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We’ve all been there. Our coffee maker, printer, or blender brakes, and it costs way less to buy a new one then to go through all the trouble of fixing it. Responding to this incredibly wasteful phenomenon and the volume of raw materials and energy needed to produce and transport new goods, Martine Postma, an environmental activist in the Netherlands created the world’s first Repair Cafe.

The goals of the Repair Cafe are simple: reducing waste, maintaining and passing on knowledge about repairing, and strengthening community. Since the first Dutch Repair Cafe opened in 2009, this form of unconsumption has gained immense popularity, winning 2013 Radical Innovator of the year, and with Repair Cafes being started all over the world,  from Germany to the United States, from Latvia to Brazil and Italy. Now one is opening in Toronto with it’s first meeting May 25!

Repair Cafe

Repair Cafes are pop-up gathering places where you can bring your broken stuff — electronics, clothing, tools — to be repaired by a team of volunteer electricians, seamstresses, carpenters and other repair specialists. Tools and materials are made available to repair all sorts of goods that could otherwise be thrown away. Without fixed locations, Repair Cafes temporarily transform urban spaces into functional social gathering places, where the project’s social benefits are as appealing as its ecological mission. At the Repair Cafe, you can drink a coffee and get to know your neighbours as you wait your turn to consult with a repair-volunteer.

Repair Cafe

Interesting to note are Repair Cafe’s uniform design worldwide. Indeed, they are all centrally connected to the original Dutch Repair Cafe, a foundation that believes in the strength of a global repair movement. The central Repair Cafe offers a comprehensive information package, customized advice, posters and flyers, and publicity via their network. To get this support free of charge, an organization in another city must call its project the Repair Cafe, use the same logo, and constantly refer to the central Repair Cafe’s website — another explicit example ‘local’ grassroots initiatives to improve the city are actually part of a global urban culture, with identical projects stemming from wide-spread ideas made possible by the internet.

Repair Cafe

The design of the Repair Cafe is anything but stylish. Its use of the MS font Curlz maybe even contributes to an anti-hipster look. We find this an interesting and effective strategy for promoting the simplicity of the grass roots solutions that the Repair Cafe brings forth. The repair cafe isn’t about style: it’s a utilitarian, effective solution to overconsumption in the world, and doesn’t need a new-Artisan brand to argue that.

Repair Cafe

In a crisis economy, environmentally-minded city dwellers have the ability to bring forward a lot of innovation. In this case, innovation isn’t as much of making something entirely new, rather looking back to old ways when people used to fix things before throwing them away. But the Repair Cafe is anything but a purely nostalgic yearning for the simpler days that were. The fact is, we do not have the knowledge in North America and Europe to repair CD players manufactured in China. Recognizing this, and maintaining and passing on the repair knowledge we do have in Europe and North America demands a change of mentality, which is necessary to create a sustainable society. Repair Cafes encourage us to repair what we can, pass on this knowledge, and perhaps start consuming things only within the realm of our expertise. Is this another sign that manufacturing is returning to the post-industrial cities of North America and Europe? In any case, it’s evident, while sharing is the new owning, fixing is quickly becoming the new buying!

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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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I had a neat experience of geognitive dissonance the weekend before last, when I visited by former city-of-residence Montreal, along with many many other people from Halifax.

On Sunday afternoon, I was delighted to find that the visionary producers of Pop Montreal, and local Mile-End public space advocates and super group RuePublique, planned the final day of the fantastic music and arts festival to coincide with Les Bons Voisins de St Viateur, the annual St Viateur Street fair. Providing all-afternoon free shows on the street, Pop Montreal also had its Puces Pop event in the basement of a church directly fronting the fair. The result was a constant flow of people throughout the day, enjoying the street-hangs, slowly filtering through the church doors to enjoy the dense display of crafts on offer.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the Black Street block party only one week earlier in Halifax, I was psyched to get a dose of some Montreal same-same but different. Though entirely different from the residential, leafy neighbourhood times of the Black Street block party, Mile End’s St. Viateur festival was Montreal’s gritty urban iteration of the same culture of the do it yourself, for yourself spirit, and take-back-the-streets attitude.

