Archives for category: urban design notes

Negotiating a new place comes with inevitable comparisons to places you are familiar with. This is an inescapable quality of being human: we integrate new knowledge by embedding it within the systems of knowledge we’ve already constructed. When you visit a new city, it really is difficult to accept it as a place in-and-of itself, and comparisons to London, New York, Toronto, Venice are almost inescapable…

Along these lines, I’ve detected a specific comparison mechanism I’ve employed in my negotiations of Amsterdam: comparing the scale of the built environment. This allows for comparison of two cities not by specific architectural styles, but the size of the elements of the cityscape. My analysis of scale falls along an axis with “cozy, human scale” on one end and “car-oriented hell” on the other, with lots of variation in between.

Here are two fun “scalar equivalencies”, or “synonymous scales” that I’ve encountered and thought-up while exploring Amsterdam. I am sharing them because they stood out as quite stark to me, and allowed me to meaningfully understand these parts of Amsterdam without a constraining comparison. Comparing places by scale allows the places to “be themselves”, while allowing a meaningful understanding of the potential uses of these spaces outside my direct experience of them.

Amsterdam’s IJburg <————> Montreal’s Plateau

IJburg Montreal

Amsterdam’s newest neighbourghood, IJburg, is built in the scale of early 20th century North American urbanism, much like Montreal’s central Plateau neighbourhood. Cozy and compact, walkable and diverse, this landscape is not hostile to car use or ownership. There is density, but there is also space.

Noord Amsterdam <————> Portland, Oregon

Noord AmsterdamPortland

Portland is interesting because it is defined by a sort of “walkable suburbanism“. The streetscapes are dominated by cars, parking lots and strip malls, but wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and lots of interesting businesses and organizations make for an easily navigable city by foot or bike. Amsterdam Noord has a similar feel: in amongst the huge roads, parking lots and car repair shops are nice, human scale restaurants and shops, bike lanes and generally well-scaled streets for non-car exploration.


“A Reuleaux triangle is the simplest and best known Reuleaux polygon. It is a curve of constant width, meaning that the separation of two parallel lines tangent to the curve is independent of their orientation.” – Wikipedia.

I’ve noticed the Reuleaux triangle, a lovely and rounded three-pointed shape all over Amsterdam. Two examples ranging from the relatively substantial to the most mundane are the shapes of windows in the Plan-Zuid, Berlage designed homes in the city’s south, and the shapes of common beer coasters in bars all over the city.

I like this shape. Its roundedness makes it playful and approachable. I didn’t know there were shapes out there I had never encountered before. It’s new to me. It feels distinct to this region of the world, and specifically, this city.


Enjoy these GIFs of the reuleaux triangle – I made them using the deep reds and purply blacks that characterize Amsterdam — this undulating and cozy city.


Update: Wild news, readers! It turns out there was a significant Reuleux Triangle in Amsterdam I failed to mention before, one so big that it’s amazing I didn’t see it until now. It turns out that the entire city is a reuleux triangle!

That’s right – on many scales from the canal belt to the ring road that surrounds the city, Amsterdam is shaped like a large, rounded triangle.

amsterdam triangle


IJburg is Amsterdam’s newest neighbourhood.

Though the Netherlands is known for its land reclamation projects, IJburg is built on soil and sand that has been transported and piled up along the Eastern banks of the IJ (pronounced like eye), the major waterway that runs between North and Central Amsterdam and eventually to the North Sea.



As it is the focus of much current development in Amsterdam, IJburg is home to some very experimental (/cutting-edge/progressive) architecture and urban design. A lot of it comes from the schools of urban planning and architecture that are viewed as best practice today: the avoidance of single developers and monotonous housing projects with little architectural variance, and the championing of mixed-use, diverse and walkable settlements — the tenets of contemporary urbanism toward the realization of a “livable city”.

