Archives for posts with tag: city

This post originally appeared on the Pop-Up City

This year, we’re marking five years of blogging on The Pop-Up City. To celebrate, we’ll be hosting The Pop-Up City Live on May 21st. The event is a great opportunity to celebrate the best of what blogging can do to shape the cities of the future. We’ll be reveling in what we’ve learnt from five years of pop-up, DIY, and bottom-up solutions for the cities of the future with exciting performances, guests, discussions, visuals and drinks.

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City blogging is a great tool to share ideas around the world toward better urban futures, but it’s also a potent tool for hyper-local community development. In the Netherlands, many community blogs have popped up and we’re excited to be inviting the founders of three Amsterdam community blogs, IlovenoordBoloBoost, and Nice Nieuw West, on stage to discuss the importance and potential of local blogging efforts.

Taking a look these examples from Amsterdam, we can see that community bloggers play a very important role in the city making process. They are the promoters, ambassadors and defenders of the neighbourhoods they represent, acting as the social sensors of their communities. With many of them representing gentrifying neighbourhoods in Amsterdam, these community blogs are also addressing an urban and social need for participation and inclusivity in formal planning initatives for all residents of these areas.

Ilovenoord

Ilovenoord

Amsterdam Noord, a short ferry trip across the IJ from the city-centre, is the frontier of gentrification in Amsterdam, home to a mix of hipster artists and immigrant communities. Ilovenoord features daily news and events about all the happenings in the neighbourhood. It could be said that the blog has been a catalyst for gentrification in the area, but it also has established an important forum for all locals to express their experiences/concerns regarding the development of the neighbourhood. The high visibility of the blog has meant that the opinions expressed on the site have reached the ears of the formal policy makers and have actually affected the decision-making process. For now, gentrification in Noord has become more inclusive, with greater initiatives in participatory planning.

BoloBoost

BoloBoost

Based in Bos en Lommer, or Bolo as its residents affectionately refer to it, BoloBoost is the ambassador of this neighbourhood in Amsterdam West. Peacefully tucked away from central Amsterdam, Bolo is home to 127 of the 189 nationalities that live in the city. Cheaper rents also attract many students and artists. BoloBoost has emerged as a central platform for residents of Bolo, highlighting events in the neighbourhood and places to live, work, shop and play. Established in 2011, BoloBoost arose from a feeling that the people who live in ’Bolo’ are living in a great neighbourhood, but it could be better and it “should avoid getting worse”. BoloBoost is also involved in community-event planning, such as the Bolobooze (a neighbourhood pub crawl).

Nice Nieuw-West

Nice Nieuw West

Nieuw-West is a large residential area comprised of many neighbourhoods with a centrally located park. Like the other Amsterdam blogs, Nice Nieuw West is a platform for the community, with events, markets and business listings highlighting hotspots in the neighbourhood. It is exhaustive in its coverage of the happenings in this relatively large part of the city. Nice Nieuw West actively seeks neighbourhood ambassadors  to contribute to its blog, another way it is actively ‘making community’ in this part of the city.

Join us on May 21st for The Pop-Up City Live to hear from the founders of these three community blogs in Amsterdam about their initiatives, their vision for community blogging, and their exciting future projects!

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Town-Tuin

In Dutch, the word for garden is tuin. I had a suspicion that tuin was etymologically related to the English word town.

With a little research, I discovered that town comes from the Old English tun: an “enclosure, garden, field, yard; farm, manor; homestead, dwelling house, mansion”, which later referred to a “group of houses, village, farm”. Town, does indeed have the same proto-Germanic origins as its Dutch counterpart.

Dutch cities are surrounded by tuins – extensive allotment gardens that range from the simple to the elaborate. Passing through the country on a train, it’s common to see structures of every shape and complexity, “garden sheds”, populating the tuins quite densely. The tuins on the outskirts are their own sorts of towns – each with its own culture, but each neatly organized around a microcosm of canals and roadways.  

It’s certainly a nice thought, that town and garden have the same etymological roots. Perhaps this thought can inspire/invigorate contemporary efforts of biomimicry, and the use of permaculture principles in urban planning.


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.

It’s always interesting to see a newly developed tract of urban land as it slowly adapts to its surroundings.

A new park, with it’s freshly painted playground equipment and benches, it’s young, small trees, it’s neat pathways that still very much follow the original design, stands out against the established structures and green spaces that surround it.

