Archives for category: urban field-notes

Over the past year, I’ve been working with Art Starts to create a giant, collaborative, decolonized map of Toronto with a project called Cartography 17.

Working with Lindsey Lickers, a Haudenosaunee/Anishinaabe artist, we dissolved cartography’s colonial language by depicting the land of Toronto informed by a First Nations way of knowing.

We brought workshops to communities across Toronto where participants created maps of their personal geographies. Each workshop began with an Indigenous ceremony and critical conversation on #canada150 and #colonization150.

Enjoy the map and read more below about its elements!

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Sky World – Situated at the top and above the map is the depiction of Sky World, visually represented through the hybridity of the traditional and contemporary. Found in many Haudenosaunee nations attire, is the dome design telling the story of our way of knowing the physical and spiritual realms from which we all once came, and its interconnectedness. Everything beneath the dome represents mother earth, with everything above representing sky world, where creator watches over all of us. The aerosol design, created by Haudenosaunee/ Anishinaabe artist Lindsey Lickers, shows a contemporary interpretation of thecosmos, of sky world and kinetic energy with the orbs reflecting the presence of spirit and ancestors.

Ravines: plants – Pattern by Nyle Johnston that shows the mutually supportive relationship between spirit, plants and humans. 

Shoreline – even physical geography is unstable, and Toronto’s shoreline has changed over millennia, its soft sediment shifting with the tides of the lake, erosion creating the Bluffs and Toronto Island, and more recent infill extending the shoreline by, in some cases, more than a kilometre. 

Rivers – Water is life. When you stand by Toronto’s rivers, they feel so enormous. But when they’re drawn on regular maps, they appear as very small lines. Onthis mapthe rivers are drawn with thick blue strokes, not “to scale”, but certainly more like how we experience these water bodies, and how important they are to our life.

Human movement – Though it looks like Toronto’s highway network, these red lines represent human movement. Humans have been moving through this land for thousands and thousands of years, and they continue to move in the same directions today. Initially taking the form of portage trails along the coast and river valleys, that movement is today expressed by cars speeding along the highway. Red represents our blood.

Wampum belts – Before borders, there were agreements about how to use and share the land between nations. The agreements were recorded as Wampum Belts, and these covenants continue to govern this land. The Wampum belts describe agreements on relationships between people and the land — nobody can own the land, and thus, no one has the right to sell it. 

Dish with One Spoon Wampum: an agreement between the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee about how to share the resources of the land, ensuring that when one nation returned the dish and spoon, the dish would not be empty. This prototype of sustainability and inter-cultural harmony is still present, as Toronto continues to be a haven for an immense diversity of peoples. However, the dispossession of indigenous peoples and their sustenance from the land, and the subsequent polluting of our waterways, is a violation of this agreement.

Two Row Wampum belt: This agreement, originally made between the Dutch and Haudenosaunee, represents two vessels travelling side by side on a river. A canoe, representing Indigenous people, and a boat, representing European settlers can travel side by side, in peace, friendship and respect, without interfering with each other’s paths. Though the agreement was originally made with the Dutch, it implicates all settlers, historical and present on this land, and is a powerful representation of the “nation-to-nation” relationship possible across Canada with First Nations. 

Neighbourhood maps – throughout the summer of 2017, the Cartography 17 team travelled across the city, conducting workshops where participants created their own maps of their communities. They represent a dazzling array of personal experiences, and are a window into the emotional geography of Toronto.

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Every day this month, I’ve biked from central Malmö to Alnarp, as small rural community just outside the city and the home of SLU, the university I’m currently doing an exchange at.

The bike ride takes about 45 minutes, and in this short distance, I pass through many distinct landscapes: neighbourhoods within Malmö itself, a highway interchange zone, industrial Ärlov, a bird reserve, and rural fields, all before getting to Alnarp.

Despite being within biking distance, because of all these landscape changes, Alnarp feels very, very far away from Malmö. And phenomenologically, it is. As I’ve explored before in past posts, distance matters less than feeling in determining how “far away” a place is.

Like the short ferry ride between downtown Toronto and Toronto Island, whenever a change in material reality is experienced, places seem very far away, no matter how far the distance.

