Archives for posts with tag: cities

This morning I stood with just a towel on in my bathroom, closely inspecting my chin and face in the mirror as I shaved before breakfast.

I looked out of my first-floor bathroom window onto North Street, and noticed that immediately outside my house stood a critical mass of individuals waiting for the bus: a father offering cookies to his daughter, a teenager staring dumbly into the street, and a man, listening to a personal music player, standing extremely still.

What a juxtaposition of activities.

Where else, but in a city? The density inherent, necessary in a city breeds juxtapositions such as the one I experienced this morning. Our compartmentalized, extremly seprate lives must border onto each other somewhere. It is at the seams where urbanity is often most interesting — where we can meditate on the phenomenon of the city, a place where unlikely groups of strangers encounter each other and carry on with their disparate activities, necessarily side-by-side.

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The city can be abstracted to be understood.

I have lived in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax, three cities with comparable old-school style Institutional Universities.

I have noted that each of these universities, the University of Toronto, McGill and Dalhousie though very similar in overall design (a main quad, tower/front steps buildings, institutional architecture), their relationship with the city differs immensely.

Let me convey this visually with some abstract maps.

UofT sits in the middle of Toronto, and though a distinct entity, the city filters through it effortlessly. The effect is a university-city soup — space punctured by normal flows and spaces of city-life, with distinct areas of UofT inbetween.

McGill, also in the heart of downtown Montreal, too is surrounded by city, but keeps it at bay — is a special entity amongst an otherwise flowing urban fabric. But it stands open to the city of Montreal, it’s arms wide open, inviting passersby to use it as a shortcut between downtown and the Plateau.

Halifax’s Dalhousie University is less open to the city that surrounds it. It sits in a quiet corner, it’s back turned to the streetscapes it disrupts. Rock walls and inconsistent street patterns lend to the effect that Dalhousie stands apart from the city, providing only slightly permeable space to those passing through. 

A stop-and-chat today at Java Blend inspired me to take note of the various chimneys and chimney designs that can be found throughout the city.

Obviously, there are thousands upon thousands of chimneys in the city, made of various materials, reflective of various periods of design and technology. Some chimneys stand proud, erected in brick with copper adornments, some modern and made of metal, and many are utilitarian, built only out of necessity, without any regard for their importance in the liveability of inhabited space expressed through design.

Yes, yes, chimneys are pretty trivial everyday objects that understandably receive little attention by passersby. As I commented in a past post, it would be impossible to notice and make sense of every element of the urban environment — a city must be abstracted to be understood. But philosophically, focusing and meditating on chimneys provides us with immense insight into our culture, the nature of living, and concepts such as hearth, family, design, repetition and the built environment. Honing in on the mundane elements of the everyday urban landscape provides enriching avenues of consideration and ponderance.

And the fact that everyday objects are so ubiquitous and multitudinous in the dense networked social cultural nodes that are cities, it is so easy to just choose something — any old thing — any everyday object, and find an incredible amount of examples that will offer an infinite amount of particulars to consider.

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

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

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

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

Urban Political Ecology:

The Politics of Urban Nature and Urban Metabolism:

Urban Agriculture in Montreal:

The Politics of Food, Nature and Community

I’m going to go ahead and call it:

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

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

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

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

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

The city, atop a rock

which used to be covered in a natural forest of trees

the trees felled by human activity

and made into lumber

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

houses built out of the wood of those trees

and though from farther away — the cranes that were erected

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

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

Most North American cities have the same post-industrial elements: immense tracts of industrial wasteland, highways, designated green spaces and those middle-spaces along train tracks, on the sides of ravines, beside highways, that are extremely lush, green, and wild but are not officially parks.

These liminal green spaces, not quite full parks, yet too big to just be borders between one part of the city and another, are fascinating to walk through, and using them as a link between urban neighbourhoods, industrial fringe-lands and official parks offers a simulating terrain for hiking. These areas are the epitome of post-industrial urban wilderness. Negotiating thick bush of wild weeds and trees, scaling desolate highway-scapes, climbing over fences and above blasted granite rock walls — these are the spots that urban-nature reveals itself and beckons its exploration.

I highly encourage a post-industrial city-hike to shift your perspective on the very attainable feeling of isolation and solitude, today exclusively associated with “untouched wilderness”, that exists in our urban environments. Though there are no official routes or paths, years of desire lines and natural paths make navigation intuitive, as your eyes follow the natural contours of the land, identifying paths that have been fostered by uncountable individuals in the past lead to wide and navigable routes through otherwise thick brush and hard steel and chain link fences.