One way these lofty ideals are being achieved is the allowance for people to design their own houses.  As peoples’ preferences are unsurprisingly varied, there is a lot of diversity in housing-form. Classical Amsterdam Canal-houses are set alongside dramatic post-Modern homes. (For example, an entirely yellow facade, articulated by small windows on the upper floors). The result is a highly varied and engaging streetscape and a whole-hearted departure from the traditionally homogenous suburb.


A starkly yellow facade, alongside less extreme post-modern homes


Urban Planning, a relatively new, and constantly self-justifying discipline has yet to fully heal its reputation from the misguided and heavy-handed plans that defined the field in the 1960s. The success or failure of IJburg, and the urban plan that is guiding its growth, will make a strong statement about the legitimacy of the theories of Urban Planning — and indeed of the entire discipline – today.


I visited IJburg on a grey March day. The cold wind blew fiercely, making biking difficult, especially on the bridges between the neighbourhoods and islands of Indischebuurt and Zeeburg along the way.

That despite the weather, I felt good in IJburg, is a real testament to the quality of this housing project. A good place feels good in the shimmering days of mid-Summer, but also on the greyest, coldest Winter afternoons.

As a place of urban experimentation, IJburg inspired a lot of thought. Here are some notes on the neighbourhood that I jotted down while exploring earlier today.

☉IJburg is a strong skeleton for a city. But because it is intensely planned, it unavoidably feels that way. People react negatively to places that feel over-planned: spaces that are sterile and uninspiring. With time, however, the messy urbanism that makes cities spontaneous, dynamic and desirable will find its way into IJburg. Once the buildings and infrastructure begin to decay, and the neighbourhood is truly lived in, this has the potential to be an exciting part of the city. IJburg is healthy bones.

☉(Another related possibility is that if there were an economic collapse, and developers/the city became no longer able to continue with its development, informal ways of engaging with urban space becoming the norm, IJburg would provide a good setting for creativity & experimentation)

☉The newest parts of IJburg, those developments at its edge that are mostly vacant or are in the process of being constructed also feel full of potential. Unlike that ghostly feeling you get from the newest phase of a gated community in Florida or empty towers in resort condominiums built for time-share users, the emptiness of the newest parts of IJburg feel like they will soon be home to a busy and well-used city. The potential-energy in IJburg is palatable.

☉IJburg is built strongly in the tradition of a early 20th century North American urbanism. It is cozy, and people-sized, but is makes space for car use. The scale reminded me of Rosemount or the Plateau in Montreal.

☉Rather than thinking of IJburg as an extension of central Amsterdam, it might be better to conceptualize it as its own world: a nearby, highly connected village. IJburg’s communications with Amsterdam are strong. The 26-Tram runs every 6 minutes mid-day, and commuters are invited to bring their bikes on board (the only tram in the city to allow this). At €1.95 per trip, the ride is affordable. The 26 also takes an interesting journey through the city from its Eastern edge to the centre. More of a commuter-train, the tram’s route is equipped with level railroad crossings that stop traffic until it passes. This makes the journey to Centraal Station quite fast.


Toward the end of my exploring, I found a part of IJburg that has not been built on yet. It is a heap of sand that protrudes out into the IJ. It is a wild, desertous dune-scape, that, though empty now, feels alive with the city that will grow over it. I walked to the edge of the sandy peninsula and stood, facing the water and the wind. I thought to myself: the Netherlands is a present place. Not too caught up in its history, it embraces and is playful with growth and change.

Amsterdam Pocket Atlas

The City of Amsterdam has put together a very excellent Pocket Atlas, and I’ve had the good fortune of getting my hands on a copy.

The Amsterdam Pocket Atlas provides a thorough look into the spatial qualities of the city, illustrated by maps that describe such delights as Amsterdam’s historical morphology, its tram network, an overview of the city’s mix of functions, green spaces, housing prices and more – a wide range of clearly presented facts expressed in well designed maps.

How thoughtful of the City of Amsterdam to have the Urban Geographers of the world in mind when they put this excellent atlas together.

But I shouldn’t be so naive. It’s obvious from the tone and content of the Atlas that the City is appealing to the corporations and industries of globalized capital –  attempting to attract fickle, foot loose business by enticing them with the region’s diversity, accessibility & connectivity.

