Archives for category: amsterdam


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.


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”.


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.


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. 

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto 

To the delight of many, it was recently announced that the TORONTO sign in Nathan Phillips Square will remain in front of City Hall until its structural expiry date of 2016, when it will be replaced by a more sturdy set of letters.

Installed as part of the Pan Am Games, the sign is one of the most popular legacies of the event. It is a highly photogenic addition to City Hall, offering the perfect spot for selfies amongst the sign’s many Ts Rs and Os.

The old saying is that “life imitates art” — but with the immense popularity of the TORONTO sign, it might be more accurate to say that these days, “life imitates graphic design.”

The dominance of graphic design culture — researchers now estimate we’re exposed to5,000 ads per day, and the number of graphic designers in Canada has increased rapidly over the last few years — has reached its apotheosis in the 3D TORONTO sign. Photos of Nathan Phillips Square and City Hall now automatically take on the look and feel of a highly designed poster.

The TORONTO sign is part of a global trend of huge letters in prominent public space. It’s most direct precedent is the I amsterdam sign. Situated behind Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum since 2005, friends visiting the Netherlands are almost guaranteed to post photos of themselves climbing the iconic red and white letters. The ONLY LYON sign followed in 2010 and the BUDAPEST sign in 2014. It was only a matter of time that big font would come to Toronto.

I amsterdam


Budapest sign

This isn’t the first time art has affected landscape. Big, wooded parks with meandering pathways like High Park in Toronto, Central Park in Manhattan, and Mount Royal Park in Montreal, were all inspired by Romantic landscape paintings of the late 19th century. Spreading as a park format worldwide (most major North American cities have an equivalent), these pastoral parks are a reflection of what people in burgeoning industrial cities needed from their landscapes — and how they idealized them.

But the blending of graphic design and landscape architecture is evidence of a new kind of relationship we’ve developed with our civic spaces. No longer pastoral retreats à la High Park, with our smartphone cameras always close at hand, a landscape must be striking and photographable to make an impact. And giant, Instagram-able letters are the most effective way to communicate the core of most messages on social media — “I was here.”

Spadina Avenue, closed to traffic - Pedestrians and Streetcars mixing. Image courtesy of BlogTO

Spadina Avenue, closed to traffic – Pedestrians and Streetcars mixing. Image courtesy of BlogTO

Love it or hate it, Nuit Blanche delivers the spectacle of Toronto’s streets crammed full of people. With the sidewalks at capacity, and many streets closed to car traffic, we are treated to a hyper-urbanized version, 24/7 version of Toronto. Every October, the city becomes fully animated — perhaps a preview of things to come if population growth keeps apace in the next 50 years.

This year’s edition of the all night contemporary arts festival included the addition of new zones. Along with Fort York and City Place, Spadina Avenue was closed to traffic, and many artworks were displayed along the street.

The experience of Spadina closed to automobile traffic was highly enjoyable, providing a new perspective on the potential of this thoroughfare. The broad avenue, with dedicated street car tracks running down the middle, naturally lends itself to being a pedestrian boulevard. The dynamic was reminiscent of Las Ramblas in Barcelona — a boulevard famous for its walking culture.

I noticed, however, Torontonians struggling with the concept of a street being set aside for pedestrians and streetcars. Though barricades and traffic police were present to ensure that people would not cross the tracks when streetcars were coming, people kept on running through the tracks at the moment a streetcar was approaching.

The mix of a pedestrianized thoroughfare and streetcar tracks reminded me of some of my favourite street designs in Europe, where this kind of configuration is more common. As a past post explored, along Leidsestraat, a pedestrian-only street in Amsterdam, people freely walk along the tram tracks until one needs to pass by. The street is both a tram track and a pedestrian walk way and works beautifully. In Manchester, dedicated Tramways line the central Piccadilly Gardens, a bustling square. The square’s surface covers the entire area, with only slight demarcation of where the trams run, other than their tracks. The flow of this place is lovely — as pedestrians cross the square without stress, and avoid the trams when they come every-so-often. And when they do they blow their gentle whistle and all the senses have their outlet.

Making room for trams as the need arises, on Leidsetraat in Amserdam. Image courtesy of Urban Capture

Making room for trams as the need arises, on Leidsetraat in Amserdam. Image courtesy of Urban Capture

Pedestrians share space with trams and their tracks in Manchester. Image courtesy of

Pedestrians share space with trams and their tracks in Manchester. Image courtesy of

In Toronto, where we’re not used to this kind of shared space (yet), things were a little more challenging. Perhaps the presence of safety officers and infrastructure contributed to the tension, and people would have been better of interacting with the streetcars organically.

