Archives for category: urban field-notes

This reflection is cross-posted on the SLU Urban Readings group. According to SLU, “Urban Readings connects a small team of chroniclers across the hemisphere with the mission to spot and comment on relevant articles connected to the urban realm in international press. The group of writers consists of academics from various fields intersecting the urban, with insight in current discussions from around the world.” Check out more readings here.

The COVID-19 lockdown hit Toronto like the eye of a hurricane. While the virus was causing chaos for our ill-prepared healthcare system and brought the economy to a precarious standstill, it all felt strangely still on the streets. An eerie calm descended on Toronto as cars evaporated from the city’s typically clogged roads and highways, the sudden lack of motors revving and cars whooshing created a deafening quietness.

Many were quick to see that the empty roads offered an opportunity to create a larger pedestrian realm so people could navigate the city while maintaining safe distances from one another to prevent the spread of COVID-19. After several weeks of advocacy for Toronto to open lanes of traffic to pedestrians, politicians and public health officials remained reluctant to do so, perpetuating a car-oriented logic that defines the planning and management of most North American cities. While cities around the world — including many in Canada — were opening hundreds of kilometres of empty streets to pedestrians, Toronto remained stubborn on the status quo. While advocacy was reaching a fever pitch amongst urbanists online, it had yet to pierce the mainstream discourse.

I am a member of the Toronto Public Space Committee and an organizer of its Art Subcommittee, exploring how we can use art to advance public space advocacy. At a virtual meeting, we realized that our collective effort to create more space for pedestrians in Toronto during COVID-19 and beyond needed something to rally around (and of course, a hash tag.)

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The Social Distance Machine

With the help of artist and musician Bobby Gadda, we created the Social Distance Machine, a giant wearable hoop made out of plastic conduit piping and bicycle inner tubs to clearly demonstrate how large 2m really is — the recommended distance to stay apart to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — and how little space in Toronto is allocated to pedestrians to maintain that distance from others. We wanted to create a video that was humorous and highly shareable, to contribute a lighter tone to a very serious conversation. We released the video the morning of April 13 with #streets4peopleTO and by the end the day it had gone viral around the world, resonating with other cities that were facing similar struggles as they demanded more space for pedestrians to navigate their streets safely.

Toronto’s politicians and public health officials responded slowly. Despite endorsements from major thought leaders and an editorial from the Globe and Mail, the City of Toronto remained reluctant to accept the new reality that people were going to be going outside, and that the city’s infrastructure had to be adapted to facilitate pedestrian movement safely.

We Are Not “All in This Together”

A common phrase we’ve heard during COVID-19 is that “we’re all in this together”. The message is everywhere: posted in shop windows, on social media, in advertisements, and endlessly repeated in politicians’ speeches. The immense gap between those who have the time, space, and resources to safely navigate the pandemic and those that do not demonstrates that this catchy phrase is far from the truth. COVID-19 has emphasized the inequities and issues that existed before the pandemic, rendering them unignorable. As Paul Taylor, the Executive Director of Foodshare, a food security organization in Toronto, wrote in an op-ed to the Toronto Star, “many of the requirements necessary to ensure that we shelter in place are based on the belief that everyone has a smart phone with a generous data plan, ready access to computers and wi-fi, a car, and a credit card”. According to Taylor, the pandemic has most profoundly affected “the millions who were food insecure before the virus hit”.

In terms of urban design, COVID-19 has emphasized pre-existing mobility inequities including the ability to navigate the city safely. In a recent article in Spacing Magazine, Tricia Wood, a professor of Geography at York University writes that “mobility is everything in a city”. According to Wood, “the more freedom of movement you have, the more privilege and advantage you have”. Freedom of movement includes the speed you can get from A to B, access to physical resources and social infrastructure, safe ways of getting around, and safe places to dwell. Before the pandemic, mobility was often limited for those who are disabled, racialized, homeless and queer. COVID-19 has emphasized these pre-existing inequities, while the wider population has begun to understand what restricted mobility feels like.