Several blocks were closed to cars, and the commercial high street yielded to small-job booths of crafters, free bike repair, and food stands by and for neighbours. Both Black and St Viateur festivals rejected corporate aesthetics, favouring the small scale and the scrappy. A successful intervention on the street was the laying of sod — inviting passersby to lie down in the middle of the street, reclining in repose, fulfilling the essence of the Montreal hang in an atypical mid-street locale. A characteristically grey but sunny autumnal day enveloped the hangs, and highlighted the beauty of St Viateur’s built form.

Scrappy DIY art-projects on St Viateur (courtesy of RuePublique Facebook group)

Midday I found myself on a picnic table in front of a brick building at the St Viateur street fest’s mid-point. I was in good company, joined by a few friends I’ve met in Halifax, laughing and reminiscing about nights’ passed. Contently, I looked around to marvel at the delightful street scene, quickly realizing that about 40 people surrounding me were from Halifax, or connected to the city in some way. I tuned into the sound beginning to pour from the nearby bandstand, and started to bopping my head to familiar tunes from Halifax’s Old and Weird. The picnic table, the closed off street, the brick buildings framing the scene, the people surrounding me, and the music narrating it all — the scene was an exact reproduction of SappyFest, an indie rock festival in Sackville New Brunswick, that similarly attracts droves from Halifax, only in this instance, it was several months later and several hundred kilometres further west.

Compare this Montreal Mile End street scene…

to a similar scene in Sackville, New Brunswick

A head-ache, it was – a veritable space-warp. Here was a social network I directly associate with a specific place – Halifax (and including Sackville, the Martime region, I guess) – transposed onto another city, a city that I associate with an entirely different social network to boot.

Pure geognitive dissonance.

One thing that I really learnt on my last-Autumn travels to north-west Europe was that cities are inescapably market-places.

That is their primary function and social purpose, manifested in their built form. They are gathering spots where people can exchange goods and services. We can look at the history of cities, and in their DNA see that the world’s biggest are river- or ocean-side ports, a phenomenon geographers refer to as “break and bulk points”.  Modern cities are often at the shores of rivers of a different sort: highways and traffic corridors, where routes between several major cities converge.

Of course, the magical elements of unpredictable urbanity follow from market-cities, but these are only happy coincidences. A city is about dollars and cents. There is no town without a money-town. $ $ $ and all that.

This sort of irked me on my travels. I grew frustrated that the only thing I could do in each European city I visited was buy things and food, essentially. This is probably an obvious fact to most — but my romantic notions of the city and urbanity fogged the economic realities of the places I visited. I grew tired of only interacting with people over dollar exchanges — it felt inauthentic, ungenuine, not conducive to real connections.

The Really Really Free Market is perhaps a solution to the modern $$$-City.

It can be stripped down to its tagline: “No money. No barter. No trade. Try a new economic model: sharing!”

And, according to its organizers, it is “basically, its a bazaar, a celebration, and a community space for sharing- where people bring what they have to give, and take what they need. Kind of like a potluck, but for goods, services, skills, ideas, smiles”.

I love this concept.

There is an idea circulating these days that there is in fact abundance in the world, and it’s the political/social/economic structures that cause inequality and poverty, not a lack of resources.

Simply put, there is no real need to buy everything. There are so many goods and services lying fallow in our city’s neighbourhoods — there just needs to be a place, a system, to activate this surplus, and re-distribute that abundance.