In any case, I was delighted to experience a step toward shared flexible space in my own Toronto. Little by little, we are demonstrating that streets are not only for cars, and can host multiple uses, complimenting and accommodating one another as the need arises.


ASEED is an activist organization based in Amsterdam that targets the structural causes of environmental destruction and social injustice.

Much of their work in the Netherlands focuses on food security, and the averse effects of the industrialization of the food system. Their work involves education, workshops and events like the yearly March Against Monsanto march in Wageningen.

Earlier this year, I designed and illustrated a map of the world, exploring the negative effects of GMOs and resistance to them all over the planet. It was a fantastic project, diverse and challenging. The goal was to communicate a dense amount of information in an accessible and engaging visualization. A map is often the best way to achieve this!

Click on the map below for a full resolution version, and support the resistance to GMOs!



ASEED back


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 

Exciting news, readers!

Your urban geographer received a 2013 TOmaps Awards from the TOmaps sub-Reddit!

CornishBin, the sub-Reddit’s fantastic moderator put together a list of the year’s best Toronto-inspired maps. The list includes “Best Animation”, “Prettiest breakdown of Toronto’s diversity” and “Best TTC-related map”, naming my map Torontodam “Best Mash-Up” (see below). The map transposes Amsterdam neighbourhoods onto Toronto, matching them based on corresponding geography and culture.

reddit 2013

The list showcases the best of the cornucopia of cartographic treasures that the TOmaps sub-Reddit showcases on a daily basis. A hearty congratulations to the other award winners, and a big thank you to CornishBin for being such a thorough curator of all things Map-TO.


Here’s to a mapful 2014!

ceramic bowl

My parents house is full of stuff. It is brimming. Every room is stacked with old magazines, books and chachkas —  trinkets, never-used glasses and teapots. Old papers of every sort.

As part of this propensity for piling, my mother likes to put large empty ceramic bowls all over the house. Once a bowl is set down on a table- or countertop, it makes a tear in space, creating a vacuum that gets immediately filled with all sorts of the above-mentioned old papers/trinkets/never-used teapots.

My brother get furious at the existence of these bowls. His theory — which I back — is that the useless stuff would not accumulate if the bowl hadn’t created the space for accumulation. Simply: placing a bowl creates a vacuum in space. Refrain from placing the bowls, and  avoid an accumulation of useless objects.

stand alone

To bring this post from the realm of private domestic space to public urban space:
In Amsterdam there is a shortage of bike parking spaces. As a result, it’s common to leave your bike free standing and double locked (front wheel and back), not attached to any pole or official bike parking infrastructure in particular. You just leave it standing there. 

Of course, it’s riskier to park your bike this way — free standing and vulnerable — than affixing it to a solid pole or bike stand. But poles and bike stands run out quickly, and you often have no choice but to let your bike free flow. 

There are strategies to make your bike blend in, to make it seem like it is attached to something when it is in fact not. The most common of these strategies is to neatly line up your bike with an existing bike rack to make it seem as though it is attached to the bike rack, when in fact it is floating freely beside it. 

stand alone 2

With this strategy, there is a certain street-wisdom that follows:  you should always park you bike where others have parked their bike, making your bike less of a target, and diminishing the chances of it being stolen.

Sometimes, people line up their bikes spontaneously to create fake bike racks – strength in numbers makes the deception more effective. But this has to start somewhere – someone has to be brave enough to leave their bike free standing, floating, easily taken in the middle of a sidewalk or square.

Like the bowls that fill with useless objects in my parents house, leaving your bike free standing in the middle of a side walk or street creates a vacuum in space, and leads to the accumulation of more bikes.

So, if you’re in the Netherlands, give it a try! leave your bike on its own, free standing , and when your return, a neat fake bike rack will have formed around it. Like a rock that collects moss in a moving river, leaving  your bike free and on its own in a square or on a street will create a bike vacuum, no doubt. 




Click map to enlarge





Amsterdam and Montreal





Sources_Further Reading

The above was presented at the exciting Urban Ecologies conference 2013, which wrapped up today. If you have any questions about Carolinia, please contact me

Myriam Amsterdam 2

I love using my bike as a mode of urban transportation.