The new Artbarns-Wychwood Park in Toronto, opened in the summer of 2009, has yet to be woven into the surrounding urban landscape

But slowly, over time, the trees grow, the benches and equipment get rusty and overused, the paths meander through the now roughly cut grass and wild urban flora to better accommodate pedestrian needs. With each step from the old city into the new park a certain amount of dust and earth is dragged back and forth, blurring the boundaries. The park is gently woven into the city.

Hillcrest park, just down the street, is integrated into its surroundings, the trees mature, the paths well worn, the park is woven into the city

This winter I’ve been incredibly perceptive of Montreal’s incredible snow removal capabilities. As soon as there is a dumping of snow, armies of trucks of a myriad of shapes and sizes immediately unleash themselves onto the street, prowling every block until the snow is sufficiently dealt with.

There is a certain order to the way the removal teams approach the snow. First, a regular plow clears paths through the streets, two paths for two lane streets and so on. By doing this, however, a very large ridge is made that divides the street, making crossing it very dangerous. A second team deals with this: the first vehicle shoots the snow on the street into a humongous truck, who then eventually dumps the snow into the St Lawrence river (the environmental aspects of this are pretty questionable, I bet).

This is followed by an additional team, who artfully plow the remainder of the snow, and clear paths on the sidewalks. Normally, large banks are left on the side of the road, cutting the sidewalk off from the street. Here, the natural path phenomenon emerges in one of it’s most excellent and least predictable states: random paths between the road and the sidewalk, that some brave souls had the initiative to first establish.

Every now and then, however, Montreal’s snow removal crews annihilate these snow barriers that emerge between the street and the sidewalk. It’s always amazing to walk on the streets once this has been done – one feels liberated! Again able to cross the street at one’s own whim.

My roommate, Zoe, returned from Southern Ontario yesterday, confusedly reporting that there was much more snow in London and Toronto than in Montreal. Montreal is notorious for being a much snowier city, explaining her surprise.

I owe this to Montreal’s excellent snow removal service. It’s incredible how modern technologies have been applied to overcoming the harsh weather in this city ( – I often comment on how odd, and brilliant it is that people carry out their business despite these never-ending arctic storms). This city is too good at snow removal to just leave the snow on the street.

But then my thoughts wandered. What if Montreal did leave the snow on the street? There would surely be enormous snow banks on every street corner – piles of snow that would act as structures characterizing a streetscape for an entire season – mountains of snow that would impede vision at every distance – places where people would break through the snow banks and impromptu ‘doorways’ would emerge, dwarfing the natural paths that emerge from the current state of affairs.

If the snowbanks weren’t cleared, I imagine that often, natural paths through the snow would be replaced by ones that went over the snow. Ephemeral staircases emerging here, a slide, improved with each use there. Some residents would proudly maintain their snow structures, adding architectural elements on sunnier days with packing snow. Others would neglect the snow structures outside their homes, leading to dangerous and forboding entrances and exits through the mountain-banks.

I owe the theory of “seasonal snow structures” to my brother, who has reported their existence in the less snow-removal-able Halifax. And Ted,   helped imagine the snowy structures that would exist if Montreal wasn’t so capable at dealing with the snow.

When I sit in my living room and watch the street, I am amazed by the leagues of municipal snow removers, working “quietly” in the night so that the people of Montreal can enjoy their city the next day, unhindered. The yellow and black trucks and plows that patrol the streets are another instance where one can contemplate the odd nature of the urban –  an intense concentration of human activity; so many interests and motivations and reasons for why Montreal is here, and why I am here in Montreal; the weather patterns that bring in squalls and storms; the architecture and behaviour that has emerged because of them – this is the city – the complex urban.

With the upcoming expansion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art into the church at the north-east corner of Sherbrooke and Musée, the museum will now occupy a whopping four (4) (four!) different buildings, differing dramatically in architectural style and era.

You have the original building, the beautiful neo-classical columns that proudly proclaim “fine art museum”:

Another older building, that I imagine served another use originally, and was incorporated later (maybe it’s time to start doing research on this blog…):

Then there’s the Moshe Safdie addition, a statement-of-a-building, that now acts as the main entrance:

And finally, the latest addition, the church. This photo was taken before the construction of what I’m sure is going to be a beautiful glass atrium:

note: all images are from Google streetview

The growth of the MMFA over the years is another instance where beautiful urbanity boasts itself proudly: the fluid and dynamic uses that these buildings have had over the years, the spectacular original architecture, the seamless mix of styles and the utter adaptability of it all. This is remarkable proof that you can’t anticipate anything when it comes to the city.

