construction crews. They would unravel interwoven brick roads to reveal the sand just beneath the surface of the city. When an entire road is repaved in Amsterdam, a beach appears between the two sides of the street.

Taking advantage of these exposed patches, I would put my hand on the ocean floor and feel the sand. I found sea shells there, under the streets.

In Amsterdam, there is sand everywhere. Piles of sand sit along the canals. A fine layer of sand covers the streets and sidewalks.

Along the bigger canals, I would watch long flat boats, carting piles of sand along the country’s internal waterways.

I hear a lot about Dutch land reclamation projects making land where there was once water.

When it rains in Amsterdam, it feels like the process is being reversed. Hovering above the sea floor, water reclaims the land and air above it.

watery 1

This piece will be appearing in the forthcoming issue of Hey Now, a small batch magazine published in Wychwood Heights, Toronto, Ontario 


grow op

I am excited to be participating in the Gladstone Hotel’s Grow Op, a four day event that explores landscape and place.

My photos and recollections will be part of Vernal Poola participatory art project about place and precipitation, by Karen Abel and Jessica Marion Barr. Vernal Pool explores snow gathering as art practice. Karen and Jessica have invited artists from across the country to send snow gathered in a jar, accompanied by photos and a few words about the moment of collection.


At Grow-Op, “the resulting reservoir of snowmelt will be convened into an immersive, elemental water installation… referencing the ephemeral wetland ecosystems that form in springtime from melting snow and rainwater. Following the exhibition, the pool will be restored to the earth through a collective watering of gardens and urban greenspaces.”

I am happy to be representing the Toronto Island in this wonderfully expansive project. The photos of my moment of gathering capture the essence of my winter here: an endlessly beautiful, quiet and isolated time, watching the snow and ice formations change on the beach and forest, right at the sea’s edge.

The themes of Grow-Op are also aligned with the foundations of my geographic practice. Exploring the softer edges of geography, I am interested in how the places we are embedded in manifest within our culture, our values, our selves.

Please enjoy my submission, and see you at Grow-Op this Friday April 25!



Wednesday, March 12, 2014, 2pm

I am currently a resident at the Artscape Gibraltar Point art centre on the Island. After a lovely spring day, Winter came back in full force, dumping 15 cm of powder over an otherwise thawing beach. The snow samples came from the beach itself, off the dogwood, and from the “sandy forest”, a collection of huge ironwoods right at the water’s edge. The snow was wet to the touch, and heavy. It’s been a spectacular winter at Gibraltar Point.

Exciting news, dear readers!

Your Urban Geographer is taking flight, and traveling to the biggest city in Carolinia — New York City, that is.

Though I defined the southern limits of Carolinia’s borders as a small portion of upstate New York, a broader definition of the Carolinian bioregion includes New York City — the same forest as Toronto. The Carolinian forest is known as the Eastern Deciduous forest in the US due to slightly different approaches to ecology north and south of the border. In any case, I am excited to explore New York City with this bioregional lens.

Though there are no ravines in New York City, to my knowledge, I will explicitly find my way to forested urban areas, to feel the forest. Will it feel familiar? Will I recognize the species? Will I find parallels between New York and Torontonian culture, since they have the same ecology?

My hypothesis for Toronto is that the Carolinian ecoregion is dynamic, small scale and dense. The dynamacy certainly holds true for New York, but does the small scale, dense beauty remain the same there? Since Toronto is at the northern edge of Carolinia, perhaps the growth gets larger further south, explaining New York’s propensity for grandeur. We will have to wait and see.

For now, one clue is the New York Parks and Recreation logo: a maple leaf — an important species for Carolinia, up here.

tumblr_inline_mlxejycn0t1qz4rgp NYC_Parks_before_signage_02_sm

island jan 12_2

These days, I’m learning a lot about the beauty of the Toronto region.