However biased the Amsterdam Pocket Atlas may be, it is nevertheless chalk-full of golden nuggets of geographic trivia – a treasure trove of urban geography delights.

The Atlas shed light on something I found particularly interesting: the limits that the Dutch are able to put on the boundaries of their cities. Under a different plan, Amsterdam could very well have expanded infinitely into its surrounding region. Harlem, Leiden, even sea-size Zandvoort could very well be a part of a North American style GAA (Greater Amsterdam Area).

Fixed Boundaries

Reading the excellent Amsterdam Pocket Atlas, I learnt that “for over a century the city acquire[d] space to expand by annexing neighbouring municipalities. Since 1966 the municipal boundaries have been fixed”.

What foresight, to limit the growth of a city – taming the beast before it wreaks havoc on the innocent villages of its hinterland.

Sprawling Toronto did not demonstrate this discipline when it became a mega-city in 1998. Instead, it has become a vast city-region, where a centralized, over burdened municipality has replaced effective local governance. It is a place where the forces of homogenization are something to constantly battle.

The behemoth Halifax Regional Municipality too, could have learnt a lesson from Amsterdam’s spatial discipline when it decided to amalgamate into a too-enormous-to-make-any sense city-region in 1996.

Amsterdam’s ability to limit its borders means a lot of things. It means it is excellently predisposed to make the necessary balance between an ever-densifying city and its highly fertile agricultural hinterland. While Halifax struggles to institute a greenbelt to control sprawl, Amsterdam is well poised for its future.

I don’t know why Dutch cities have tendencies toward spatial discipline, but it manifests in many different scales. For an example, I’ll focus on the neighbourhood level.


Spaarndammerbuurt makes itself explicitly known to its visitors

Neighbourhoods in Amsterdam are discrete spatial units. They are distinct, and have borders that can be easily referenced and mapped. Some neighbourhoods even have pseudo-gates, explicitly marking the space as part of the district: De Pijp’s In/Uit De Pijp sign and the same in Spaardammerbuurt.

In de Pijp

Uit de Pijp

It’s clear whether you’re In, or Uit of de Pijp, a neighbourhood in central Amsterdam

This is also not the case in Toronto – most neighbourhoods bleed into each other, and people have a hard time of agreeing on what’s what.

Its seems the Dutch have no need for the advice dished out in Kevin Lynch’s tome The Image of the City. There is a strong tradition of spatial discipline here. Exploring the city, I feel firmly rooted in where I am, and entirely oriented. Dutch cities are bastions of imageability.

Cross-posted from the Pop-Up City

Amazingly, this is a project that beautifies public spaces, broadens the services offered by a city, and makes use of the most locally sourced fertilizers possible!

When Nature Calls is a project by Columbus, Ohio based industrial designer Eddie Gandelman. It is a public urinal that uses filtered pee as fertilizer for plants growing in an attached planter. When properly filtered, urine provides a number of essential nutrients that are vital to healthy plant growth.

'When Nature Calls' by Eddie Gandelman

Most urinals are a guaranteed eyesore in public space, cluttering otherwise open squares and adding unwanted odors to the aromas of the city. This design however, not only beautifies the urinal itself, but contributes to the aesthetics of its surroundings, filters urine to be smell-free, while providing a nice, shady oasis for its users.

'When Nature Calls' by Eddie Gandelman

The concept of using urine as fertilizer is nothing new. (Beyond peeing on the shrubs after a night of drinking, gardeners have been doing it for centuries.) But as urban agriculture becomes more of a reality and serious business, and people are becoming more concerned with sourcing materials locally, cities have to come up with systematic ways to gather and distribute useful, locally sourced waste – without having everyone peeing everywhere. Rather than a centralized solution, the When Nature Calls urinal offers individual, site specific resolutions to the question of collecting and reusing human waste.

