Archives for category: urban design notes
Cross-posted on Spacing Toronto, and co-written with Brendan Stewart 
Note: this article was written in the summer of 2019, and is reflection on WexPOPS, the pilot project of plazaPOPS, a high-impact, low-cost and community lead approach to enhancing strip mall landscapes in Toronto’s inner suburbs. plazaPOPS emerged from my thesis research while working toward a Masters of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph.  You can read my thesis here

WexPOPS is a pilot of the plazaPOPS project, an initiative spearheaded by Daniel Rotsztain, aka The Urban Geographer, and Brendan Stewart (OALA, CAHP), professor of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, and former Associate at ERA Architects.


In an interview supporting his recent book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can help fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg points to an idea that many urbanists take for granted, but that the general public may not: “[T]he social life we experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a context for it. It can be supported or undermined by the places where we spend time.” In other words, there is a relationship between the design of our physical environment, and the social life it enables, or not.

Klinenberg urges his readers to think about the types of places that foster connections and relationships between people and that build strong communities not as nice to haves, but rather as an essential infrastructure that buttresses the foundations of democracy, inoculating society from many of the challenges that define our current moment. He argues that “social infrastructure” will only become more critical as communities are forced to adapt to the challenges associated with climate change.

Closer to home, the Evergreen Foundation’s Towards a Civic Commons Strategy proposes a similar vision for “a network of public places and facilities that enable communities to learn, celebrate, express collective actions, collaborate and flourish, together.”

Inspired in part by these ideas, we’ve been working for over a year on an experiment to test the potential of creating a type of civic commons/social infrastructure within the ubiquitous strip mall parking lots that define the main streets of post-war neighbourhoods across the country, and which are home to millions of Canadians.

Open from July 5th to August 17th at the iconic Wexford Plaza at Lawrence Avenue East and Warden Avenue in Scarborough, WexPOPS is the result of more than a year of community consultations, planning and design work, and a collaboration involving 19 Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) students from the University of Guelph, graduate business and planning students from the University of Toronto’s Rotman CityLAB fellowship program, a 15-member local working group, and a partnership with the Wexford Heights BIA.

The City of Toronto’s Public Realm Unit, Scarborough Arts, the TRCA, the Arab Community Centre of TorontoMural Roots, the Working Women Community Centre and a number of local businesses who supported the initiative in various ways, including the Kirakou family, who own the Wexford Restaurant and the entire plaza and generously hosted the project.

Funded by Parks People’s Public Space Incubator Grant, generously supported by Ken and Eti Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation, as well as the City of Toronto’s BIA Kickstarter Fund, WexPOPS proposes a big idea: to test the viability of exchanging parking spots for a community gathering space all on private commercial property. It’s a new take on POPS — privately owned public space — and experiments with the city building potential that commercial business owners can exercise by enhancing community life in the neighbourhoods they serve. Hopefully, they’ll also seeing an uptick in business.

Similar strip malls are found throughout Toronto’s inner suburbs and in post-war neighbourhoods all over Ontario and Canada. In many cases, especially in Toronto, the retail remains vibrant and local, serving as important settings for community life, and features numerous restaurants and shops serving food and offering goods from all over the world. The Wexford Heights BIA, a two-kilometre strip running between Victoria Park and Birchmount along Lawrence Avenue East, features over 60 restaurants, and has been celebrated by food columnists as a major dining destination.

The project grew out of Daniel’s fascination with the strip malls he frequented in his youth, culminating in his 2018 MLA thesis at University of Guelph, which was overseen by Dr. Karen Landman and Brendan Stewart. It builds on Daniel’s work as an artist, examining the setting of Toronto’s public life, including All the Libraries Toronto, his documentation of all 100 public library branches in the city, as well as a recent residency at Yorkdale Mall that asserted the centrality of private shopping centres in Toronto’s social geography.

WexPOPS also builds on Brendan’s citizen engagement Tower Renewal work with ERA Architects, including parking lot to community space conversion projects at the East Scarborough Storefront (2010 – 2015) and Ridgeway Community Courts (2015-2017) in Mississauga.