The third iteration of the Really Free Market in Halifax (following successful stints at the Khyber and George Dixon Centre), is planned for August 12, from 11am to 3pm at the Bloomfield Centre. It’s great that it’s become a semi-regular thing, but, for this “revolutionary” economic model (i.e., sharing) to really change the way we interact with our cities — making them less of a money-market, and more of a social gathering place — is to make this a regular thing, dedicate space to it, rely on it more and more while buying less and less. We already have channels of communication that are facilitating this movement: craigslist and kijiji free sections, free-cycle websites – this is great, and we can build on it: such as a city officially accepting this economic model into its planning, its bureaucracy and systems.

It’s a fantastic idea that will undoubtedly spread throughout the world as we face the realities of depleting resources and the inevitable consequences  of years of social-environmental neglect.

Plus — I designed the flyer for the event ! I based the type on the beautiful, old and rusty Bloomfield Centre sign, and the building featured on the front is the iconic view of the Centre from Agricola and Bloomfield streets.


See you there!

August 15, 2012,  UPDATE!

Turns out, there’s now a weekly Really Really Free Market, in Toronto! Every first Saturday of the month, at Campbell Park, in Toronto’s west-end. This is surely the first steps toward permanent Free city infrastructure.

See you there, when I’m there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you there. 

Inspired by Mark Lakeman’s Chronology of City Repair, I have embarked on a continuous project of finding moments where the all encompassing grid has started to dissolve.

The grid is imposed on messy nature-culture. It is a rational, simplistic, controlling structure stemming from power. It is not what a city wants to be and, if it weren’t for constant maintenance, would inevitably dissolve.

So go out, and explore, find the moments where the grid is dissolving! Streets that are closed to traffic permanently. Large planters and outward-jutting sidewalks that break the linear flow of vehicular traffic. Come back and see some examples I’ve found too.

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.

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.

Living in Halifax has given me first hand experience of the “HRM”, the Halifax Regional Municipality. The HRM sort of seems like local politicians saw other Canadian regional governments, such as the Toronto “Mega-City” and the unsuccessful merger of municipalities on the Island of Montreal, and applied it to a region that doesn’t make as much sense.

The HRM, as you can see, makes up a significant portion of the province of Nova Scotia. But size doesn’t matter in agglomerating political districts: what matters is flows — if the flows of peoples, goods, traffic and communications begins to spread widely, over formerly significant geo-political boundaries, that’s when an urban amalgamation makes sense.

But — the HRM — it doesn’t seem to make sense to me, a new-comer to this city. Beyond its immediate neighbours, the towns surrounding Halifax seem pretty disconnected from the Peninsular City. And, whereas in Montreal and Toronto, you have a certain degree of suburban sprawl that sees a significant number of commuters travelling between places, in Halifax, the sprawl is relatively limited, and you reach rural land quickly once leaving the city.

The HRM is an astonishingly big political entity, where people from extremely different walks of life, with extremely different needs and political attitudes, have to somehow come together and make decisions that affect everyone. The consequences are broad ranging, an example being that wealthy suburban, or otherwise interested rural voters will have more influence on city council and consequently neglect the needs inner city urban folk, as we saw in Toronto’s last mayoral election.

Indeed, I believe in the need for regional government. It makes sense that a forum be established where plans regarding such problems as energy and transportation infrastructures, issues that make sense at a regional scale, be discussed and plans executed. But regional government should not replace local, autonomous government. I may go so far as saying local government should have the most influence, nested within regional, provincial and federal levels of governance.

The seeming ridiculousness of the HRM presented itself the other day, when, driving back from Tancook Island, many signs announcing towns along the highway, like the one in the first photo, boasted the HRM logo, with the phrase “Welcome to Our Community”.

It was incredibly strange realizing that we were already “in Halifax”, even though our surroundings included sea side cottages and farms. Most ridiculous was the repeated notion of “our community” — what are these communities, and who established them? What happens to the meaning of “community” when it is constantly repeated in the same monotonus fashion, and is imposed from some distant, top-down governing body? What does it mean when we enter the Community of Halifax? These signs betray the non-sensical logic of the HRM and speak of the continuing trend of potentially harmful centralization in Canadian governance.

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.