'When Nature Calls' by Eddie Gandelman

And what about number two: Could solid human waste ever be used to fertilize a cities greenery, or to boost the productivity of urban farms? Composting toilets, though gaining in popularity, are for the most part completely banned in cities around the world. The taboo of poo is, understandably, hard to get over. But given enough time to decompose, humanure is a good source of fertilizer for plants such as trees, where the fruit is grown far from the ground.

Ingenious interventions such as this urinal represent the city’s progression toward a model of a circular economy – where there is no waste, no end to a product’s life cycle and everything can be reused – even pee!

Cross-posted from the Pop-Up City

Inspiration: Contemporary Design Methods in Architecture

Today, the link between architecture and digital software is so strong, it’s easy to forget that it hasn’t always been this way. Architecture’s reliance on digital design programs has lead to the spread of a homogenous ‘global-style’ architecture — buildings made from the same material, designed by the same methods, using the same software, all over the world.

Inspiration: Contemporary Design Methods in Architecture is a compilation of practices in contemporary architecture that invites designers to reconsider the digital in their design process. While digital programs are empowering, Inspiration establishes that they shouldn’t be relied on. Using brilliant examples from contemporary global architecture, Inspiration maintains that the best ideas are established in analogue settings, followed by digital experimentation and development. Inspiration is an excellent book with two sides: It is an extensive catalogue of contemporary approaches to design, focusing on digital techniques that are emerging in the field of architecture and illustrated by spectacular examples from all over the world. Inspiration is also an essential guide to design, and its broad themes will appeal to anyone in the creative sector.

Casa de Musica, Porto

Inspiration is a beautifully designed book that contains over 800 images and illustrations. Its glossy pages and striking photography invite deep consideration of digital processes’ impact on architecture. Written by architects Mark Mückenheim and Juliane Demel, and published by BIS PublishersInspiration is a product of the authors’ commitment to a diverse field of contemporary architecture. They acknowledge that cultural relevance is easily lost in contemporary architecture’s mass produced design and construction. The authors invite you to look past the homogenous appearance of global architecture and focus on the best examples: buildings with high architectural value that respond to their local context. Inspiration makes the case that good design can use digital software to achieve just that.

De Young Museum, San Francisco

One way the authors show how digital processes achieve good quality, highly localized design is the ability to make communication between designers and production-facilities easy. Architects can now directly communicate with manufacturers, and can customize highly specialized building parts, enabling the reemergence of local style. Digital design also means that ornamentation is back in contemporary architecture. Gone are the days of Modernism’s rejection of decoration as frivolous and unnecessary. Now, with digital software, ornamentation can be an essential part of a structure’s design. Architects’ ability to focus on ornamentation can help define a places’ unique identity.

Danish Pavillion, Shanghai World Expo 2010

Readers of The Pop-Up City will be interested in Inspiration’s examination of local identity within a globalized world. Inspiration argues that today, the search for uniqueness is a central theme of architecture, and can be employed to establish a city’s identity. The principles of design are firmly rooted as the pillars of city marketing and corporate identity. Digital design methods, used properly, are an effective approach to creating unique, identity-defining and highly localized architecture.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

In conclusion we can state that Inspiration is a compellingly structured book that provides an excellent overview of digital design methods, and best practices within contemporary architecture. Appealing to both students and veterans in all fields of design, we know that you will definitely be inspired after reading this book!

Inspiration: Contemporary Design Methods in Architecture
By Mark Mückenheim and Juliane Demel
With guest authors Moritz Fleischmann and Tobias Klein
BIS Publishers
29.5 x 23.5 cm, hardcover
274 pages
ISBN: 978-90-6369-267-4
Language: English
EUR 45.00

Cross-posted from the Pop-Up City

Last year the Pop-Up City met We Heart’s James Davidson in Helsinki during the city’s fantastic series of World Design Capital events. A few weeks ago he sent his recently published book Create GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British Creativity. Looking back on the celebration of UK culture during London’s 2012 Olympic games, the book highlights the best of British creativity, exploring the country’s cutting edge design, and the significance of being in the UK to the creative process.