The final design of WexPOPS features a series of modular planters, benches, tables and umbrellas, all clad in marine plywood and trimmed in cedar. Occupying ten parking spaces, the installation creates a comfortable and sheltered ‘room’ in the middle of the parking lot, and frames dynamic views of the strip mall behind. The carpentry was done by Guelph-based Ben O’Hara Design, and all of the components were designed as modules that could be re-configured into different arrangements to suit various future site conditions, and also to flat-pack for easy assembly and storage.

Six design concepts for the project were developed through a series of community workshops by student teams in a graduate community design studio at the U of G this past winter, and the ideas most favoured by the working group and a wider online engagement were incorporated into the final design. For example, one student team developed the colour scheme for the project, which includes vibrant red, orange and yellow and was inspired by the spice markets of the Middle East. Another student team proposed a space of lush and immersive greenery, an idea that resonated in the community and which dominates the final design.

In all, WexPOPS features over 500 plants, which are planted in colour-coded pots: red denoting native perennial wildflowers and grasses, orange for annuals, and yellow for edibles. The pots were created from salvaged recycling pails from the university, and were painted and drilled for drainage. The annuals and edibles were grown in campus greenhouses and donated to the project. All of the native plants, grown by Native Plants in Claremont, will be donated to the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, to be planted in a local stretch of the Meadoway this fall.

Twelve local youth from an after-school program run from the Arab Community Centre of Toronto across the street have been hired as site supervisors, stewarding the site through daily watering, waste management and other set-up tasks.

At night, LED lighting within the benches creates a welcoming atmosphere, and the illuminated strip mall signage creates a dynamic backdrop. During several evenings this summer, including an upcoming event on August 17th, the WexPOPS stage (with a mural designed by Echo Railton and painted by community volunteers) offers music and dance performances by local artists, co-curated by Scarborough Arts as well as urban ecology workshops lead by the TRCA.

WexPOPS is meant to be a hub of social activity for the local community, but also to attract visitors from beyond — a desire articulated by our working group, whose members wanted to `put Wexford on the map.’ The space features a neighbourhood business directory which encourages people to patronize the local restaurants and businesses (and eat takeout in the space), as well as a ‘dot map,’ which prompts visitors to place a sticker on a map showing where they live. This data will help the team evaluate the impact and reach of the project. The signs were donated in kind by CAS Signs Company, a printer located in Wexford Plaza a few stores down from WexPOPS. The ‘Wexford Wish Tree,’ inspired by the shape of the sumac and CNC milled by local AC Waterjet, poses a different question every two weeks and invites visitors to write their answers on a horticultural tag and tie them to the tree for others to read.

WexPOPS may be popping down after August 18, but the proof of concept has already inspired many to reconsider the potential of privately-owned strip mall parking lots as community gathering places, including, perhaps most importantly, the Kirakou family — the property owners and our project hosts. To more concretely determine the project’s impact, the plazaPOPS team is conducting a public life study, modeled on methodologies pioneered by Denmark’s Gehl Architects. We are also studying the impact on parking and local business activity. The Rotman students, guided by Prof. Rafael Gomez, prepared a background study that informed the research design.

Project findings will be published later this year in an exit report, but already, many working in the urban design, community arts, and economic development sectors have noted the potential for applying the plazaPOPS concept beyond Wexford Heights, understanding the value of creating space to support the social life of communities in strip malls across Toronto, Ontario, and Canada.

photos courtesy of Rotsztain and Stewart


More information about the project and its design and planning process are available at www.plazaPOPS.ca and via twitter and Instagram at @plaza_pops. You can reach the team at plazapops@gmail.com.

Guelph_Transit_237Guelph is a small city with a small bus system.

Unlike in larger cities where many buses ply the same routes all day with 5-10 minute headways, Guelph can’t afford to do that – there are too few people.

What I initially felt was a bummer — buses every 20-30 minutes at peak times and every hour at other times of day — turned one of the system’s greatest strengths: reliability.

This seems like a major paradox – how can you build a robust transit system by providing less?

Transit planners have a maxim that people won’t adopt public transportation unless its frequent and reliable. In Toronto, it often feels like it’s frequent but not reliable. In Guelph, however, the service may not be frequent, but it is very reliable.

Because the bus comes so infrequently, users are forced to use the schedule to see when their bus is coming. The bus system becomes more like a train system in this way – fixed times when the bus will be coming that you can plan your routine around.