The underground network that is growing as these buildings become linked is also notable. Montreal is known for its extensive underground city, and it is interesting to see another smaller, single activity oriented one develop. Through this mini-network of tunnels, one can afford themselves a unique experience of urban space: entering the gallery from one entrance, emerging from another, and feeling empowered by the ability to burrow through underground tunnels.

I’d like to acknowledge what I’ve come to realize as something I’ve been doing for many years now, and announce the future of my ideas.

Phenomenology is the philosophy of interrogating various phenomena in life through the way we experience them. It serves as an opportunity to go further than other, more rigid schools of thought, notably modern science, that tend to take for granted our structures of knowledge and treat what we know as objective. Studying urban geography, architecture, and urban planning has lead to some frustrating instances where I’ve found myself fed up with those claiming to know exactly the way things work (see: the history of Western urban planning). Phenomenology doesn’t pretend to be explanatory: rather, looking at the basic experiences of our lives provides a productive and enriching way to view the world.

A life project of urban phenomenology will be my attempt to apply the tenants of this philosophy to the urban phenomena I observe and experience daily. I am currently reading many phenomenologists, and am excited to apply these ideas to urban phenomena I find in need of explanation. I am by no means an expert, and I have no desire to do this in formal academic channels, so the disclaimer is I may be completely misguided in my attempts, but in all honesty, who cares. But then again, please help me if I seem to be going off track…even if you don’t know what phenomenology is. The main goal is to re-approach the way cities work, in order to get to what could be a deeply satisfying way of viewing the world, and maybe some ideas that could be applied to my potential future life in the world of urban design.

The point of this blog is to get my ideas down with less of a concern for the way they “sound”, or a deep scrutiny of poor grammar or word choices. In this sense, I am excited to carry out some fun, thought provoking and messy urban phenomenology.

Another note is that this post has no influence on past or future posts; what I have written, and am going to write may or may not be phenemenological, but again, who cares. As I read more phenemonologists, I am eager to see where my ideas go.

Microsoft’s attempts to compete with Google have been quite obvious over the last year. With the launch of Bing, there now truly stands a search engine that can reach the standards and qualities that Google has become famous for.

The difference between the two is that Google grew organically to its current state, while Bing has been carefully and thoughtfully designed. Responding slowly to meet its users needs, the current Google interface reflects countless actions from its users, and responses from Google’s programmers. We now have access to unbelievable search algorithms that yield exactly the information we are looking for, and functions such as “Instant search” that have made Googling that much easier. There also exists an extensive database of user generated content, and the ease of using Google has played a major role in the open source data movement. Nevertheless, Bing has artificially  created a search engine that meets Google’s standards.

Yes, these companies are search engines, but it has become obvious that their more primary projects are to be the portal (and master?) to all the world’s information. Google Scholar, news, maps, streetview, countless side projects and the Bing equivalents are representative of the immense fishing-nets these technological superpowers have cast out into the world of knowledge.

As a geographer, the maps are of most interest to me. It’s interesting to compare Google and Bing’s approach to cartography. Bing essentially copied the Google model, exactly: with one subtle difference. While Google’s satellite maps are taken from  directly above, Bing maps has the “Bird’s Eye” option; the photos are taken from a slightly lower angle.

The experiences of both maps, as a result, are dramatically different. And ultimately, to the common user, I think Bing has triumphed in this respect. The lower angles provide an easier plane for orientation. The buildings and streets are more recognizable, and the overlaid street map limits confusion. When you rotate to gauge the map, viewing it from another cardinal direction, the image changes to suit this angle, enabling views from the other side of the street. The result is a much deeper and thorough experience than the Google satellite equivalents.

Compare the satellite photos of my corner in Montreal, Duluth and St Urbain:

Bing satellite view is on the top, Google on the bottom

If evoking a sense of place is the name of the game, the Bing map definitely captures the character of the Plateau much more than the Google satellite photos. One can get a sense of the scale of the street and a feel for the architectural features of the buildings. The Google map, on the other hand, is confusing in that this block of triplexes could be any other block when viewed from above.