And on my bike ride from Malmö to Alnarp, I experience many changes in material reality.

The city drops out, and then I peddle through the land of highway interchanges. The bike path weaves up, down and through bridges and overpasses, floats over the expressway and in between unkempt shrubs. At night, hundred of rabbits scurry between the vegetation, lending this landscape an even more ethereal quality.

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The land of highway interchanges

Then, there is the land of the sea – the bike path borders a bird reserve, and the horizon extends infinitely. The smell oscillates from the salty murkiness of the coastline to an almost candy-like scent from the nearby garbage processing plant. The matted grasslands and water channels, the hawks, ducks, geese and crows flying around – this is a wholly distinct material reality where my thoughts expand as my breath shortens to keep up with small inclines.

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The land of the sea

Finally there is the land of the fields.  Naked patches of deep black soil envelop the bike path, and linear bands of trees, bent in the wind add directionality to this change in material reality.

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The land of the fields

I arrive at Alnarp tired, dazed and feeling distant. Despite this being the distance of roughly the distance of Toronto’s Ferry Terminal to Davenport Rd  and Dufferin (still very much in the city, and a commute I made often last I lived in Toronto), the many changes of material reality make Alnarp very much a distinct place, and my life in Southern Sweden is characterized by inhabiting many places at once, despite occupying the footprint of a tiny portion of the City of Toronto.

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Map comparing distances in Toronto and Malmö – the red line represents my bike ride, and the short distance that takes me through so many changes in material reality. 

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I’m from Toronto – Grid City. I like a good orthogonal city plan. A city where North is up, South is down, and East and West, are, you guessed it, side to side.

Well, Toronto is not exactly a perfect grid. As Dylan Reid has explored on Spacing, Toronto is in fact a series of micro grids, stitched together, with some exceptions for topography that even the imperially-decreed gridded city plan couldn’t ignore. But that’s a fine detail, a technicality. The macro grid – the one that made up of Toronto’s major streets –  is based on a series of 2km-spaced concession lines, and it defines how the city is organized.

Growing up in Toronto, City of Grids, I think, is part of why I have such a keen sense of direction. People in Toronto, they use cardinal directions to direct people where they need to go. “Go north on Bathurst, then west on Eglinton” they’ll say, and it makes perfect sense. As a result, I have North permanently etched into my mind as essential to understand where I am.

Even when a city’s grid doesn’t match the cardinal directions, a perfect grid means that people use cardinal directions anyway. In Montreal, what people call North is in fact more North-West. In Guelph too. Rather than constantly say “go north-west, then south-west”, people have collectively adjusted the meaning of north in the local context.

Other cities – where the grids aren’t so reliable – aren’t like this. In Halifax, an otherwise perfect grid bends around the Citadel and Common. The grid dissolves into spaghetti as the straight elements (the roads), navigate rounded elements (the Common). As a result, people are more inclined to say “Go up Robie”, “Go down Agricola”, instead of cardinal orientation, and it just makes more sense.

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In Newfoundland, at least, according to my friends, directions are much more story-based than cardinal- based.  St. John’s is pretty loopy city, and the small downtown grid quickly dissolves to negotiate the city’s various hills and steep slopes. Here, instead of “Going north on Prescott Street”, directions are more based on stories, and landmarks. “Go past Rosie’s Convenience, and make a left”.

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As you may know, I am currently living in Malmö, Sweden, and will be exploring the Skåne region for the next five months.

Malmö is especially disorienting to me because, as this post’s title suggests, the city is almost a grid, but, it’s not quite a grid. Two streets that I think are parallel end up veering away from each other, and intersecting at other points, as the map below highlights.

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I’ve explored how different cities present different flavours of disorientation, and as kinds of disorientation go, this might be the toughest challenge so far. I’m so sure I know where I am, using my Toronto infused griddy-knowledge, only to be constantly lost, and going in the wrong direction. In almost making sense as a grid, but then not being a grid at all,  it has been a humbling, getting lost experience (and this is a good thing).

This posts title was inspired by The Almost Nearly Perfect Peoplea less than perfect exploration of Scandinavian culture by Michael Booth. 

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I love the way many European cities’ train stations are woven directly into the fabric of the streets.