While the buses sometimes detract from their schedule, key points in their routes, like the University Centre and Guelph Central Station, put them back on schedule. At these transfer points, the bus will wait until their scheduled departure time to depart.

I think Guelph’s bus system would be much more frustrating if it didn’t follow a schedule and used the same amount of service at more random intervals. The degree of reliability would tire out the most dedicated transit user.

But as it stands, it works great. As Guelph grows, it will require a larger fleet of buses with more frequency – but until then, and in other small cities in Ontario and beyond, the reliability of a less is more approach to transit, while at first seeming like a contradictory approach to establishing a robust transit system, is a good way to go.

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.

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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.”

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I love boardwalks.

The kind of boardwalks I’m talking about are the long wood pathways that wind through forests, over swamps and across marshlands. They twist and turn through otherwise inprentrable landscapes, providing an intimate experience of the world without harming it.

IMG_0888Boardwalk on the way to Risser’s beach, South Shore, Nova Scotia

Humans are curious creatures and boardwalks support that curiosity. They encourage an investigation of ecosystems and animal habitats without trampling them.

If designed well, flora and fauna can pass beneath boardwalks and over them, further decreasing our impact on the landscape.

The pure naturalists out there might protest the limitations of a boardwalk. Putting a barrier between us and the landscape, how are we supposed to connect with it? It’s not easy to feel like you’re in the wild when you’re walking along a predetermined route through the woods.

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In my experience, the boardwalk provides an immensely intimate experience of ecology. My most recent boardwalk sojourn at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary brought me face to face with alligators, snakes, birds and majesty cypress trees.

And yes, the boardwalk’s a circuit, but given the recent history of the exploitation and destruction of most of the world’s habitats caused by human activity, I think it’s fair that most of us should stay back, and resist meddling with and trampling on the habitats of other plants and animals.

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A boardwalks also simplifies the experience of nature to be coherent. Unlike human activity, the rest of nature doesn’t have a centre point. Walking along a boardwalk provides an intelligible experience of nature.

Finally, boardwalks are accessible! They provide an intimate experience of natural landscapes to everyone, particularly wheelchairs users, people with disabilities, and the elderly.

Southwest Florida has an especially high number of boardwalks. The area’s everglades and swampy forests mean that boardwalks are one of the only ways to see the landscape while avoiding getting your feet wet.

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Corkscrew swamp sanctuary near Naples, Florida 

In Sackville, New Brunswick, a boardwalk dreamily winds its way through the Tantramar marsh. Over ponds and through thickets of grass and birch trees, the boardwalk’s 2 kilometres provide a thorough and highly satisfying experience of the elusive marsh lands.

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Tantramar marsh boardwalk in Sackville, New Brunswick

But boardwalks don’t have to be limited to swampy lands – they can be built anywhere to heighten the experience of a place.

In Toronto, there’s a boardwalk through the ravines of Sherwood Forest. There’s also one that, inexplicably, crosses through a park near my house at Davenport and Dufferin. Despite its absurdity, the boardwalk provides a unique perspective to an otherwise ordinary green space.

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Absurd boardwalk through a park near Dufferin and Davenport 

But perhaps the most ultimate urban boardwalk is Manhattan’s High Line. Twisting and turning over the meatpacking district, the High Line travels over New York City without disturbing it. Flanuers can enjoy an intimate and unique experience of the city, getting to places they could otherwise not access. The novelty of floating above and through the city on the world’s largest urban boardwalk has been enough to make the High Line known throughout the world.

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Yesterday, I had the pleasure of volunteering at the 7th annual Complete Streets Forum, a meeting of urban planners, designers, politicians, advocates and urbanists of all stripes committed to building streets that make room for all users — not just cars — in cities across the world.

The conference was hosted by the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation at Daniels Spectrum, an art centre managed by Artscape in Regent Park. Regent Park is currently undergoing “revitalization”, and is home home to a number of innovative urban design features, including what’s almost a complete street.

The conference was invigorating. It is inspiring to see all the work folks are doing to advance inclusive, healthy and active street design in municipalities across the world.

