Archives for posts with tag: ecology

This post originally appeared on the Jane’s Walk blog

Geomancy, Fortune Telling with Maps, is a practice I developed to invite consideration on how our lives are affected by Toronto’s landscape. It goes deep into place-based identity, inviting reflection on how topography, ecology, history, cardinal orientation, infrastructure and the grid affect our existence and well-being.

For example: The Don River affects a lot of Torontonians, the same way the train tracks we pass over and under every day, the highways we travel along, the city’s waterfront, its buried rivers, and all its hills, valleys and hydro corridors do.

The Don is Toronto’s central river. Its creeks and tributaries criss-cross most of the central city before reaching Toronto Bay, where its flow embraces the electrically charged density of downtown Toronto. It has been home to a distinctly exuberant kind of Toronto culture; the city’soldest neighbourhoods have long perched at the edge of its wide valley. The Don has been the site of most of Toronto’s industrial growth too, especially when we tried to straighten its meandering curves, channelizing it to become a working canal. Further upstream, the Don has been where utopian visions of the city like Don Mills andThorncliffe Park have been dreamed up and realized. Today, it’s again a major site of development, with the construction of the Pan Am Athletes Village and continued efforts to re-naturalize the river’s mouth.

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Image of Toronto’s watershed system by Daniel Rotsztain

I think when people talk about Toronto, they’re talking about the Don River. Yet many Torontonians have lived their entire lives along the Don without realizing it. The ways we commute, on bridges over the ravines that keep the geometry of the grid intact, or in subway tunnels deep below the surface of the city, make it easy to forget that the river even exists. But the worldview the inhabitants of central Toronto has been shaped by the wind, water, climate and electric spirit that is undeniably Don.

Compare this to the Humber—the river that flows through the west Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. Though arguably more important to the city’s history (the site of the First Nation’s route to Lakes Simcoe and Huron, and the first French forts), the Humber has resisted the same kind of industrial exploitation. Its energy is calmer, and reflects the culture and atmosphere of Etobicoke’s bucolic inner suburbs.

Geomancy reminds us that you can’t opt out of geography. The paths we trace with our feet in the city, the ways we get around, the watersheds we live in, affect our perspectives and world view. What parts of your city’s landscape affect you?

Daniel Rotsztain is a Toronto-based urban geographer. Check out hiswebsite and his Geomancy blog to learn more, and say hello onTwitter!

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I love boardwalks.

The kind of boardwalks I’m talking about are the long wood pathways that wind through forests, over swamps and across marshlands. They twist and turn through otherwise inprentrable landscapes, providing an intimate experience of the world without harming it.

IMG_0888Boardwalk on the way to Risser’s beach, South Shore, Nova Scotia

Humans are curious creatures and boardwalks support that curiosity. They encourage an investigation of ecosystems and animal habitats without trampling them.

If designed well, flora and fauna can pass beneath boardwalks and over them, further decreasing our impact on the landscape.

The pure naturalists out there might protest the limitations of a boardwalk. Putting a barrier between us and the landscape, how are we supposed to connect with it? It’s not easy to feel like you’re in the wild when you’re walking along a predetermined route through the woods.

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In my experience, the boardwalk provides an immensely intimate experience of ecology. My most recent boardwalk sojourn at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary brought me face to face with alligators, snakes, birds and majesty cypress trees.

And yes, the boardwalk’s a circuit, but given the recent history of the exploitation and destruction of most of the world’s habitats caused by human activity, I think it’s fair that most of us should stay back, and resist meddling with and trampling on the habitats of other plants and animals.

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A boardwalks also simplifies the experience of nature to be coherent. Unlike human activity, the rest of nature doesn’t have a centre point. Walking along a boardwalk provides an intelligible experience of nature.

Finally, boardwalks are accessible! They provide an intimate experience of natural landscapes to everyone, particularly wheelchairs users, people with disabilities, and the elderly.

Southwest Florida has an especially high number of boardwalks. The area’s everglades and swampy forests mean that boardwalks are one of the only ways to see the landscape while avoiding getting your feet wet.

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Corkscrew swamp sanctuary near Naples, Florida 

In Sackville, New Brunswick, a boardwalk dreamily winds its way through the Tantramar marsh. Over ponds and through thickets of grass and birch trees, the boardwalk’s 2 kilometres provide a thorough and highly satisfying experience of the elusive marsh lands.

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Tantramar marsh boardwalk in Sackville, New Brunswick

But boardwalks don’t have to be limited to swampy lands – they can be built anywhere to heighten the experience of a place.

In Toronto, there’s a boardwalk through the ravines of Sherwood Forest. There’s also one that, inexplicably, crosses through a park near my house at Davenport and Dufferin. Despite its absurdity, the boardwalk provides a unique perspective to an otherwise ordinary green space.

In Blythewood the Path is an Elevated Wooden Walkway 016Sherwood Forest in Toronto

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Absurd boardwalk through a park near Dufferin and Davenport 

But perhaps the most ultimate urban boardwalk is Manhattan’s High Line. Twisting and turning over the meatpacking district, the High Line travels over New York City without disturbing it. Flanuers can enjoy an intimate and unique experience of the city, getting to places they could otherwise not access. The novelty of floating above and through the city on the world’s largest urban boardwalk has been enough to make the High Line known throughout the world.