I took an urban-nature industrial city-hike the other day with my brother. If you’re in Halifax, I highly recommend this route: follow Barrington north all the way to Seaview Park/Africville — veer toward the harbour and Mackay Bridge. Pause. Take in the splendour of the spectacular bridge as it stretches beyond conceivable perspective into the distance toward Dartmouth. Follow the coast negotiating natural paths, weeds, and rock faces until Seaview Park. Watch the dogs and the people interact. Catch a glimpse of the Bedford Basin — completely polluted, yet beautiful. Jump the north fence of Seaview park — run across the raging highway — hope and skip over the median, over changing car-currents, safely to the other side. Find a desire line, scale a cliff, up and over the train tracks, and through the public housing, depositing yourself back into a different kind of urban nature, the far more organized, neat-lines of North End Halifax suburban paradise. At this high point, atop the rock that is Halifax, enjoy 360 degree views of the eery beauty of this industrial urban-wasteland-wilderness.

Today, two bridges stretch spectacularly across the Halifax-Dartmouth Narrows: the MacDonald Bridge, which terminates just outside my house in Halifax on North St, and the Mackay bridge, which ends farther north, on the northern shore of the peninsula.

Both bridges are quite spectacular in their design, however, the Mackay bridge figures much less prominently in the public image of the city than the MacDonald bridge, despite having almost exactly the same design.

I speculate that the Mackay bridge does not have a personality because it is a highway bridge. Reflecting the spirit and goals of urban planning at the time of its construction in the 1970s, the bridge forbids pedestrian and bicycle traffic, understandably, as it deposits itself into a not-human-friendly series of highway exits on the Dartmouth side. The Mackay bridge is a symbol of car culture, a suspended four-lane highway that shuts people out of experiencing it.

The MacDonald Bridge has a pedestrian walkway, and a bicycle path (though the entrance to the bicycle path is extremely non-sensical, and almost insulting for bike users), but is open to Halifax and Dartmouth as a bridge that, though is breathtaking in its architectural splendour, is very accessible for exploration and experience. It was built in 1955, and reflects a time when cities were thought of in people-terms, before the car dominated as the standard unit of planning. It is a human bridge, and, despite its non-sensibly desinged exit on the Halifax side, is otherwise inviting and enriching.

A diagram of the illogical bike-way entrance onto the MacDonald bridge — I suppose it’s better than having no-bikes-at-all on the bridge — illustration by Sarah Evans

The history of the North End where these bridges currently span is fascinating indeed. I have just finished read Paul A. Erickson’s excellent book Historic North End Halifax, and learnt that two bridges preceded the MacDonald bridge, but were destroyed by fierce winds and high tides. According to a Mi’kma legend, after a white settler caused the accidental drowning death of a young native woman in the narrows, a young Mi’kmaw man declared:

Three times a bridge o’er these waves shall  rise,

Built by the pale face, so strong and wise

Three times shall fall like a dying breath

In storm, in silence and last in death.

Tw0 bridges have already been destroyed — but the MacDonald bridge remains standing. Eventually, at some point in history, the MacDonald bridge will cease to exist for one reason or another.

The Mi’kmaw story above reminds us that, despite out best efforts at permanence, the cities we inhabit are inherently temporary in their ever evolving form.

cross-posted froSpacing Atlantic

SACKVILLE – Last weekend saw Sappy Fest Six energize the otherwise quiet summer streets of beautiful Sackville, New Brunswick. The festival features a diversity of musical acts, workshops and art installations that take place in a variety of venues, including Uncle Larry’s Billiards Hall, the Royal Canadian Legion and a Main Stage Tent that closes down Bridge Street, downtown Sackville’s main commercial thoroughfare.

The effect is a unique experience of urban space, where otherwise ordinary features of the town become the backdrops of incredible musical experiences. The festival is an opportunity for Sackville to showcase itself, and submit its streets, structures and parks to transformation and reconsideration by visiting festival-goers and resident Sackvillers alike.

A special buzz preceded the first night of Sappy Fest this year, as a mysterious final act, “Shark Attack!” was billed to play after Owen Pallet, the scheduled headliner. And the rumours were all but confirmed until the Arcade Fire took the stage to an electrified crowd of 1500, screaming and singing along with equal intensity to the stadium-sized crowds this band is now used to playing for.

During the opening refrains of the anthemic “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)” the crowd and band sang together, “Meet me in the middle/ the middle of the town!” There, in the middle Sackville, in a tent on a street intimately framed by 19th and 20th century store fronts, the Arcade Fire played in an exceptionally appropriate setting, in light of this lyric and the subject matter of their music in general.