The morning’s first keynote Speaker, Dr John Pucher, set an energizing tone for the conference as he spoke excitedly and passionately about the need for complete streets. He shared his research team’s findings that women are an “indicator species” for good bike infrastructure (more women biking = more bike infrastructure, and vice versa!), and that children who walk or bike to school are half a year more intelligent then their driving contemporaries.

Tactical Urbanism: Lesson in Test Driving had Nathan Westendorp and Robert Voigt share their experiences working with cities to pilot projects at 0.75% of the budget of the overall cost of the implemented project. The “try before you buy” mentality means smarter city building, and everyone, even urbanist focused city planners, can learn from the experience. I also enjoyed the idea that DIY city repair, like citizens painting their own cross walks when the city ignores the need, can be dangerous, and we need a way to leverage that energy and make the city more responsible and nimble to the requests of citizen groups.

Dr. Jeannette Montufar spoke after lunch about the history of transportation planning, focusing on “how we got here”. Her historical analysis showed empathy for the decisions of urban planners of the 50s and 60s who opted to build “ribbons of pristine concrete” through “slum” neighbourhoods. They were trying to make the world better, and could not anticipate the negative effects a total highway society would bring. Dr. Montufar’s perspective as an engineer was valuable, and she spoke about the need to get engineers to conferences on complete streets. Public realm is often in the department of transportation, and engineers are as the ones implementing the design of roadways. In terms of street design, they are only being taught to maximize capacity — thus missing on the essential stop and chat nature of a city.

After an afternoon walking tour of the revitalization of Regent Park, including the project’s complete-ish street between Regent Park Park and Nelson Mandela Elementary School, I was delighted to hear from Heidi Wolf, of NYC’s Department of Transportation. She spoke clearly and passionately about her work documenting the Before and After photos of New York’s many urban design and complete streets projects. She stressed the need for clarity, including people in the photos, and getting the same angle for the before and after shots as essential to “selling” the projects to the city, developers and citizens.

The day ended with an engaging panel on the redesign of Eglinton Avenue, moderated by Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. Incredibly, despite the current anti-bike, “war on the car” rhetoric in Toronto, city council approved a 19km separated bike lane, running along Eglinton Avenue, as part of the streets redesign in conjunction with the coming LRT. The panel included an urban designer, cycling advocate, community faciliator, and a representative of the area’s BIAs, and focused on the difficulty of suggesting a bike lane to business owners who overestimate the amount of business the yget from car drivers. A 19 kilometre separated bike lane on Eglinton! How exciting — but the details are material for another post.

Thank you to TCAT for hosting such an excellent, informative and positive conference. I left feeling inspired, energized and motivated to contribute to a world of increasingly friendly environments for pedestrians, cycling, transit and cars. Congratulations to all the presenters and attendees, it was a pleasure meeting you and I look forward to working with you in the future!

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 ManchesterHistory.net

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

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.

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto 

For most Torontonians, Spring couldn’t come any sooner. The icy cold that has gripped the city since December has let up on only a few occasions, and we’re in for a few more frigid days before the thaw.

It’s not that this city hates winter. Hiking through snowy ravines, tobogganing down icy slopes, and enjoying a hot chocolate after skating one of the many rinks spread throughout the city are cornerstones of the Torontonian winter experience. But this city is a long way from fully embracing its cold months.

We could learn a thing or two from cities down the road in Quebec, where they wear their winter well. Along with Quebec City’s Carnival, and Igloofest(an outdoor, neon snow suit filled raved in Montreal’s Old Port), a common urban Quebec scene involves squares transformed into wonderful winter gathering spaces — bonfires, bands, beer and all.

Winter revelers in Montreal gather at Parc Compagnons-de-St-Laurent for a bonfire, beer, and music. Image courtesy of Tourisme Montreal.

Winter revelers in Montreal gather at Parc Compagnons-de-St-Laurent for a bonfire, beer, and music. Image courtesy of Tourisme Montreal.

Toronto definitely prefers its winter to be a little more indoors. It’s no surprise this city boasts one of the largest underground walking networks in the world. Using the PATH system, you can get from Dundas & Bay to well south of Front Street without ever getting your ears cold.