I mused about this with regards to the ticket-free barrier to the platforms at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, and now that I’m a regular GO train user, can appreciate that Toronto’s Union Station has a similar system.

But what’s different about Union Station is that the platforms feel very cut off from the city. They are a space apart, separated by concrete gangways, claustrophobic staircases and glass doors.

Copenhagen’s Central Station is different: wide open staircases connect the platforms directly with the street, and there’s a seamless transition from station-space to city-space.

I think the benefits here are more intangible. There’s a feeling of accessibility to a train system that presents itself so openly at street level. It injects dignity to the potentially inhumane scale of rail infrastructure.

Looking forward to investigating more of northern Europe’s rail-street connections.

Exciting news, dear readers!

For the third time, your Urban Geographer has returned to Northern Europe in the wintertime for an extended period of travelling and exploring. I sure do love darkness and rainy cities (totally sincere)!

This time, my home base is Malmö, Sweden, where I’ll be doing a semester abroad for my Masters in Landscape Architecture at SLU in Alnarp (a little town just north of Malmö).

Malmö is just across the Oresdund strait from Copenhagen, and all day bus and train connections connect the two cities, effectively creating one economic region – many live in one city and work in the other.

I’m excited to get to be on the edge of Denmark’s largest city while getting to know Malmö, a city I know almost nothing about. As I explored long ago on this blog, second order cities are often more exciting to explore than their first order “global” counterparts. The lack of expectations means the city can be a more authentic version of itself, unlike the highly romanticized streets of central Paris, or New York.

I’m also excited to once again share my thoughts and observations on this blog. A lot has changed since I first began blogging at the Urban Geographer six years ago: the rise of social media and smart phones means that I have been sharing shorter thoughts via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. This blog is undeniably the perfect way to share certain kinds of ideas, especially exploratory and theoretical ones inspired by my travels. So, sorry for the hiatus, glad to be back! (I’m also cross posting these on Facebook, just so you know).

But back to the title of this post. The brick work I’m referring to is the many jaw-droppingly beautiful, yet simple brick structures throughout Copenhagen. The interlocking bricks create elegant patterns, and the geometric building material takes on a warm, organic feeling.

I saw buildings like these during my time in Amsterdam, and am coming to associate this kind of beautiful brick work with Northern Europe.

Enjoy these photos, and once I amass another collection, perhaps I’ll make a sequel to this post.

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto

Plan of York Surveyed and Drawn by Lieut. Phillpotts, Royal Engineers. Map courtesy Library and Archives Canada and accessed from http://oldtorontomaps.blogspot.ca/

While gazing over old maps of Toronto, I often long to experience the city before its landscape was so significantly altered. What was it like when the water went right up to Front Street, before infill extended the shoreline by almost a kilometre? How did the Lower Don River feel when it meandered into a vast marshland at its mouth, before it was straightened and channelized?

That’s why I was so excited to visit Long Point last week. A sandy peninsula protruding into Lake Erie, Long Point feels like going back in time to an earlier version of Toronto Island — when it was a wild, sandy and ever-changing spit still connected to the mainland.

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As Lake Erie shares Lake Ontario’s crumbly shoreline, Long Point is the result of almost the same geologic phenomenon that created Toronto Island — eroded sediment swept by the currents of the lake to create a sandy peninsula and protected bay. The most notable difference is size. While Toronto Island was originally a 9km spit, Long Point is about 40 km.

Unlike Toronto Island after 1858, Long Point is still connected to the mainland. It briefly enjoyed island status after a powerful storm in the 19th century severed a channel through its middle, but was reconnected when sediment washed back to fill the gap. The same would have probably happened in Toronto if there weren’t so much interest in maintaining the Eastern Gap, giving ships easy access to Toronto’s deep harbour and the markets beyond.

Long Point on Lake Erie. Image courtesy of canmaps.com

Beyond its tentative connection to the mainland, Long Point’s form has not been significantly altered by human activity. Whereas Toronto Island was largely fixed by depression era infill projects transforming its ever-changing fingers of sand and marsh into the archipelago of islands we know today, Long Point has maintained its fluid form as a constantly shifting (and hard to map) sand bar.