While the Social Distance Machine went viral and contributed to advocacy for more pedestrian infrastructure during COVID-19, it failed to address the unequal experience of mobility throughout Toronto’s disparate communities and geographies. The Social Distance Machine video demonstrated the inability to navigate Toronto’s central sidewalks safely, but it overlooked what author and placemaker Jay Pitter has termed “forgotten density” in a recent essay in Azure Magazine. Urging us to look beyond the overly studied city centre, forgotten density includes tent cities, suburban social housing, shelters, favelas, temporary foreign worker dormitories, Indigenous reserves, and prisons. Forgotten densities are contrasted to what Pitter calls “dominant density”, which are “designed by and for predominately white, middle-class urban dwellers living in high-priced condominiums within or adjacent to the city’s downtown core.” According to Pitter, these “myopic, privileged framework[s]” of density refuse to distinguish between good density and bad density, failing acknowledge how income, race and disability effect our experiences of urban space.

Within these forgotten densities, residents “are scared to leave their apartments for essential reasons because they can’t practice social distancing in cramped entranceways, elevators and laundry rooms.” Vulnerable populations are at more risk in small apartments without enough space to quarantine, and so-called “front line workers” such as those employed at factories and grocery stores cannot afford to quarantine at home. They are thus more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 than those that have the ability to work from home.

Due to the majority of the population working from home, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has seen a 75% drop in ridership. Sean Marshall, an active transportation advocate and geographer, recently mapped the bus routes that remain crowded during COVID-19 for Spacing Magazine. He found that the bus routes that connect low-income neighbourhoods to factories in Toronto’s northwest remain overly crowded, preventing riders from practicing safe social distancing.

Advocacy for more pedestrian infrastructure requires the equity lens advocated by Wood, Pitter, and Marshall. According to Stefan Novakovic, the online editor of Azure magazine, “progressive urban advocacy means more than wider sidewalks”.

More than Wider Sidewalks

After several weeks of advocacy for more pedestrian space during COVID-19,  the Mayor of Toronto announced on May 6, 2020, that the city would be opening 50km of streets to pedestrians, while fast-tracking the construction of new bicycle lanes. It remains to be seen where and how these pedestrian streets will be implemented. Using an equity lens, advocates need to ensure a geographically equitable distribution of open streets, ensuring relief is given to people most in need of space to navigate safely.

In New York City, more than 100km of streets have been open to pedestrians in response to COVID-19. According to writer Yessenia Funes in Gizmodo, much of those road closures are within and beside existing parks, with wealthier, whiter communities living nearby. As Funes bluntly puts it: “What about the people who don’t live near parks?” Advocates for more pedestrian space in Toronto and beyond need to ask the same questions as their cities pedestrianize roads in response to the pandemic.

Novakovic acknowledges that advocacy for pedestrianizing streets must include communities outside of Toronto’s downtown core. In line with Pitter’s assertion that we must include forgotten densities as we push for conditions for safe physical distancing, Novakovic identifies specific actions, for example the “immediate funding for elevator repair and building maintenance is needed for the city’s chronically underfunded social housing communities”. Toronto’s social housing has $1.6 billion repair back log; we can pivot from the urgency of COVID-19 to address this long-standing issue. As activists, urbanists, architects, and planners call for more pedestrian spaces in the wake of COVID-19, Novakovic urges that “it must be matched by an equally strong push for urbanism at the margins – and creating space for forgotten communities as city builders”. This assertion of equitable urbanism and mobility must be addressed throughout COVID-19 and and in the new post-pandemic world.

COVID-19 may have exposed the inequities that have always existed in our society. However, it also offers an opportunity for meaningful adjustments to our policies and advocacy moving forward. According to Paul Taylor, the pandemic “has given us an opportunity to reflect on what a just and equitable society could look like, one that is measured by how well it takes care of its most disenfranchised members.”

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The Social Distance Machine, a giant wearable hoop made out of plastic conduit piping and bicycle inner tubes to clearly demonstrate how large 2m really is.