The other day, I was walking through Regent Park on a frigid day. Feeling the semi-publicness of the building, I ducked into Artscape’s Daniels Spectrum to warm up my fingers and toes. I immediately felt comfortable in the space, noticing that others were taking refuge from the cold in the sunny lobby. Though the adjoining Paintbox Bistro has a small take out coffee bar fronting the space, I didn’t feel any pressure to buy anything to stay. I took a seat on one of the many sofas, enjoying the views of the street from the floor to ceiling windows, while warming myself up in the bright, airy space.

People gather inside at the Artscape Lounge at Daniels Spectrum. Image by Garrison McArthur Photographers.

People gather inside at the Artscape Lounge at Daniels Spectrum. Image by Garrison McArthur Photographers.

The Artscape Lounge at Daniels Spectrum is an excellent example of accessible indoor space — a real asset for a city that likes its winter inside. The lounge is a third kind of place. Not an overly programmed or regulated public space like a library or community centre, or a fancy cafe where you have to buy something to stay, Daniels Spectrum offers free, accessible and indoor space with a pleasant atmosphere.

Regent Park has its Daniels Spectrum, but this is a model that could be applied in neighbourhoods across the city. Where are other accessible, indoor spaces in Toronto that have been keeping you warm this winter?

In honour of winter, I would like to re-post an essay I wrote in 2009 for Spacing Montreal while I was going to McGill University for Urban Geography. It was a very snowy winter that year. Kind of like this one, in Toronto.

Are there any natural paths along your walks this winter?

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When walking through Montreal, we cannot deny the usefulness of the shortcut. Shortcuts that are used a lot demonstrate  the lovely chaos that occurs when a side walk doesn’t quite meet our pedestrian needs.

Most pedestrians share one goal: to get between two points in the city as fast as possible. Ideally, urban planners would design paths that meet our needs perfectly, with major routes that bring the maximum number of people to the places they want to go.

Well, the utopian city in a planner’s mind does not exist.  We all have different orientations toward the city. We all have different ideas what we need to do and where to go, with different preferences for transportation. Ideally, a city is flexible enough to accommodate that.

Though planners couldn’t possibly provide sidewalks wherever you would want to walk, the city makes itself available for some crafty self landscape design. A simple example is the phenomenon of natural paths.

The most common example of natural paths are the ones that form at many street corners. Cutting every corner makes a walk much faster. So, inevitably, corner sidewalks are often usurped by a pythagorean line from A to B.

Living in a winter-city gives Montrealers a unique perspective on the natural path phenomenon. Every winter in Park Jeanne-Mance, the city ploughs paths that trace the perimeter of the park, the slowest route for someone who wants to walk across.

Having to walk through the park daily, I’ve found that shortcuts through the snow appear every winter in the same place. A path that initially manifests as a narrow track of boot prints, meandering past trees and picnic tables, slowly evolves to become wide and navigable.

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We can read these indexes of movement as evidence of Montreal’s collective unconscious. The natural path through the snow also shows me that ultimately, I rely on the actions of others in urban space. It’s angle shortens the walk for the most number of people, and is a beautiful instance where natural human behaviour manifests in collective rationality and the logic of a city can be easily read.

Another example can be found on Ave des Pins, just west of du Parc. When the city redesigned the intersection to fit a more human scale, a large fence was built separating the north and south sides of Pins in order to prevent pedestrians from jay-walking through the fast-moving traffic. Despite these efforts, a path has formed directly through the seemingly indestructible steel fence. We can again appreciate the organic and collective nature of our negotiation of Montreal’s urban space and realize that ultimately, our city is formed by its citizens: our actions, our behaviours and our habits.

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Retail podium

Depending on your politics, there is much to gripe about when discussing condo development in Toronto. Some qualms are knee-jerk reactions to a lifestyle of hyper-consumerism not cared for. Other criticisms are directed toward the financing of the buildings — reported to be fuelled by international real-estate investors that care little about the quality of a condo’s building materials or its contribution to the city. 

I think one of the greatest failures of recent condo development in Toronto is the homogeneity of retail podiums that seem to be planted at the bottom of every new construction. About a decade ago developers finally got the memo from post-Jane Jacobs planners that mixed-used development makes good city. Retail at street grade, residential above ensures that the messiness of city commerce enlivens a streetscape, creates spaces for social interaction, and fosters citizen surveillance and propriety over city space. 