We Heart is a UK-based online magazine that features content on lifestyle and design, updated daily. It is an influential and internationally read source for the latest in all things global design: restaurants, travel, architecture, fashion, photography, technology and more. For their first publication, We Heart decided to focus on design matters closest to home.

Create GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British Creativity

Designed by SB StudioCreate GB is extensive and wide ranging in its coverage of British art and design. Everything is included, as long as it’s exciting, and as long as it’s from the UK. The book is divided into two parts: a glossy catalogue of introductions to a number of UK-based creative firms, artists and designers, accompanied by visually stunning photographs and samples of their work.

The next section has a more in-depth Q&A section, featuring interviews with each firm/artist highlighted, exploring their practice, future projects, personal questions (“what makes you smile?”) and some quirkier inquiries such as “If we could replace the Ruler on the bank notes with one iconic British design, what would you choose?” — answers range from a “a bulldog” (Cat Patterson, fashion designer), “Alfred Hitchcock” (Dominic Davies, photographer) to “a fish and chips supper” (Lick Me I’m Delicious, pop-up ice cream makers).

Create GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British Creativity

The rest of the questions focus on the importance of the UK to the artists’ and designers’ creative practice. Essentially, Create GB is an exploration into an important concern in this age of globalization, and a topic The Pop-Up City often highlights: does place matter? Questions such as “Do you think location effects creativity?” and “Is Britain’s creative industry too London-centric?” emphasize how British culture effects art practice, and the importance of being in London and the UK to creativity.

Among the incredible number of creatives in the fields of visual arts, fashion & graphic design, Create GB highlights a few urban design and art practices that will interest readers of The Pop-Up City.

Create GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British Creativity

Create GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British Creativity

Create GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British Creativity

An interesting sample of UK architecture and urban design is Studio Weave, a London-based firm that combines contemporary style with concepts of sustainability and community-driven design. Their award winning designs are authentic and specific to their local contexts: location matters to Studio Weave. We especially like their Longest Bench installation in Little Hampton –  a playful urban design intervention that is built from reclaimed wood. Its modular design makes it easy to extend – and it can already seat 300 people!

Another artist we really like is Fraser Gray. Hir large scale murals combine photo realism with surrealist narrative, and are a graceful convergence of fine art and graffiti. Ze cites the political nature of hir work, and the general politicization of the art world as an inevitable reaction to the global economic crisis. Ze holds firmly that location effects creativity. Location provides significance and familiarity, and access to social networks that provide opportunity for collaboration. Ze also situates hir work within of a very British tradition of enormous murals of working life in Scottish cities: place matters to Fraser Gray!

Create GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British CreativityCreate GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British Creativity

With questions about possible collaborations with other UK artists, and the situation of work within quintessential British traditions, Create GB is a rallying cry for the significance of place and local-networks to creativity. Though it focuses on Britain, the book offers a good model to national creative industries worldwide. It encourages connections, place-based inspiration, and collaboration as essential to a thriving and dynamic creative industry.

Reading the interviews, the reader understands that the defiant answer to the question of the importance of location within a globalized world is that place indeed matters. Globalization has not lead to homogeneity, but rather a nuanced and energized British culture defined by its roots in tradition, and contemporary multicultural outlook, “carefully balanced on the edge of tradition and aggression” according to Fraser Gray. Most importantly, place offers a unique social network embedded within a locationally specific history of art and design — the perfect situation for creativity.

Create GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British Creativity

In conclusion Create GB is a great book if you want an in depth insight into the UK’s art and design scene. The book’s extensive catalogue of British artists and designers offers a fantastic introduction to a variety of UK-based creative practices, while the Q&A is light, humorous and insightful. This insight into British creativity and lessons of the significance of location to creativity makes Create GB a worthwhile read. We hope that there will be a Volume 2 in the near future!

Create GB Volume 1: Celebrating Great British Creativity
Published by We Heart
Written by James Davidson and Alicja McCarthy
Edited by Dave Waddell
Designed by SB Studio
196 pages, 39 artists and designers featured
Language: English
GBP 15.00


This is Halifax, today. The main geographical feature of Halifax is that it is a peninsula. Peninsular Halifax protrudes out from the Bedford Basin into the greater harbour. To the west, a thin strip of water known as the North West Arm separates it from Spryfield and the Purcell’s Cove Road area – the “mainland”.