The Arcade Fire’s surprise concert in the streets of Sackville is a good opportunity to acknowledge this band’s contribution to our collective project of understanding and relating to the complexities of contemporary urban space. Their most recent album, “The Suburbs,” is a thoughtful reflection on what it has meant for a generation to grow up in a country characterized by immense suburban sprawl. The album’s popularity is testament to the importance and ability of exploring concepts of urban space familiar to Spacing readers in a broader context, outside of the immediate planning/urban enthusiast community. Arcade Fire’s reflections on our built environment come at a critical moment when issues of urban planning and design have become central to the public eye. Their songs offer philosophical comfort as we make sense of, and come up with solutions to, the environmental, social and psychological consequences of the sprawl that defines much of the Canadian urban landscape.

It’s notable that in our negotiations of the urban environment, we hardly ever notice the power-lines. In Halifax anyways, they’re everywhere — running along the streets overhead, criss-crossing over intersections  — I can see twelve right now out of my front-room window:

We must see these power-lines as we walk-about the city. They are incredibly conspicuous, starkly standing out against the softer greys, blues and whites of the surrounding urban environment. It seems we choose to ignore power-lines, these black wires that frame almost every road and intersection of the city.

Obviously, many details of a city must be ignored so that some sense can be made of it. Focusing on every element of the urban environment would be impossible, meaningless-ness resulting from the overwhelming amount of information that can be read, scene and heard from the city and those who populate it.

It is these invisibilities that make living — and more specifically living in the dense-clustered-complex-intertangled networks that are cities possible.

Negotiating the city also means choosing not to engage with the hundreds of people that pass-us-by in the streets and parks. Next time you remember, pause, look around, and there will surely be at least three people walking around, carrying on with their own rich, complex, lives. There are always hundreds of people surrounding us in the city — on the streets, in the houses, stores and apartment buildings — we must ignore them or pay them little attention so that we may get on-with-our-lives.

The city must abstracted to be understood, to be inhabited.


This morning I embarked on my first CITY MAIL delivery-route, and observed a lot as I negotiated the streets of Halifax: from as far south as Hollis and South, to as far north as Kane Pl. in the Hydrostone neighbourhood.

The CITY MAIL box at Trident on Hollis St.

Here are some of my initial observations/reflections:

– Wandering the city with purpose provided a fresh and dynamic orientation to the streets: before, I was an aimless wanderer — but my engagement with the city’s roads and built environment transformed Halifax into the background of a journey through a maze-like series of paths and nodes — streets ending abruptly were my foe, and I had to rely on the map of the city I had created in my head, and friendly folk on the street to achieve success

– I experienced the true meaning of the “Travelling Salesman Problem“which had been introduced to me through GIS — using the program’s algorithm function to develop delivery routes that minimize path-over lap and maximize efficiency. As an actor within a wider delivery system I found the greatest challenge was route-planning, and was frustrated when I had to back track.

– The systems of the street numbers often lie! The street numbers up Newton hop – skip – and jump, skipping hundreds of houses — this instilled doubt as to my orienteering capabilities as I tried to locate houses along parallel streets based on inference.

– CITY MAIL gave me the vehicle to tap into an otherwise invisible network in Halifax centred in the North End. A lot of the mail-boxes I delivered to were very far from the North End, but indicators such as the Ecology Action Centre‘s “No Fliers Please” stickers, and “We Support Our Postal Workers” affirmed that these houses in the South and West were distant outposts along a centralized network of communication.

– Many mail boxes, such as the one above, are located outside — which is indicative of the immense trust folks place in others in the city – or perhaps a tacit reverence for the written word; it would be unimaginable to leave your email inbox open on the street giving others the opportunity to rummage through it.

CITY MAIL is a project by Alison Creba, dedicated to the free delivery of inner-city postables within Halifax. This summer, eight CITY MAIL mail-boxes have been placed around the Halifax peninsula, in a variety of instituions, including Coffee-Shops, Ice-Cream Parlours and Office-Supply-Stores.

Using Alison’s words:

CITY MAIL is an initiative dedicated to delivering the letters/postcards/notes that arrive in a handful of mail boxes constructed and installed on lampposts around Halifax. The project has become more profound than simply collecting and distributing letters; it has emerged as a comment on the local social and physical infrastructures that make up our city. CITY MAIL challenges participants to consider the geography of the place they live, asks them to consider not only individual houses, but also community nodes; coffee joints, communal desks, outdoor furniture. It challenges us to think about the routes we take, and the routines we follow. CITY MAIL promotes a unique reflective character that lies distinctly in the act of letter-writing. Perhaps it is because letters move slowly that writing them requires individuals to consider themselves, their communities, their cities. Each letter writes a new story of a personal city, an individual experience.