Retail podiums are certainly a good feature, when done right. Something, however, has gone terribly wrong. The square footage of space provided by retail spaces at street level in new condos is typically so huge that only Shoppers Drug Mart, TD Bank and Starbucks are the only retailers wealthy enough to afford the rent. In the very technical bylaws that now require retail at street level, a bit of urban magic has been lost. The guidelines do not specify minimum or maximum square footage, so in the interest of efficiencies and obtaining reliable tenants, major corporations and banks are the go-to to fill the (very) large retail square feet vacuum. 

There are a number of reasons why this isn’t a great situation. First, it creates a suburban kind of inner-city monotony, where the same landscape constantly repeats itself. The store fronts are so large and corporately sanitized that walking by them feels drawn out, bland and boring — not conducive to the messy, fine grained rhythm of constantly punctuated, organically grown urban space. Second, it doesn’t allow small businesses to thrive. Small businesses ensure localized economic benefits, plus spill-over benefits such as entrepreneurs that care about, and thus contribute to, their neighbourhoods.  

I am always genuinely peeved to see a perfectly fine condo building tarnished by retail that’s too big for anything but Shoppers Drug Mart. That’s why my heart skipped a beat when I saw that “Bari’s Fine Food” had just been opened in the podium of 530 St Clair West at Bathurst (that is, re-opened — it apparently occupied the building that was demolished to make way for the new condominium). Bari’s is a local business, feels unique and at home in its location and is a welcome contrast to the TD Bank and Starbucks that share the condo’s podium further east. 

While the  phenomenon of retail at street level in new condominiums is a welcome step in making good city, it would be all the better if the bylaws went the extra step to assure space is made for small businesses. This would accomplish the above-mentioned goals of increasing local propriety of city space, investing in local economies, and achieving a fine grain of vertically articulated urban space — Imagine a city of sparkling new condo towers, with messy, niche, and unexpected store fronts animating the street and contributing to the city with their hard work — and what a pleasure it would be to walk by.

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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.

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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! 😮 ).

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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).

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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.

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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.

I can describe urban planning in the Netherlands with one term: Multiple Land Use.

Multiple Land Use in the Netherlands has a much deeper meaning than what I’ve come to know of the same concept in Canada.

In my understanding, Multiple Land Use in Canada is a fairly simple mixing of residential, commercial and industrial activities. Also known as Mixed-Use Zoning, this practice has come into vogue in the last 20 years, in direct response to the negative consequences of the Modernist practice of isolating functions which characterized urban planning in the mid to late 20th century.

In the Netherlands, Multiple Land Use means so much more than having commercial and residential beside each other, and refers to a deeper mixing of land use functions — indeed, Multiple Land Use refers to the literal stacking of functions on top of each other!

Some of my fave examples:

◈ Along the Prince Hendrikade, which lines Amsterdam’s historical Eastern harbour, there are bike, car, bus and pedestrian lanes. There is a boardwalk style green space lining the water. Where Valkenburgerstraat intersects Prince Hendrikade sits the NEMO – a  science museum with a very distinct, contemporary architectural style. On top of the NEMO is a cafe, and terrace with expansive view of the city. Under the NEMO runs the IJtunnel – a bus and car link that runs under the science museum, under the IJ and into Amsterdam Noord.

Green space beside an institution which is under leisure space and over transportation space: classic Netherlands Multiple Land Use.

Another example:

◈ Westerpark, in Amsterdam’s west. In a small strecth of land, you can find residential, commercial, leisure, agricultural, cemetarial, transportation and gardenal uses. Standing in the middle of Westerpark, you get a strange floating feeling. Runners and bikers whip by you. Inter-city trains passing mark the minutes. You get whiffs of  hearty compost and manure of gardens and farms. You hear the clattering of dishes in nearby restaurants and cafes. You smell coffee, burnt tires, marijuana. You see tall buildings in the distance, squat residential blocks nearby, smoke stacks in the horizon. You see it all, the multiple uses of land, from one vantage point.

And just one more:

◈ Along Leidsestraat and Utrechtsestraat, bi-directional tram lines run. The streets, however, are only wide enough at certain points for one set of tram-tracks. To resolve this, the Trams wait for each other to pass at the stops which are located on the canal bridges — wide enough to support both directions of the tram. The multiple-land use kicks in beautifully on Leidsestraat, a pedestrian-only street, where 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. It works beautifully.