Compared to the few patches of forest along Toronto Island, Long Point is a vast wilderness. Designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, most of the peninsula is conserved explicitly by the Federal Government and Parks Ontario, and inadvertently by the Long Point Company, a private organization that has maintained the spit for hunting purposes since 1866, strictly limiting public access.

Walking along Long Point’s sandy beaches, you don’t even have to squint your eyes to imagine the feeling of Toronto before it was urbanized. An overgrown Carolinian forest hugs its sandy shore, and beyond the bay, where in Toronto a hulking skyline has emerged, there remains open water, marshland and sky. Port Rowan, tucked into the corner where Long Point meets the mainland has a population of about 1000 – the size of the similarly positioned town of York around 1812.

Long Point marshes. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Toronto Bay, 1793 by Elizabeth Simcoe

Long Point boasts its own community stretching the first few kilometres of the peninsula, offering a living image of another era of Toronto Island’s history: when it was covered in cottages and fully serviced by hotels, grocery stores, laundromats and restaurants. Like Centre Island before its town centre was demolished by Metro Toronto in the 1950s and 60s, Long Point’s year round population of 450 swells to 5,000 in the summer.

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Many of the cottages that dot the peninsula are reminiscent of the homes that used to cover the Island and those that were saved at Ward’s and Algonquin Islands. Built right up to the beach, their plain geometry bespeaks the simple pleasures of living lakeside, where all you need is a place to rest your head before heading back to the beach. A few grander cottages evoke the summer homes of the wealthy that were built along Toronto Island’s Lakeshore Avenue.

Despite never having been to Long Point before last week, the feeling of familiarity and connection to Toronto Island was uncanny. Of course, Long Point and Toronto Island are distinct places with their own histories, and comparing them requires a a stretch of geographic imagination. However, a visit to the largely preserved landscape at Long Point offers a portal into the past, its equivalent in Toronto having been changed beyond recognition long ago.

My article exploring the decline (and reinvention) of Toronto’s convenience stores appeared in the May 21 edition of the Globe and Mail.

Because there’s no link to it, here’s a copy of the article downloaded from the newspaper’s digital-print edition.

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The article also beckoned my first letter to the editor! Happy they went easy on me, and interesting to hear convenience stores experienced decline much earlier than I thought. In a city, the only constant is change.

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Newspapers

I love reading the local newspapers of the places I visit.

Every town, city and region is home to at least one hyper-local publication, and often many. Within their pages are articles about the area’s very specific issues, events and politics.

While I’m in these places, I’m enthralled with the content of their local publications. I read the editions from front to back, absorbing the essence of the place, discovering local landmarks, and visiting interesting places I read about.

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Sometimes I keep the newspapers as souvenirs of my travels. But a funny thing happens once I leave a place with its newspaper. When I look at it again, long after I’ve left, the newspaper no longer makes sense. Now that I’ve left the sphere of that geographic influence, I can’t wrap my head around learning the details of the articles, the listed events. My mind can’t commit itself to making sense of the text, putting words to reality. Far from its genus loci, the newspaper fades into nonsense.

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The magnetic influence of place has the power to render things comprehensible.

On the other hand, no matter where I am, media from Toronto always makes sense.  I’m always able to interpret the places mentioned, issues, events and politics even if I’m very far away. We bring our home places with us in our heads.

 

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As you may know, I recently moved to Guelph, and am spending lots of time getting to know another corner of the Southern Ontario industrial lands.

Guelph is made up of many neighbourhoods that each have their own distinct feel. (Dare I say, Guelph is a City of Neighbourhoods?)

I live in The Ward.

The Ward was first developed to house factory workers and is characterized by humble brick houses scattered between factories.

Some of these factories are still active, like Owens Cornings Reinforcements on York Road, which putters and sputters all day manufacturing something I still don’t quite understand. Other factories have been long decommissioned, and remain semi-abandonded, with only a barbed wire fence signalling anyone still cares about them. Others have been demolished, leaving behind huge brownfields that have yet to be remediated, subdivided and developed.

Compared to Guelph’s wealthier neighbourhoods, The Ward has always been a bit neglected — but this is a good thing. Without much attention paid to it, its obvious from its ramshackle built form that The Ward was left unzoned for the better part of its existence. This left a lot of space for its historically Italian residents to expand their homes willy-nilly to accommodate their needs – whether that was to add extra bedrooms to their upper floors, or an entire front edition that would house a store front.