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Halifax

I am pleased to present to you a sampling of clips/animated GIFs from my presentation Everything is Everything (Urban Political Ecology: Politicizing Urban Natures). The animation is based on a body of academic literature and my thesis work at McGill University. It is a playful visualization that is multi-disciplinary, informed by history, philosophy, geography, ecology and geology.

I am continuing to develop the presentation, and am currently expanding it by animating poignant examples of urban-nature from my native Toronto. The examples there are abundant, and the results will be inevitably whimsical.

I will keep you updated with my process, but for now enjoy clips from Everything is Everything as presented at the 2011 Fuller Terrace Lecture Series‘ evening of talks themed “The Nature of Things

Enjoy:::::

Though trees and modernist buildings seem diametrically opposed, they are both the result of the processing of material from the earth. Both their designs are repetitive, and logically follow from basic units:

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Our cities are built on top of and out of the earth. The quintessential wood paneled houses of Halifax are made from the trees that used to cover the Peninsula. The glass and steel that compose the city’s skyscrapers, though from farther away, are too the result of natural processes:

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As human populations (i.e. western imperial societies) grew and spread over the surface of the planet, so did their systems of reason and rationality. At first, Nature was conceived as terrifying, something to be revered and despised. But as untouched Nature began to become scarce, receding in the face of increased population and technology, it became something to be desired, enjoyed, conserved. Nature is a fluid concept:

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The world is complex, and it’s often hard to draw a line between where the natural ends and the artificial begins:

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Like the bees, we gain our energy from fruits and vegetables, which stem from flowers. The bees use their energy to build their hives, and we, our cities:

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I read a lot of online blogs and magazines about cities. This post is part of a new series of quote-shares from my internet travels: 

▶▶ URBAN GEOGRAPHER QUOTE-SHARE  ◁◁

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As you’ve read before, my undergrad thesis at McGill University was to focus on urban agriculture, using the concepts of Urban Political Ecology. UPE is a post-structuralist, Marxist body of literature that seeks to unfix the false dichotomy of nature and culture in order to understand the power structures that determine the winners and losers of our inevitable impact on the planet.

As your Urban Geographer, I have continued to research, write about and explore this artificial nature-society binary. Through my activities, projects and art I have sought to offer poignant examples where the constructed borders of nature and society meet. Cities, as you can imagine, offer infinite examples of such.

As I have recently applied to be a speaker at OCAD’s 2013 Urban Ecologies conference, I thought it would be a good opportunity to share some quotes that will clarify the project of Urban Political Ecology to you, my readers, but also to me! I found these quote boxes on Understanding Social Science – a useful blog that puts otherwise esoteric concepts into clear, accessible language.

Enjoy::::

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Montreal versus Toronto comparisons are a common conversation I have with people who have been to both cities. It’s also something I have a lot on my mind, as I grew up in Toronto and spent some formative years living in Montreal (and am now back in Toronto — for a bit).

The cities are incredibly different — fundamentally so, especially considering that they are only five hours away from each other (which is considered very close in Canada, for all you European readers). Yes, they are both North American cities, former colonial economic outposts of European countries, and are based on a grid, but the cities that have grown around these shared circumstances are completely different.

I could write an extensive list outlining the differences from my own musings and the many conversations I’ve had with families, friends and strangers (this is a hot topic for those taking rideshares between the two cities), from the most nuanced to the most banal, from the most material to the most philosophical, but these will be topics for other posts.

For now, I’d like to sum up the differences in an elegant analogy that makes use of the cities’ prominent geographic features that my mom used earlier today, an analogy that eloquently describes a lot of my thoughts about these two very-different  yet-similar and thus-irresistibly-comparable places.

Montreal has its mountain, a raised point in the heart of the city; and,

Toronto has its ravines, forested valleys that lie below the street level and are spread throughout the city.

Montreal is easy to read: it is not challenging to find out “where-to-be” to have a good time out with others. Its culture, much like its mountain is centralized, pronounced, prominent and unmistakable.

Toronto is more difficult: one must know where-to-go to find the “good” spots. Much like its ravines, its culture is diffused, sprawling, mysterious and hard-to-find. It’s iconic skyline leads visitors to assuming that this is all Toronto’s got: what’s on the surface, without ever looking below.

So when you visit Toronto: as I say to anyone, “give it a chance”. It is a booming, exciting city, as any city of three million inevitably is. But its articulation, its manifestation of the “good life” is less marked, visible then in Montreal.

So get out there, climb that mountain —
but also explore those ravines.

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.

Though spring-time is still far off in Montreal, the snow is rapidly melting from the warmer day-time temperatures.

The silent streets and muffled city of deep-winter are stirring.

The sound of water – dripping, rushing, splashing – grows louder.

Though this is the city – concrete and man-made – we are not disconnected from the cycles of nature. The street-side rivers flow through the forest of buildings and traffic lights. We are agents within an urban nature.

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“As a state of mind, true wilderness exists only in the great sprawling cities” – Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia

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