Sources:

Funes, Yessenia. “New York City Plan to Close Streets Is Weak As Hell”, in Gizmodo, May 2, 2020

Marshall, Sean. “Mapping TTC Crowding during a Pandemic”, in Spacing Magazine, April 1, 2020

Novakovic, Stefan. “COVID-19: Progressive Urban Advocacy Means More than Wider Sidewalks”, in Azure Magazine, April 25, 2020

Picard, Andre. “It is time for a new mantra: Go outside, but do not congregate”, in the Globe and Mail, May 4, 2020

Pitter, Jay. “Urban Density: Confronting the Distance between Desire and Disparity”, in Azure Magazine, April 17, 2020

Taylor, Paul. “Pandemic has exposed the rifts in our social fabric”, in the Toronto Star, April 21, 2020

Wood, Tricia. “Lessons on urban mobility and inequality during a pandemic”, in Spacing Magazine, May 2, 2020

Guest post by Natalie Logan, a documentarian, artist, and aspiring urban geographer

What’s the difference between the woods and a forest? Scale. Then how relevant that the area south of Cedarvale and west of Forest Hill is called “The Woods”?

Most people know this area as Humewood but there is something more poetic with the vagueness of calling it The Woods and dropping the specificness the prefix “Hume” creates. Think of other areas of Toronto that conjure up that kind of feeling, like The Island or The Beaches (though, apparently locals call it The Beach, and technically The Island is really a bunch of islands).

Insiders call their area The Woods because they are familiar with its street names. From the east to west you have Kenwood, Wychwood, Pinewood, Humewood, Cherrywood and from the south to north you have Wellwood, Maplewood, Valewood. According to the Wikipedia article the given boundaries are Bathurst Street on the east, Eglinton Avenue to the north, Arlington Avenue to the west, and St. Clair Avenue to the south.

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I grew up in the “epicentre” of The Woods. At least a decade of my childhood happened at 24 Pinewood Ave and I currently live off of Wychwood Ave. So I think I have some credibility here. I would expand the boundaries of this area to extend south of St. Clair to the bottom of Davenport because of the Wychwood barns and Wychwood Park, and I would also expand the boundaries as far west as the most recognizable wood named street in the area, Oakwood Avenue. Why leave Oakwood out? Arlington is such a puny side street by comparison and all the other streets that make up the official boundaries are major.

What is interesting about the Wikipedia article on The Woods isn’t just that it challenged my understanding of the boundaries of my neighbourhood, but also the comparison it made between the wealth of the surrounding neighbourhoods. It pits “wealthy Cedarvale in the north” against “the upper middle class Humewood in the south” – they should have said ‘lower upper class’ in the north.

Now that you know, are you going to call this area The Woods? And will you call Forest Hill “The Forest”?

How do insiders refer to your neighbourhood?

Response by Daniel Rotsztain, the Urban Geographer

I love the notion of referring to it as “The Woods” and that being in the same category as “The Island” and “The Beaches”. It elevates this part of town by acknowledging its physical geography, it heightens my expectations for beauty in inland toronto, which is often dismissed as boring, flat, ugly.

You talk about scale: are the woods smaller than a forest? Is the Woods diminutive compared to Forest Hill’s perceived might?

The wikipedia article you referred me to groups together Cedarvale-Humewood so it makes sense that eglinton is the northern boundary… but I agree that the southern boundary doesn’t make sense, and as a natural feature and real “divide’, Davenport makes more sense.

You should try and edit the wiki! That’s the whole point of wikipedia right? Tho, they might not accept your edits because the description of the boundaries of the neighbournood is based on the City of Toronto’s official definition (there are apparently 140 official neighborhoods…) which is a silly exercise because we all have our own personal geographies and definitions of where a neighbourood starts and ends. I lived in Malmo, Sweden and it was much different: each neighborhood had a distinct boundary complete with a sign demarcating where one ended and the other began!

I will definitely start calling this area the Woods, thank you for this insider info. But I don’t think I will call Forest Hill, “The Forest”. It makes more sense to me to call it “The Hills”, linking it to the area west of it, which is all drumlins: egg shaped hills left over from the glaciers

IMG_8582.JPGWith all the euphoria that spring day, it was hard to choose the perfect spot to watch the Raptors victory parade.