There are no connections over the North West Arm between peninsular Halifax and the mainland – one must travel to where the land connects – at the Rotary – to get anywhere along the western shores of the Arm – a relatively far distance to travel to somewhere that is not too far away, as the crow flies, or the car drives.

Halifax cognitive-01

The consequences of this on the city’s collective cognitive geography is enormous. With no connections, the mainland seems incredibly far away, more like the map pictured above. The mainland is also fairly undeveloped — it remains largely forested, and, along Purcell’s Cove road you can access William’s Lake, and Tea Lake, some of Halifax-area’s most beloved swimming spots.

Halifax with Harbour Drive-01

In the 1960s, an ambitious highway plan would have seen the extension of a highway-like Barrington Street through the downtown, around Point Pleasant Park, and over to the mainland, as roughly pictured in the map above.

The plan, known as Harbour Drive, was never realized, and the highway-zation of Barrington stopped at the Cogswell Interchange.

I often think that the consequences of a built Harbour Drive on our relationship with Halifax would have been profound. Instead of thinking about Halifax-proper as an isolated peninsula, it would form a larger whole, and my life would probably be more integrated into the paths and projects associated with the Spryfield and Purcell’s Cove area.

But while thinking this, I also correct myself because if Harbour Drive was built, it would have been a gross super-highway, leading to the development of Fairview-  & Dartmouth-style suburbs that I would never have any reason to go to – there would undoubtedly be a deficiency of a public realm and walkable, public space.

Since Harbour Drive was never built,  beautiful forests remain.

Halifax with pedestrian bridges-01

It is pity, though, that the mainland seems so far from my life, when it’s actually so close.

It would be so lovely, if pedestrian bridges stretched, across the North West Arm, as pictured above, connecting Halifax and the Mainland –  between the end of South Street and Dingle Park, Point Pleasant Park and Purcell’s Cove. It would bring the forest, the lakes, and the fine air of the mainland closer to our lives, in a lovely, healthy way.

There’s a juncture in Toronto – in time and space.

It lies at an edge between the Distillery District, and the yet to be built West Donlands neighbourhood.

Last I was there, gazing east from a tight alley of the Distillery, there was nothingness – a chasm of sight and potential. The tight and built up form of the Distillery dramatically gave way to emptiness at Cherry Street, emphasizing the extreme juxtapositions possible in an urban environment – the logic, and on the other hand randomness of fate in the city, where a street, rational and straight, becomes the definite border between two distinct Places.

Knowing of the West Donlands neighbourhood and its scope, I would look at this gap at Tankhouse Alley and Cherry Street with a feeling of awe, aware of the inevitable explosion of city that will soon burst out of this empty chasm, blooming into a city, full and real.

From afar, I can’t tell but for dispatches from travelling friends, that the new neighbourhood to the East is already being built up;  the drama of the edge-space is becoming less intense. Soon, but for the obvious differences in ages of the buildings to the east and west of Cherry street, the rip will be sewed tightly shut – and the urban fabric will be expanded into a continuous expanse of city. With time, the border will become less distinct, fading into the linkages that will inevitably be forged between one side and the other.

Looking into the past by virtue of Google Street view has allowed me to capture this rift, compensating for my lack of photo-documentation when I should have…

UPDATE: Going through old photos, while I was bored today at the Archives, I discovered that I indeed captured this Distillery edge space last year, during my September Toronto stint! A cunning Urban Geographer never lets an intriguing cityscape go uncaptured:

The red-bricked path way tapers off into a chasm of nothingness – this tear in the urban fabric will soon be sewn, and a continuous cityscape will fill the current gap.

One of the things I miss most about Montreal is its parks.

Montrealers, with their unmistakable joy-of-life, live their lives publicly, in the city’s streets and laneways, and in its parks.