Compared to the West Coast, where there are enormous mountain ranges and wide-girthed trees, Toronto’s beauty lies in the micro, where one can find an infinity of dynamic and fine grained processes — the ice, the soil, the ferns — emerging and fading away.

Toronto’s microscopic beauty is very much of its Carolinian ecology. This Eastern Deciduous forest is a dynamic life zone, its beauty lying in the small, interconnected and temporal.

I also see this in the dynamacy of the human culture that inhabits these lands: Toronto is a land of immigration, of multiple identities. Toronto’s dense neighbourhoods are a fine grain of human settlement.


Please enjoy this GIF I made to illustrate the beauty of Toronto’s micro-processes. Look closely…amongst the ice and the finely textured grasses, you might find a bit of Toronto in there…

Check out these maps I illustrated of the gardens spread throughout Artscape Gibraltar Point.

As Spring approaches, we are busy preparing for the gardening season here on the Island. Some of the plans for 2014 include expanding the main garden and herb garden, with the possibility of a small CSA of mixed greens and herbs that will be delivered to Islanders by bike!

The maps are functional diagrams of the dimensions of the gardens, but also reveal the stories of this special place. Enjoy!

Main expansion Greens garden

Herb garden Raspberry patch



A sketch, for a future project

Toronto’s Island has provided your Urban Geographer with immense inspiration regarding Urban Ecology and its manifestation in Toronto.

It seems that this deeply wild Island has enabled an equivalently deep urbanity in the city across the Bay. To illustrate this: Chicago is a nearby Great Lakes city that does not have an island. Its water front integrates nature and the city very well. In Toronto on the other hand, we have a waterfront that is a great concrete barrier to the lake, remedied by an extremely natural beach a few kilometres further south.

Of course, the spaces aren’t pure. There’s a little city in the Island and a little Island in the city. (There’s also a little Island in all Torontonians, and a little Toronto in all Islanders).

Remarkably, the geography of the Islands and Toronto provides a clear illustration of this phenomenon. Like Yin and Yang, the Island and the City encapsulate every degree of the panoramic view of the harbour. The airport represents that bit of urbanity on the Island, and the Skydome’s grass that little bit of wild in the city.

This is the beginnings of a greater body of work, but for now, let me present to you this screenshot I took from Google Earth.

yin yang_draft 1

This post first appeared on Spacing Toronto

Landfill Island

I took this photo of Gibraltar Point Beach on a long walk around Toronto Islands during the city’s most recent cold snap. Because parts of the Island are exceedingly untamed, especially in the isolated winter, I was surprised to see Leslie Street Spit-style slabs of concrete and twisted rebar landfill breaking the otherwise undomesticated landscape of the Island’s south-west beach.

As past posts have explored, the Toronto Islands were formed when land from the dramatic erosion of the Scarborough Bluffs dropped into Lake Ontario and was pushed by the lake’s current to form a peninsular sand bar. Though always referred to as “The Islands”, a powerful storm in 1858 pierced its thin connection to mainland Toronto, rendering them islands in the true sense.

Looking at a few historical Toronto maps (courtesy of the fantastic Historical Maps of Toronto blog), the shape of the sand bar changes dramatically. For its first hundreds of years, the form of the Toronto Islands changed every year and after every storm.


Toronto Island, 1818

Toronto Island, 1834

Toronto Island, 1834

Toronto Island, 1860

Toronto Island, 1860

When the Leslie Street Spit peninsula made its final extension into the lake in the 1970s, the flow of sand from the Scarborough Bluffs was effectively blocked. Consequently, the Islands have been eroding, their sand pushed away by the lapping waves of Lake Ontario without the replenishing effect of the Bluffs’ accumulative currents of land.

The city’s response has been to dump landfill along the Island’s south shore to curb erosion. In fact, the City has been doing this for more than a hundred years. In 1885, with the vision of Central Park style forests, lawns and meadows, the City decided to “parkify” the Islands and began dumping soil and infill to landscape and tame the wild, constantly changing landform (picture the French-style geometric gardens that lead from Centre Island to the pier, and the constantly mown fields just to their west). More recently, the City has embraced Michael Hough style “natural processes”, and native plants are reclaiming their habitats.