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The result is an incredibly eclectic neighbourhood, where every house is completely different from the next, each DIY renovation facilitating a need, each random addition representing a very specific human desire.

In The Chronology of City Repair, Mark Lakeman talks about how we are all villagers, and modern city development with its homogenous, top down plans and developments prevent us from expressing ourselves in the places we live, taking away our “villager” status.

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Its evident from its ad hoc shacks, its piece-meal additions and its random store front editions, that the villager spirit is very much alive in The Ward.

At least it was alive, at a certain time. With many of the commercial additions now inactive, and many unimaginative new homes, it’s hard to say if the villager spirit still remains as strong as the marks it left in its historic architecture.

Like many neighbourhoods similar to it in cities across the world, The Ward is changing. Its Italian residents are aging, their families living in other, shinier parts of town. Young families are moving in, and housing prices are rising.

Will the new residents of the Ward continue inhabiting this place in an ad-hoc basis, and be able to express their specific needs in the architecture? Do the by-laws, the DNA of the city, allow for a continuation of The Ward’s independent spirit?

Even if the by-laws changed, I believe that the places we live strongly effect who we are. And if there’s anything we can learn from the ramshackle, ad hoc architecture of The Ward, it’s that we can make our architecture work for us.

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How does that old adage go? Ontario is flat- as flat at can be. 

For those who have explored the province, however, you know this is simply not true.

Look at Toronto on a map and all you see is a seemingly limitless grid of streets, extending indefinitely for kilometres in every direction (except to the south – the sea’s there!). But explore a little, and you’ll soon find steep ravines and the dramatic topography of river valleys spread all throughout the city, hidden beneath the grid.

A Harbourfront photography exhibit debunked the concept of a featureless Toronto topography last summer with No Flat City – a series of photos that explored Toronto’s more steep side.

But even for those in the know, that old notion that Ontario is flat is hard to shake.

Visiting Guelph in the past, the city seemed like another instance of even-grounded Ontario – but for a few rolling hills it felt like a limitless plane on which agricultural, suburban and urban development could be built indefinitely.

But as I get to know Guelph – drive down its streets, bike up its hills and walk along its rivers and alleys – I am learning the subtle topography of this place. As I push into Guelph’s topography, those subtle inclines become more dramatic – I understand where the highest bluffs and lowest river valleys are – I know where to go for the best views. (So far, that’s on College street just west of the University of Guelph, where the city looks like it’s emerging from an lush forest).

Whenever I look at a physical topographical map, I’m always surprised to see how unvaried the landscape seems from a large scale. I run my hands across the raised surfaces — even mountains appear like small bumps rising only slightly from the landscape.

There’s a subjective experience of topography that makes the hills appear beneath your fingers. Every huff of breath, every extra push in the pedal, every time your ears pop in the car, you are pushing into topography and making the ups and downs of landscape real and legible.

Field notes from Coast Salish//Cascadia/Lower Mainland, BC

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Along the Pacific Northwest coasts of Canada and the US, blackberries are growing everywhere. Come late Summer, there is endless bushes of free candy, available in total abundance.

Well, they don’t technically grow everywhere. As a “weed”/wild plant, they grow at the fringes of the city – industrial zones and left over spaces under bridges and back alleyways. In this sense, a copious amount of blackberry bushes is an indicator of inner city wilderness, a space or patch untended to and left to delicious transformations.

As Tom Robbins explored the landscapes of Seattle in Still Life With Woodpecker,“blackberries spread so rapidly that dogs and small children were sometimes engulfed and never heard from again.”

With the availability of such delicious and sweet fruit, how does anybody get anything done around here in July and August? It is taking me hours to bike around Richmond and Vancouver because I am stopping every few feet to chow down…. leading to inevitable blackberries stomach aches.

In one sense, cities are great machines of market-power efficiency. In this sense, the ubiquitous blackberry bush must act as something of a wrench and the great cogs. How would Toronto be different if blackberries grew everywhere?

These bushes of blackberries, of the Himalayan variety, are an invasive species here. But no one seems to care, further complicating the contentious world of plant migration politics.