Archives for category: super-urban

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 ?

…  scan it to see what I mean …

A fascinating part of having a blog is vibing on all the obscure places far and near visitors have come from. With tools such as Google Analytics, the fine grain of detail in the information regarding who is coming to my site, from where, and for how long is amazing.

Thank you world, for visiting the urban geographer!

Site stats from statcounter.com show urban geographer readers in clusters in the eastern seaboard and north and west Europe — precisely the places I write about most. 

Daniel Libeskind’s post-modern architecture is definitely striking. With Libeskind’s re-design Dresden’s War Museum recently revealed, it seems there is a very common pattern to his approach to re-vamping established cultural institutions: large, striking triangular prisms that dramatically cut through facades of the architectural yester-year.

The Dresden War Museum re-design

The triangular geometry of a Libeskind building in Denver

Familiar triangles adorn the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto

One could certainly hold this repetitiveness in design against Libeskind. Whenever he’s given the chance to make changes to institutions, he relies on the same old geometries. But… I like the idea of Libeskind’s triangles sprouting up all over the world. Bursting through the earth’s surface from all sides of the planet, an asymmetry of jagged geometry.

In my last year of my undergrad degree in geography, I was all excited to write a thesis based on some radical geographic theory: a body of literature called Urban Political Ecology.

But, because my prof adopted a baby, she couldn’t be my supervisor, and I didn’t end up writing my thesis. And i’m glad I didn’t — because if i did i would have spent a year wading through some pretty inaccessible academic jargon — prose, that through a body of technical language had seemed to lost its connection to the very subject matter it was dealing with.

And since i’m a pretty impressionable guy, after a year of research and study, I probably would have started speaking like this and lost my ability to genuinely engage with the content. But there was definitely some good stuff in there – so this post, first presented as a part of the Fuller Terrace Lecture Series, is inspired by what my thesis was going to be on, presented, in what I hope to be a more accessible, and poetic way.

But instead of calling it was going to be the many-subtitled name of my thesis:

Urban Political Ecology:

The Politics of Urban Nature and Urban Metabolism:

Urban Agriculture in Montreal:

The Politics of Food, Nature and Community

I’m going to go ahead and call it:

Even though it often doesn’t feel like it, it’s important to remember that cities are natural things.

Our popular culture has a very specific definition of the word natural, and, as a result, we tend to think of cities as the polar opposite of nature: which is to mean nature as pristine, untouched, isolated wilderness.

But, human activity cannot be viewed as external to the earth’s ecosystem, and cities are the natural outgrowths, physical manifestations of human energy and culture.

Put simply, cities are built out of natural elements from the earth, transformed through socially mediated processes into resources like building material and electricity.

As we can see from this brief history, there is nothing unnatural about halifax —

The city, atop a rock

which used to be covered in a natural forest of trees

the trees felled by human activity

and made into lumber

a forest of houses sprouted where there used to be a forest of trees,

houses built out of the wood of those trees

and though from farther away — the cranes that were erected

and the buildings of glass, concrete and steel that followed,

they too are built out of natural elements from the earth, used as building materials by humans.

Aerial photographs by Stephan Zirwes, courtesy of but does it float

In response to A.C.’s “Island Theories” edition of Fresh Eggs, where two wide eye’d chickens ponder “the anthropological effects of living on an Island… having physical limits [and] shore sealed resources” and A.C. questions the “patterns that emerge in consideration of [an island’s] range of proximity” (see below) I would like to similarly ponder the anthropological effects of a place characterized by great expanses of land, such as Canada.

Most of Canada is defined by disgusting sprawl. Save for the core of some of its inner cities and small towns, travelling throughout Canada presents a series of highway interchanges, strip malls and monotonous car scale suburbs — all these features are consistent throughout the country — what changes are the natural landscapes that frame the car-centric developments: mountains behind big-box parking lots, prairies surrounding suburban single family homes, fast food alleys by great lakes, strip malls by the ocean.


Obviously the reasons for the suburban monotony that characterizes most of Canada are myriad and complex. But to isolate one, I often think of how expansive Canada is — and that a major reason our country is designed the way it is – incredibly inefficiently, stretching laterally for kilometres – is because there’s simply no need for intelligent, efficient design. Our space is practically infinite, so why build densely? The social effects of Canada’s vast geographic expanses of land are easily read in the sub- and interurban landscapes.