Everywhere along the route, unprecedented crowds gathered along Toronto’s downtown streets to witness the spectacle of a winning team celebrating their victory for Toronto — a city where it feels like no one ever wins.

You could have joined the crowds gathering at Nathan Phillips Square – already thick by mid-morning. You could have huddled with the spectators along both sides of University Avenue, where finally, our boulevard of grand, celebratory proportions would be used to host a jubilant mass of joyful Torontonians.

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IMG_8578.JPGBut the best part of the Raptors winning the NBA championship was that it had nothing to do with nostalgia. The multicultural and decentralized fanbase crystallized the identity of today’s Toronto, representing a final departure from the hockey sticks, maple syrup, whiteness and wilderness of Canada’s imagined identity. It firmly asserted the existence of what actually defines our lives in Canada, a country of immigrants, where soccer, cricket and basketball are quickly superseding hockey, and where 80% of the population lives not in pristine nature, but the suburbs.

With its decentralized fanbase, the Raptors championship helped assert the public identity of the more suburban corners of the GTA. In parts of GTA we don’t associate with public life – like Brampton, Ajax, and Mississauga – central squares filled up for a communal experience and face to face interactions. With every victory, impromptu parties in strip mall parking lots were stirred up by cars’ celebratory honks as they zoomed along the 6-lane arterials of the inner suburbs.

Though the parade route was planned for downtown Toronto, it would have made just as much sense if it were up Hurontario and into Celebration Square in Mississauga, or along the 401, through Albert Campbell Square, and up the steps into Scarborough Town Centre.

And so, the best place to watch the Raptors parade was not in Nathan Phillips Square or University Avenue, beside the institutional symbols of old Toronto, but down by York and Harbour Streets, nestled between the shiny new condo towers in SouthCore, a neighbourhood that most clearly symbolizes the Toronto of 2019.

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IMG_8469.JPGAs crowds gathered under the Gardiner Expressway, condo balconies slowly fill up with onlookers, new vantage points of a city recently verticalized. From the many uncompleted condos, construction crews watched from scaffolding high in the sky – our very own Lunch atop a Skyscraper. As we waited… and waited, and waited… cheers echoed from under the highway and against the condo glass, a kind of welcoming embrace for these new icons of Toronto’s skyline.

IMG_8562.JPGOne of the best parts of the Raptors playoff run was how it transformed Torontonians relationship to public space, even before the parade. While the Raptors got ever closer to the championship, the sidewalks became extensions of the bars where massive crowds gathered to watch the games together.

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IMG_8569.JPGDuring the parade, typically mild-mannered Torontonians climbed every climbable thing — bus shelters, street polls, scaffolding. Every accessible surface, grass patch and ledge were claimed as public space and filled with eager onlookers. Anonymous spaces became bona fide places: families with young children gravitated to the parking garages by York and Harbour Streets where kids’ sidewalk-chalk covered the highway-like thoroughfare usually hostile to any sort of lingering, let alone play. Banal skyscrapers lining the streets of the Financial District came to life as their occupants pressed against glass windows on every floor to take in the view of the streets filling with revellers.

IMG_8457.JPGWhile I wish so many people would turn out for something that mattered a bit more — a fraction of the people turned up for the climate marches in September — there were indeed political undertones to the day, most notably, the booing of Premier Ford from the GTA crowds who should be his main constituents, bringing politics and sports together in ways it usually resists.

We learnt a lot about ourselves during the Raptors’ 2019 championship run. As the team gets ready to open the 2019/2020 season, the hype now gracing the them will ensure that Toronto’s identity will continue to embrace to the farthest reaches of the region. And after climbing so many bus shelters and ledges, sidewalk chalking roads, and sharing space in jubilation, I hope that Torontonians continue to be emboldened to take joy in occupying our public spaces in everyday life, for sports, and for protests about the things that matter most.

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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!

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.

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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See also

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.

cottage

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.

News places

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.

News non places

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.