When I lived in Montreal, my local park was Jeanne-Mance: a beautiful green field stretching three long blocks, bordered by tall maples and elms, and framed by the mountain on its western edge. Parc Jeanne Mance offers a lot — wide parades, playgrounds, sports fields of every sort, perimeter paths for jogging and walking — but my favourite element of the park, hands down, is at its south-east end.

Here, at the corner of Duluth and Esplanade, is the loveliest of shady tree-groves. A desire line meanders in between woody perennials that provide equal parts back-rests and shady canopies. Here, under the immense and leafy growth, you can recline, quietly watch-people and be people-watched, and run into friends who are using the park as a shortcut from the Plateau to downtown. Stop and chats are as abundant as the old urban growth; picnics, instruments, naps and solo reading sessions common.

This is where I spent most of my time in summer-Montreal, where I began to sink my teeth into the magical intimacy a city can provide to someone open to it. Parc Jeanne Mance and its other-neighbourhood counterparts are the true gathering spaces of Montreal.

Halifax, my current city-of-residence on the other hand, has no such park — and as a result, no such park culture.

As a resident of the city’s North End, my park options are limited, and baby I can feel that park deficiency

That’s why I was delighted to attend this past weekend’s CKDU picnic, an outdoor bbq at the Commons hosted by Halifax’s campus radio station. It was an opportunity to enjoy the park in a way I hadn’t before — in a way that was distinctly more Montreal.

See, the Commons sort of sucks, in my opinion.

There is undeniable value in the refreshment it provides for the city. A great greenspace, no matter how it’s designed, provides invaluable pleasures and alleviences to the experience of urban living: we are all richer for breathing deeply and having access to spaces such as these.

But the landscape architecture of the Common hardly fosters the sort of gathering and straight-chills that Montreal equivalents harbour.

Halifax’s Common is barren. Save for the perimeter, which is indeed lined with beautiful old trees, there really is no nice place to sit. There actually is one, right in the middle of the North Common, however, nine times out of ten, it’s occupied by the punk-dog kids, and other parties — which is great, they’re great — but the space is so small, that trying to share it would those who are already there is sometimes uncomfortable.

Most of the Commons’ space is instead occupied by sports fields. It’s true, that on a sunny day the park’s baseball diamonds, soccer fields, and cricket pitches are completely full, a testament to the real demand for sport-space in the city. But it doesn’t make for good gathering, and in my opinion, is a real loss for the city, and a damn shame.

The fact that a giant pile of soil supporting a fresh layer of grass and vegetation recently freed from behind a chain link fence is now consistently used as a place for people to gather and sit is evidence of the need for Chills-space in the Common.

At the CKDU picnic, a temporary landscape architecture of tents, tables, vintage clothing stores, and music equipment transformed typically ephemeral “passing through” space at the edge of a soccer field, and marked it instead as a gathering space where people could comfortably hang in the presence of others and the lovely shade provided by a loose collections of tented canopies. The simple intervention in space introduced by the picnic transformed the park dramatically for the better.

I spent a whole bunch of hours at the CKDU picnic, soaking up the temporary Montreal-style park hang. I relished this Commons-hang, and ever-so-thoroughly enjoyed the chance encounters with passing friends who were using the Commons as a short cut between downtown and the North End. It made me sad to think how fleeting this use of the Common was going to be — gave me a glimpse of the sort of park the Commons could be with better design.

How easy it would be to plant a grove of trees in this small disused sliver of the Commons — what a lovely legacy that would be to the park-hangs of Halifax’s future.

Leading image by Chris Foster

walkable suburbanism1

Beyond Portland’s downtown, and mostly, in my experience, across the river on the city’s east side, I experienced a very pleasant form of suburbanism.

The cityscape in these parts is characterized by the archetypal suburban elements:  wide streets, stand alone retail plazas, and single family homes with lots of yard space.

The streets, however, were incredibly walkable, and due to Portland’s progressive approach to urban planning, accommodating to cyclists.