In both cases — the historical parkification, and the current attempts to curb erosion — I can vividly see how this wild place is slowly being taken over by the deep urbanity across the Bay. As the Toronto Islands remain untamed in many senses, I hope that a delicate balance is maintained between the urbanity and wildness that characterizes Toronto’s frontier shoreline as we continue to negotiate the Island’s role in our cityscape.

Daniel Rotsztain is the Urban Geographer. After six years of formal and informal education in Montreal, Halifax and Amsterdam, he is happily back in his home-city of Toronto and ready to respond to it with words and art. Check out his website, or say hello on Twitter!

Check out this quick sketch of a map I made of Toronto:

toronto depiction

It focuses on three dominant features of the city: Highways, Rivers and Trees.

Toronto’s 400 Series Highways, Ravines and River Valley landscapes define this city, and I celebrate them.

Let me know your thoughts about the map in the comments section below!


Today, your Urban Geographer was featured in a photograph on the front page of the Globe & Mail’s Toronto section!

Above, Kevin Van Paasen captured me in deep contemplative thought as the ferry crossed Toronto Bay. The photo reveals my simultaneous vibing on the city’s complexity as it slowly reveals itself, along with the mesmerizing bobbing of pieces of ice as the ferry cut its way through the frigid waters.

The article gets into depth about the beauty of winter-time on the Toronto Islands, something I certainly have been experiencing these few days. Some Islanders lament that fact that not enough Torontonians come to the Islands to experience the joys of winter (including wild-skating, or “skating the wild ice”, as it’s referred to in the article). I’m more inclined to leave the winter-Island the way it is now — isolated and perfectly quiet.

Now that positive temperatures have brought on a deep melt of the ice, reading the article makes me feel nostalgic. Here’s hoping for more ice and snow this winter.




I made a quick sketch of a visualization of Toronto’s Greenbelt.

What do you think?



Toronto is often compared to the other Great Lakes metropolis, Chicago.

Built in roughly the same era, and fronting major, northern bodies of water, Toronto recently surpassed Chicago to become the fourth largest city in North America.

I haven’t been to Chicago recently, and look forward to exploring the relationship between the two cities.

What stands out from afar, however, are the city’s nicknames. Chicago is the Windy City, but Toronto is not. The obvious difference is that Chicago is much more windy, but as they are both Great Lakes cities, I did not understand why.

Until my first night on the Toronto Island, that is.

The aural soundscape here is defined by a constant gush of wind. I went to the Gibraltar Point beach yesterday and was almost blown over. Directly fronting the open waters of Lake Ontario, Toronto Island protects the city’s harbour from rough waters and strong winds. Without the Toronto Island, Toronto would be less mild place, constantly pummelled by fierce winter winds.

I am beginning to understand the importance of the Toronto Islands to Toronto. Like a hand reaching out into the waters of Lake Ontario, the Islands cradle and nurture an otherwise undifferentiated stretch of Lake Ontario shoreline. Toronto Island seems to be at the genus of city, the why of Toronto.

But as Toronto Island continues to erode (partly due to the Leslie Street Spit blocking sand from the Scarborough Bluffs, which historically created the Island), the Toronto of the future might not have the protection the Island affords. Maybe then Toronto will become Windy City II.

the winter flowerToronto just sustained a dramatic, but intensely beautiful ice storm. The city was covered in a thick layer of ice. Every tree became a sculpture. The sunlight and street lights made the trees’ ice covered branches glow.

Above is an image of the Leslie Street Spit covered in ice. A hamamelis intermedia, a winter blooming flower, sits at the foreground: an homage to this sleepy but productive time of year.

Happy new year, 2014!