TramA tram patiently wait for another to pass, in typically Amsterdam flexible use of space.
The diagram of this above, is an arrangement that can be found on Leidsestraat and Utrechtsetraat.

You can also see this along Rembrandtplein. It is a pedestrian only street, save for the trams that periodically pass. When the trams pass, they create a wake through the crowd, and their path leaves a temporarily empty corridor in the middle of the walkway. Slowly the corridor fades as pedestrians feel safe again to use the whole space, but soon another tram comes and the corridor reappears. A beautiful ebb and flow of multiple land use.

This post originally appeared on the Pop Up City

Urbanism and sustainability undeniably go hand in hand. What first comes to mind is the prototypical ‘Green City’ — a cityscape rich with parks, trees and productive vertical farms draped over high rises.

As cities are incredibly complex, so must be any sort of urban sustainability, which can come in many more forms than a ‘Green City’. With so much going on in an urban environment, there’s bound to be some excess energy flows. So why waste that energy, if you can turn it into something that’s better, fun, and productive? That’s what we call Parasite Urbanism — strategies and urban interventions that creatively make use of spaces or energies that otherwise would be neglected or would go to waste, contributing to a wider concept of urban sustainability. Let’s take a look at three of the best examples of urban parasites that we’ve highlighted on the Pop Up City. They all make use of a variety of otherwise neglected spaces or energy, launching them into places that are more useful, more productive and more fun!

Softwalks, New York CitySoftwalks, New York City

1. New York City’s Softwalks

In New York City, over 6000 ‘scaffolding sheds’ cover the city’s sidewalks at any given point in time. Taking advantage of the shelter they provide, Softwalks is an initiative dedicated to improving the pedestrian experience in New York City, transforming these sheds from passing through spaces to pleasant places to relax, sit, and eat. Softwalks are a DIY urban parasite: packaged in a convenient kit to let people turn local scaffolding into their own temporary hangout spaces. Have a seat, hang around a counter table or enjoy the planters that’ve been attached to metal beams. All Softwalk elements are easily attached and removed when you want to continue your walk. Now that’s what we call pop-up!

Stairway Cinema, Auckland

2. Auckland’s Parasite Cinema

In Auckland, New Zealand, a small movie theater was constructed over an exterior stairwell as an extension to the rest of the building. This small parasite cinema was made by the architects of OH.NO.SUMO and uses the steps of a staircase as seats. Right on the side of a busy street, the theater has place for approximately seven people. This clever construction is made out of a timber frame covered with three layers of fabric that provide a waterproof exterior, and a real cinema-like experience. OH.NO.SUMO designed the cinema in response to the lack of social interaction happening at bus stops and launderettes on the corner, with people increasingly absorbed in their own world within their mobile phones. The program of the Stairway Cinema is curated online by the audience itself, making the project embedded in both the physical and digital worlds. The great thing about this parasite is that it sheds a different light on a common urban space, transforming an everyday spot into a place that can be used completely differently.

Pay-phone library, New York City

3. New York City’s Pay-Phone Libraries

Making use New York City’s ever present pay phones — a dying breed in the streets of of cities around the world, the Department of Urban Betterment took the parasite strategy to transform this a ‘problem’ into an opportunity. New York City has 13,659 pay phones spread throughout its streets — most of them are hardly used. This parasitic urban intervention is repurposing phone booths into communal libraries or book drops. Although we’ve seen several efforts to transform old phone booths into book shops, this project is interesting as it is a parasite that uses the existing construction while leaving the phone itself untouched and fully operable. Furthermore, the installation is easy to remove. The meaning of a pay phone might be lost to the new generation of smart phone users. Pay phones can be considered relics of a time in which shared public facilities were characterizing public spaces. With this miniature library, The Department of Urban Betterment uses a parasite strategy effectively to imagine a new public use for these intriguing artifacts.


Stadsklas

In a series of six articles we’re exploring new forms of urbanism where bottom-up, DIY and spontaneity are key. Become a new-style city-maker with the Stadsklas (City Class), an action-driven summer course in the Netherlands organized by Stroom, that gets you ready to tackle urban issues in the 21st century.