As I explored, it became evident that east-Portland is home to a unique urban form: walkable Suburbanism. Yes, the streets were wide, and cars quickly zoomed through them. Cars are not, however, the dominant form of transportation, the standard unit of planning. Ample room is given to pedestrian space, bicycle lanes are omnipresent, and on some streets, light rail takes up a portion of the roadway.

The archetypal suburban architecture also had a walkable spin: retail plazas and restaurants, usually found set back several hundred feet behind immense fields of parking, were rather directly fronted to the sidewalk. Parking, if present, was limited to a small strips in front of stores.

The neighbourhoods were characterized by detached homes, but the area retained its urban feel, with shops and parks nearby.

As developers become more constrained by the cost of goods and transportation and construction, let’s hope they finally heed to the calls of sustainably-minded urbanists. Grey-field sites, such as already developed suburban land, should increasingly becoming the focus of development.

This is the new frontier of urban planning: the densification of the suburbs. Suburbs are already serviced by water, electricity, and transportation, and can easily accomodate more people. Cities, as they are, have vast tracts of land that can support increases of population: we no longer need do to develop farms and forests on a city’s fringes.

Portland’s walkable suburbanism provides a good model for the densification of the suburbs, the real need being in suburbs that have been developed in the last 20 years.

As most of Portland was probably built in the 1950s, an era of suburban city-building that still had an ounce of dignity, its neighbourhoods are well connected, located in walking distance to commerce, and the streets, though wide, are certainly inhabitable. Portland, along with cities like Winnipeg, and inner-suburban Toronto, is lucky to inherit this built form. It is a great mix of the urban and suburban: it heeds to the desires of those who feel they need fresh air and space, but can also be serviced efficiently, is walkable and bike-able, and certainly fosters social relationships amongst neighbourhood fixtures and passersby.

As we densify the suburbs, let’s look to east-Portland for inspiration. Due to history and good conscience, the future is already there, and its thriving.

City Repair’s grid-dissolving, community building philosophy has found its way across the continent, to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Portland organization focuses on re-purposing urban space through design to facilitate “neighbourliness” and a community-directed sense of place. Painting an intersection is a revolutionizing activity that transforms an intersection from a place to pass people linearly, to a place to gather, meet and make connections.

Mark Lakeman, of City Repair and Communitecture provides a lovely accompanying narrative to explain an intersection painting. He describes the history of the humanuty as the slow spread of imperialism over a world characterized by formerly village lifestyles. Left to our own devices, our former villager-selves would design our living space with dwellings organized around a series of gathering spaces; clusters of shelter with plenty of paths weaving through public places. As imperial power concentrated in centres such as Rome, it spread its authoritarianism, and imposed the Roman Grid over the village life-style. The grid is a major tool of imperialism — it organizes space efficiently, allows for accountability and ease of censuses, it provides good and efficient circulation for the transportation of goods, people, and military services, and it lacks in its design places where people can gather, make connections, and plot to overthrow the imperial power that runs the course of its life.

This is especially true in North America, where over seemingly “blank” landscapes, imperial French, British, Spanish and Dutch powers imposed grids often without provisions for public space.

Lakeman proposes that we return to our village lifestyle, find our inner-villagers, and “dissolve” the ubiquitous grid at every opportunity we can get. Instead of passing each other at an intersection, let’s instead make it a place to meet.

Halifax’s first painted intersection is truly exciting. In a lecture describing his efforts with City Repair, Lakeman references the fact that after the first intersection painting, other Portland neighbourhoods were inspired, and intersection paintings popped up around the city, independently. The movement is now international, and, with the advent of communications technology, good ideas such as these can easily spread across continents to other coasts and other contexts.

I’m excited to experience my first intersection painting. It won’t solve all the problems associated with anonymity and social isolation in cities — but it’s a positive step, and an incredible advance toward bottom up, community-based urban planning: toward an urban sustainability that incorporates the social and environmental, a new city culture that embraces local connections.

Plus — I’ll be selling delicious date-almond smoothies there with my mom — for only $3 a glass.

See you there.