We have to consider though, that evoking a sense of place is not a map’s job. It’s to orient ourselves, (or if you’re someone concerned with collecting Remote Sensing data, it’s to carry out thoughtful analysis involving light spectrums, or something) and perhaps the view from above that Google provides does a better job of this. I tend to use Google more… I guess it’s habit, or a trust in the natural processes that lead to Google’s highly intuitive interface. But orienting ourselves consists more of the geometry of the streets, and perhaps I’ll adopt Bing maps soon as my “go to”.

In any case, it will be interesting to see Bing’s answer to street view (hopefully nothing too scary…).

Santropol Café, the sandwich eatery located on the south west corner of St Urbain and Duluth has moved its kitchen across the street, in the former quarters of Santropol Roulant, the meals on wheels that has since moved to a new location at Coloniale and Roy.

The concept initially came off as odd to me. I imagined waiters fumbling across a snowy street, dodging traffic, simultaneously balancing soups and sandwiches as they made there way from the kitchen to the restaurant. It turns out that they prepare everything in the kitchen across the street (i.e. soups, spreads, complicated dishes) and assemble the sandwiches and plate the dishes in the cafe proper.

The lack of kitchen has really opened up the restaurant nicely, and I look forward to exploring the space more next time I decide to have a good soup and sandwich there.

The implications and effects on the local urban form are bound to be interesting. I lamented the move of Santropol Roulant, a neighbourhood institution and anchor, last spring. Santropol was effectively a community centre that brought people from all over the island who came to volunteer or partake in various workshops. As a result, the sidewalk in front of Santropol was always buzzing with activity, and the corner really established its sense of place. Now that Santropol has moved, there has been noticeably less activity and chance encounters with people I’ve met over the years. The empty kitchen was a sad site for someone who has had a lot of nice experiences in that space.

But now that Santropol Cafe has colonized another piece of the St Urbain Duluth intersection, the spill over of activity has been restored. Granted, it will be much less activity, and extremely specific to the functions of the restaurant, but the presence of a kitchen that has a constant flow of people will be a positive element to this lovely streetscape.

This is just another element of Santropol Cafe’s experiments with outdoor urban space. Their patio offers an oasis of shade and luscious greenery. But the patio is very private, open to the public only by virtue of small viewing-windows in the fence that surrounds it. Last summer, the cafe established an outdoor smoothie and milkshake bar, a wonderful mix of public and private uses of space. And now, the restaurant’s very functionality has moved outdoors.

This is a beautiful and successful instance where public and private urban space have been woven together, seamlessly.

As I first experienced sometime last August, the vibrant Portuguese community that currently occupies the formerly Jewish south-west of Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood periodically holds Saint Celebrations — street parades that shut down St Urbain between Mont Royal and Duluth.

The effect of shutting down the street proved to be incredibly pleasant. St Urbain is a largely  residential street north of Sherbrooke. Due to the fact that it is a one way thoroughfare that crosses the entire island, extending from the city’s Northern highways, through the residential Mile End and Plateau neighbourhoods, past the industrial area and highway overpass south of Rene Lesveque and, finally ending at Old Montreal, the street is effectively a highway. I live directly on St Urbain at Duluth, in a walk up, my bedroom window on the street, so I know intimately how busy St Urbain can be. Traffic zooms by at all hours of the day, at incredibly high speeds; if the vehicle is lucky to not be stopped by any red lights, St Urbain presents itself as a chute, sending cars zooming southwards.

St Urbain is not the most pleasant street. Though it boasts an incredibly large and beautiful stock of classic Montreal duplexes and triplexes, with the requisite local businesses sprinkled in between, the extremely high speed traffic detracts from the aesthetics of one of the city’s most important streets.

But when the street was closed to accommodate the Portuguese parade, I experienced a different kind of St Urbain. The kind of street that must have been the one Mordecai Richler spoke of so dearly. Gone were the constant wooshes of passing traffic. Rather, silence rued the day. The sound of birds, the summer breeze, the chit chat of passersby, the voices of my friends directly beside me, these were the sounds of the city restored to an otherwise inner-city highway, frozen to accommodate a different kind of traffic.