So I was obviously thrilled to spend five months in Amsterdam, the world’s number one bike city — breezily coasting my way from point A to B, wind in my hair, legs going and heart rate flowing, blissfully taking in all that pretty pretty that makes up Amsterdam’s canal filled, cozy urban landscape.

Once the initial thrill of taking in all the  elements of an advanced bicycle-society subsided, I began to miss walking as a mode of transport. “Then you should have just walked places, instead of biking to them,” I hear you say, but it’s really not that simple. The bicycle has an allure, a magnetism that sucks you in, gets you hooked and makes sure that you need it. My life in Amsterdam was bike-based, and I understood how to engage with the city exclusively via this mode of transport. I could not fathom that something 10 minutes by bike could be a 30 minute walk, and never was able to plan for that.

Indeed, the bike’s force of attraction is so strong that it pulls you onto its saddle, and renders you a mindless pawn in the chaotic ballet that is bicycle traffic in Amsterdam. By this I mean biking everywhere always can put you into something of a mind zonk, comparable to the mindless automaton we inevitably become after too much highway driving.

Biking everywhere in Amsterdam, I began to miss that fine-grained understanding of a city you can only get by walking. I know Amsterdam as a series of blurs punctuated by more intimate knowledge of specific destinations, without any of that random familiarity acquired from a slow shuffle through a city.

And that’s why I’m happy, in a way, to be back in Toronto — a true walking city. With the dominance of automobile infrastructure, unreliable public transit, and a lack of amenities for bicycles, walking emerges as the most palatable alternative to the car. So I am back in Toronto, happily absorbing the city at a snail’s pace.

Of course, I would instantly trade it all for a Toronto with advanced bike infrastructure and a culture that supports it. This is not a criticism of Amsterdam’s bike infrastructure. Perhaps it’s a coming to terms with returning home to a city that offers almost nothing for commuter-cyclists — a positive outlook for this idealistic urban geographer.


A teaser for my poster-presentation at the upcoming Urban Ecologies conference. Read more below.

Dear readers,

This post finds my back in my home-town Toronto, after a relatively short, but very enriching period of time in Amsterdam. I have many (20ish) essays and observational posts about Amsterdam that will be coming out as a series over the summer. Time and space will bring my mind clarity, and I will be able to engage with the subject matter, explicitly as it relates to Toronto (as my point of view is inescapable, and Toronto is a very important point of comparison for my projects, past present future).

Last I spoke with you, I was curious about the 30 hour bus ride I was to be embarking on between Amsterdam and Rome.  Here are answers to some of those questions:

  • Who will be the other passengers?

A combination of Italian folks, young budget travellers, and people from Ghana (!?). I was the only person who was on the bus all the way from Amsterdam to Rome.

  • Will it be a double-decker bus?

It was not a double decker bus, to my chagrin. The view from the regular windows was nevertheless spectacular.

  • How many towns will we be stopping in? For how long?

We stopped in Den Haag, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Brussels, a highway rest stop in Luxembourg, Metz, Nancy, Strasbourg, the border of Switzerland, Milan, Bologna, and Rome. I had never heard of Metz or Nancy, and I was happy to experience them honestly. The stops were long enough for me to get off the bus, and “be” in the places.

  • Will we be driving under, or over the Swiss Alps?

A combination. Between the tunnels you are, indeed, nestled in the mountains.

  • Will it be dark outside while we’re driving through the Alps?

The deepness of night began to fade slowly in the middle of the Alps. The outlines of the mountains against the increasingly blue sky was spectacular. Sun rise came, revealing the full blown mountain landscape. I was thrilled. After several months in the Netherlands, the landscape was incredibly novel, and I almost couldn’t process how small the villages looked, stunted by the mountain ranges behind them.

  • Will Italy be hot?

It was hot. I also now understand the link between the font Times New Roman and the city of Rome.

  • Will i know when i’m in a different country?

I didn’t sleep much, and watched each country become the other — marked by signs.


I am excited to be back in Toronto. There is so much going on here, and its Tall-rontoness is not limited to the downtown core. In fact, I have not been south of Bloor St since my return, perhaps revealing the truth of the suburban nature of my life-paths here.

My suburban adventures most recently brought me to #NYC (also known as North York Centre). I am amazed by the hustle of this place. It is a real Place. There is energy, and it feels good. The city that is being built is of a wholly different nature than downtown Toronto. This is no-B.S., anti-nostalgic, 21st century urbanism. The scale is undeniably huge, but it is a city, nonetheless. The scale reminded me of Manitoba, and honesty. I think the heart and soul of present-day Toronto exists here, without any filers of nostalgia or envy induced by other cities. The question is, however, will the independent survive here? There have been essays written  before about the importance of preserving the non-chain retail that remains along Yonge Street. The pressure of rent must be spectacular — will there be any semblance of place-rooted business here in 10 years? Let’s hope area’s community groups are successful in their efforts.