To illustrate this theory further, I often point to the Netherlands. The country is incredibly small for it’s population (a density of 401.7/km2, compared to Canada: 3.41 people/km2), so small, that the Dutch have become famous for reclaiming land from the ocean. Here, there is an incredible need for efficient land use, and this is apparently the case (though I have not been there, I look forward to exploring the Dutch urban landscapes and countryside).

This is my “expanses of land” theory.

Ours, is a choice of urban systems.

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:

2009

2008

2006

2007

1997

1994

1978

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:

2002

2006

2007

2009

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:

2002

2009

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.

I am by no means a sports fan, in the average everyday sense. This means that I don’t care for the updates of particular teams, I am not in a hockey or basketball pool and I couldn’t care less about the super bowl. But this doesn’t mean that I dislike sports. I support my friends who enjoy them, and am fascinated by the anthropology of fan-ship.

But I’m not an anthropologist, and my interests lie more in the geography of sports. Even when I was younger and went through my Toronto Maple Leafs phase, I remember being amazed by all the cities that had NHL teams, imagining where they were, where their hockey arenas were located, the regions of fanship that don’t necessarily correspond to the exact geographically surrounding area, and the design of the various logos and jerseys that each team would boast. With so many hockey teams and so many places, my interest was very much occupied with the geography of sports, often moreso than the game itself

And it continues. I can still list off where any team in the NHL, NBA or NFL is located. Beyond that, I got nothing. An interesting phenomenon is when a team moves from one city to another, but keeps the original name. For example the New Orleans Jazz moved from Louisiana to Utah, but kept the name Jazz. New Orleans is certainly known for its jazz, but the team name takes on a whole new meaning in its relocation to, as far as I know, a very un-musical state. The Toronto Blue Jays are in the American, as opposed to National League in MLB.

Another manifestation of the geography of sports is the arena/stadium’s relationship to the urban landscape. A few “types” come to mind:

The deep urban arenas/stadiums, surrounded by established city streets in all directions. Madison Square Garden in New York City and Latin American Stadium in La Habana come to mind; both are in deeply dense, incredibly established urban areas:

Madison Square Garden in New York

Incredible density surrounds the Latin American Stadium in La Habana, a seamless integration between the spectacle of sport and the spectacle of the city streets.

The post-industrial arenas/stadiums, built in former train-yard lands, contributing to the redevelopment, gentrification and densification of these formerly light industrial peri-urban areas. An example is the Air Canada Centre and Skydome in Toronto. Near the water front, the stadium and arena are slowly being accompanied by an incredible number of high rise luxury condominiums. Whether or not these developments are enabling a high quality urbanism is discussion for another post:

The shadows of the many new towers that surround the post-industrial sites of the Air Canada Centre and the Skydome are testament to a possible misguided direction to the new wave of urbanism in Toronto.

The suburban arenas/stadiums, built on the frontier of suburban sub-development on the sides of highways. These are interesting because the teams are often branded as the main city, but the arena itself is located in a different municipality. An example is the Corel Centre (though it may be called something else now), home to the Ottawa Senators, but actually located in Kanata, a suburb. This is an example of the strength of place branding – it would be interesting and inconceivable really to call them the Kanata Senators, but the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Angels (Anaheim itself a suburb of LA)  provide interesting counter-evidence:

The incredible rural surroundings of the home of the “Ottawa” Senators. Chances are the farmland surrounding the arena will be subdivided in the coming years, as the arena location automatically increases the value of nearby land.

The incredible landscapes that surround Anaheim’s baseball stadium and hockey arena are indicative of typical southern California urban landscapes.

One final meditation on the geography of sports is the team’s actual connection to it’s physical location and situation. In terms of fanship, with the free flow of telecommunications in the internet era, one can keep a pretty intimate relationship with a team even if you are nowhere near the city they play in. But more dramatically, the players themselves’ connection to the geographic location of the team has been completely unfixed. You now have Spanish players, playing for British teams in North American tournaments. I am very disconnected from the feeling of supporting a local team, but you have to wonder what a British fan feels when the top players are from very un-British places. This links to a greater conversation of globalization and the sense of identity in the modern-linked-up world. If British fans can embrace Spanish players as their own kind, then what the does national identity mean anymore? It obviously still is important, but the terms of nationality and patriotism are certainly changing. This is even more interesting in light of the many teams’ owners: Russian oil moguls reaping the profits from British soccer teams, with Spanish players in North American tournaments, watched by Japanese fans in South America. The concept of place has certainly become more flexible.

*note that despite the phenomological terms above, I acknowledge their use as not phenomonological. I am learning and hope to incorporate phenomenology more effectively in the future. For now, enjoy the phenomenal content.