And then I looked up, and was delighted to see the windows and balconies that line the street populated by curious onlookers, children and adults, watching the parade, delighting in experiencing a St Urbain not characterized by the typical unassociated traffic, flinging across the island at an unbelievable speed from where-ever to some place, but rather, their neighbours, partaking in a cultural activity that evoked the participation not just of those in the parade, but the entire citizenry of the street.

This wonderful experience of St Urbain made me think what limiting the traffic would do to the street. If Montreal were to make it a two way street, which I think must have been its original usage, the pleasant calm that I temporarily experienced would endure permanently. The same happens, I suppose, in Sao Paulo, when every Sunday they close down the central highway that eviscerates the city’s core, handing it back over to the residents of the city, especially those who dwell in highrises that line the expressway. In Sao Paulo, on such a day, the usual racket associated with a superhighway stops completely, and is replaced by the chatter of an impromptu and inherently ephemeral market-esque streetscape.

I don’t expect St Urbain will ever be converted to a two-way street. Frankly, beyond these pleasantries thought up by a naive, idyllic urbanist, there is no need to restore quiet to St Urbain. I imagine that the street is a necessary north-south thoroughfare, accommodating a noticeably immense amount of traffic’s journey across the island. And it’s better than the alternative: a real highway, cutting up the unique Plateau urban landscape (see: autoroute Decarie).

I suppose that I’ll just have to enjoy the wonders of a temporarily closed St Urbain as they come and go.

Last night, I rode the subway from Bayview station on the Sheppard line to Bathurst station on the Bloor-Danforth line, which requires to transfers and thus three subways in total.

The experience was wonderful. At 1am, the subways were packed full of festive Torontonians, some quiet, some more rowdy shouting “Happy New Year!” to the passers-by, and chatting up their fellow subway riders. Social conventions of riding public transit with as little interaction with others as possible was thrown out the window. Unlikely groups of riders were sharing laughs together and taking pictures and enjoying themselves.

All I could think while riding the subway last night was how important this was for the city. The ttc was free from midnight to 4am to celebrate and curb impaired driving, and as a result, thousands of Torontonians shared a New Year’s Eve experience together. It is these critical moments where the collective unconsciousness, and the collective experiences of the urban manifest themselves. Living in a city and describing it’s feeling is often an abstract phenonmenon that we can’t quite put our finger on. But at a moment when people from all walks of life are riding together in metal trains underground at an unlikely hour, this is when the city presents itself to us, and we all feel excited to participate in it.

Should we be upset about this?

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Several beautiful, early 1900s mansions in Forest Hill, such as the one pictured above (images courtesy of google streetview) have recently been demolished and replaced by houses without any architectural integrity. The issue is complicated. When you think of a city’s character you often think of it’s downtown core: these are the San Fransisco townhouses, the Montreal triplexes, the Boston brownstones, the Brooklyn walk ups. One doesn’t often think of a city’s wealthy suburbs, because, they all look the same.

Arguably, we should be more concerned with the heritage of the dense and colourful downtown houses than the mansions in the suburbs: the rich, after all, can always rebuild, and the beauty of the houses they demolish for the modern but ugly new dwellings is wasted on them. It’s their choice, after all, and the common citizen usually doesn’t traverse the suburbs unless they themselves live there.

And yet, it is these inner city suburbs that give Toronto it’s character. A very unique part of the city is the ability to live in a very comfortable neighbourhood, but also be right in the middle of the city, near a subway or bus line, with commerce and mixed use thoroughfares nearby. Toronto is “the city of neighbourhoods” after all, and the beautiful neighbourhoods of many scales the surround Toronto’s financial core are essential in evoking that Toronto sense of place.

One also thinks of similar issues in other cities, notably Vancouver, where wealthy Chinese families have moved into to older neighbourhoods, and demolished beloved old homes, replacing them with lavish, humongous monster homes, without regard to the aesthetics of the area.

One can lament the death of an old neighbourhood. It happens in many ways: all at once, like the urban renewal projects that saw the end of inner city neighbourhoods in favour of modernist towers; otr it can happen slowly, like the neighbourhoods north of Lawrence, smaller homes slowly succumbing to a wave of monster homes. The same thing is happening in Forest Hill, I suppose: older homes succumbing to ones with more modern furnishings. But that’s the city: we have to respect it’s need to reinvent itself and reuse its land, even if that means the demolishing of beautiful old residences. Some will remain, we will learn, but the city will continue to be wonderfully varied, and we will continue to appreciate the beauty of the old.