Yonge and Sheppard – actually a nice place


This little store front doesn’t stand a chance to a proposed condo development. Or does it?

My time finds me now working on my presentation for the Urban Ecologies Conference next week. I have created a studio in the attic of my parents house, high in the canopy of Toronto’s special forest ecology. I am arguing that Toronto is in Carolinia, its bioregion, and that we need to include this in the story of the city to make it a better place. That’s the short-version. The longer is to come in a future post.

Until then,

Your Urban Geographer.


NDSM is a former ship building factory in North Amsterdam. Abandoned in the 80s during the wave of European de-industrialization, it lay empty for many years until it was squatted by artists and activists. Being quite a distance from central Amsterdam, NDSM became a free haven — a terrain of artist studios and creative living set-ups that existed outside the immediate influence of the Law. Here is a short history of the place.

NDSM has been slowly ‘legitimized’ and incorporated into the mainstream culture of Amsterdam. With regular free ferry service from Centraal Station, and fantastic views of the city from its waterfront, NDSM has become home to many beloved and often-frequented party venues and restaurants. NDSM also hosts the monthly IJ-hallen market, one of “Europe’s largest flea markets”, attracting many visitors from around the city and beyond. With the opening of MTV studios, NDSM had made the full leap from illegitimate and ‘free’ artist haven into a fully incorporated, and prosperous, district of the city.


Of course NDSM retains the flavour of its artistic, squatted past: that’s why people love it’s vibe so much. Many cultural links from the past inhabitants of the space have been retained, along with a majority of its aesthetics. NDSM is home to abandoned Trams that people live in, venues built out of shipping containers, and enormous industrial cranes that are clear homages to its history of ship building. (Though it’s funny now, to see the smaller construction crane that has popped up beside the ‘heritage’ one — a sign of capital now being invested in NDSM. While the past is frozen as a monument, the crane re-emerges as a phenomenon that repeats itself symbolically, though with an entirely different purpose. After looking into it more, it turns out the heritage crane is being converted into a luxury hotel! 😮 ).


It’s somewhat of a shame that NDSM has lost its political, ultra creative routes. But in general, the project is quite successful in integrating an immensely creative space into the wider city, while letting the creativity breath. (Also, ADM, further west in the city’s port, remains an illegal squat in a former shipbuilding yard, where the essence of the artist/free haven NDSM continues to live).


Quite impressively, the incredibly large  ship-building warehouse of NDSM has been slowly converted into an indoor village of artist studios. The Kunststad (Art City) is an impressive and novel project that looks and feels like a small European town has somehow sprouted under the shelter of the warehouse. The streets are curving and narrow, and the front facades of the studios — each its own structure — address each other pleasantly. There is even a second floor of city streets the criss cross above the ground-floor laneways. It was amazing to explore this space with my father, and how good and functional it felt — how interesting the site lines of the warehouse were, and the enjoyment of climbing stairs to get a closer look at the machines that hang from the ceiling.



It at first surprised me to think that the concept of an indoor city has never quite taken off architecturally. But I think that if this were ever planned or designed intentionally by an architect, it would never be a success. The indoor village that has emerged in NDSM is a product of a rich, organic phenomenon. Amsterdam was forced to reinterpret the behemoth structures of its past, and like a city built in a valley or the base of a mountain range, NDSM has treated the warehouse geologically, constructing something that works accordingly.


As some of my readers may know, I am traveling from Amsterdam to Rome, over land, with the special interest of seeing how the Netherlands turns into Italy.

The voyage is planned, and later this week I will be taking a shit-kicker 30 hour bus-trip beginning in Amsterdam, and traveling through Belgium, Luxembourg, France & Switzerland on its way to Italy.

Preparing for this very extreme journey, I have many questions about what the trip will be like. Here are some of the most pertinent:

  • Who will be the other passengers?
  • Will it be a double-decker bus?
  • How many towns will we be stopping in? For how long?
  • Will we be driving under, or over the Swiss Alps?
  • Will it be dark outside while we’re driving through the Alps?
  • Will Italy be hot?
  • Will i know when i’m in a different country?
  • How long does 30 hours feel like on a bus?