A city is a fascinatingly complex place where layers of networks and nodes temporarily impose themselves on ephemeral physical urban space. The various patterns of communications, waves of energy, and linkages between geographically disparate places are largely invisible to an outsider. CITY MAIL taps into these city-streams of information while reminding its users of the value of thoughtful, written words and letters — a kind of communication who’s essence lies in its seeming timelessness and artifactuality.

The Urban Geographer is excited to announce that he will become the guardian of CITY MAIL while Alison is away for 12 days, and with the help of another guardian, will be collecting and delivering the mail and newsletters that stream through the iconic blue CITY MAIL-boxes. I am incredibly curious as to how this experience will affect my perception of the city of Halifax. As a newcomer, I have only scratched the surface of the lay-out of this city, and have limited connections to the built environment and the residents who surround me as I negotiate the streets and sidewalks of the city. CITY MAIL, as Alison has said, is much more than delivering mail. I am eager to learn what that means. I look forward to the relationships I will be forging with the many participants that are necessary for an inner-city mail system to function.

I will be recording my experiences, and look forward to sharing them with you as I endeavour on my journey through Halifax as the CITY MAIL messenger.

cross posted from Spacing Atlantic

This summer across the country, the idea that vegetables can and should be grown in the city continues to gain momentum. Urban agriculture is a lot of things, but as a formal movement promotes local, sustainable food systems, renewed inner-city social and physical health, and a shift toward people-oriented urbanism. Inner city food production has obvious impacts on the urban landscape, creating pleasant productive spaces in otherwise unproductive, sterile land.

Halifax has many lovely gardens, many of which can be found on the Halifax Garden Network’s user-generated map. You can, of course, engage in urban gardening in a variety of ways, ranging from formalized municipal allotments, to semi-private community gardens, to straight up guerilla gardens.

The nexus of do-it-yourself city planning and urban agriculture, guerilla gardening is a reminder of the possibility and importance of informal urban design. With the eye of a guerilla gardener, a quick scan of any street in Halifax presents many plots of public and private land that have the potential to be reclaimed and transformed from barren, asphalt spaces into beautiful urban places.

On my regular bike trips to the Far North End, I have noticed the slow cultivation of an otherwise barren lot at Agricola and Bilby. Though I haven’t met them, it seems that an individual or a group of people have taken it upon themselves to transform what was (as some quick Google Street View investigative work revealed) an extremely desolate corner, into a lovely urban space.

 Many vegetables and flowers have been planted, and thoughtfully labelled to educate curious onlookers about the varieties of species grown there. Though the changes are few, the introduction of a variety of vegetation and DIY landscape architecture imbues a formerly neglected, barren corner into a space that is obviously cared for, and as a result, has become a beautiful place to be.

It’s not news that official urban planning in Halifax often leaves much to be desired. A history of decisions that have favoured developers and promoted car culture, Halifax has a notorious knack for destroying communities in the name of potential economic development and urban renewal. With the potential widening of Bayers road on the horizon, it’s obvious that official planning in Halifax, for now, will continue along its historically misguided footsteps, while the rest of the world experiments in progressive, community-oriented urban design.

Guerilla gardens, like the one at Agricola and Bilby, are one of the many ways that we can take shaping-the-city into our own hands. As the summer roars on and the gardening season reaches its peak, let us celebrate these fantastic guerilla gardens, reminders that we do not have to be the passive recipients of top-down city plans, but that we can be, and are, active agents in our cityscape.

The Urban Geographer is excited to have begun contributing to Spacing Atlantic, one of the many blogs within the Spacing network, a group of websites and magazine that focus on Canadian urban issues, ranging from the poetic to the political.

My first post, Guerilla Urban Design on Agricola, acknowledges the possibility and importance of informal urban design in response to the city’s often inadequate top-down planning, focusing on a lovely guerilla garden that has sprung up on a formerly neglected corner in Halifax’s North End.

I have also, in the past, contributed to Spacing Montreal, and have linked the articles below:

Natural Paths, 25 February, 2010

Flexible Bike Paths: Lessons from a Mild Winter, 19 March, 2010

How My Father Sees the Mile End, 7 April, 2010

An Unintentional Public Space, 23 October, 2010