Archives for posts with tag: florida

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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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Here

As you may know by now, I’m spending some time in Naples, Florida.

A lot of other Torontonians are here too, escaping the North-East cold for the sunshine and warmth of Florida’s coasts.

I’ve noticed that, when a group of Torontonians gather in Florida & refer to Toronto, they say “here”. But “here” is Naples, Florida. Toronto is, by most measures, “there”.

This geographic conversational blip has further convinced me that “here” is a state of mind. “Here” exists in the psycho-geographic space between us. Perhaps it’s a little geognative dissonance. But it’s enough to prove that “here” may be there. It may be everywhere.

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Taken off the back of a golf-cart/tram at Clam Shell beach, Naples Florida

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I finally made it to my parents’ second home in Naples, Florida.

I was reluctant to go since my last visit in 2004. Their house is located in Fiddler’s Creek, a suburban gated community surrounded by a golf course. Its cookie cutter houses are gussied up with overly marketed street names such as ‘Mahogany Bend’, ‘Hawk’s Nest’ and ‘Isla Del Sol’.

My last visit left me with the impression of a development on the frontier of the ever-diminishing Everglades. I remembered a gated community sandwiched between highways leading from one super-suburban strip mall to another. I remembered epic social stratification and no public realm, with wealthy neighbourhoods isolated behind gates, wholly separate from the nearby shabbier neighbourhoods where service workers live. My lasting impression was of gas-guzzling car dependency everywhere.

Of course, reality is much more complicated than my simplified judgement of Naples when I was 13. I understand that Fiddler’s Creek is a beautiful place, and enjoyed my time there with my parents under the perfect sun. While my impressions from my last visit remain largely true, I didn’t remember that a huge area is devoted to Everglades National Park and the Rookery Bay Reserve, protected from development thanks to social movements in the 1960s. I also observed that though gated communities are pervasive, and indeed embody extreme social and economic stratification, Walmart proved to be a very real space where the area’s diverse population could meet on common ground.

During my explorations (by car, but also by bike with my father), what emerged as the most enlightening feature to understand the geography and logic of Naples was the ever-common “No Outlet” sign.

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Driving along the wider arterial, highway-style roads, you encounter many intersecting streets. Most of these intersections are accompanied by a “No Outlet” sign.

Essentially, you can only get to different neighbourhoods via the highway. Every time you enter an area from the highway the “No Outlet” sign signifies that there are a bunch of loopy roads that don’t lead anywhere. The only way out is the way you came in.

The consequence is that there are all these areas that are wonderfully different from each other in terms of income level, architecture and vibes, but are completely physically separated from one another. Each has their own distinct internal logic. Entering each neighbourhood from the highway, you experience incredibly different versions of the South West Florida universe.

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Hand drawn conceptualization of “No Outlet”

Functionally, “No Outlet” means that you cannot cut through a neighbourhood as a shortcut. It means that residents have no reason to enter another neighbourhood unless they have an explicit reason to do so. As a result, there is no space for chance encounters and understandings between classes and cultures to occur (the very essence and benefit of urbanity, in my view). The social and economic stratification of the communities in Naples is fixed and ingrained due to the “No Outlet” state of affairs. My mind wanders to one hundred years in the future: will the communities integrate, ever? Will increasingly expensive energy prices break down the walls between these side-by-side but physically barricaded neighbourhoods? A closer investigation of the map reveals a life-line between two neighbourhoods here and there, but mostly between those of the same socio-economic group.

For now, “No Outlet” describes Naples, Florida pretty succinctly. It also makes me grateful for the cross pollination that is enabled by the tangled, twisted and integrated grids of my Toronto. Of course, Toronto is no paradise of unified urbanity itself. Poverty is increasingly concentrated in the city’s inner suburbs, which have similar “No Outlet” style isolated neighbourhoods. (Though not as extreme, the scale of the neighbourhoods and their location far from downtown don’t lend themselves to aimless exploration and chance encounters).

Back in Naples, biking through the above-mentioned nature reserves — up Sea Shell Road and toward the Gulf Coast — I began to wonder if the physical geography of the area could offer any enlightenment as to the “No Outlet” mentality of South West Florida.


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The coast of South West Florida, south of Downtown Naples

Dense thickets of mangroves hovering above the water, sandy oak scrub and brackish estuaries mean that Naples’ coast lacks any easily understood linear logic. The coastline is rather a series of loops, curves, isolated bays and pockets connected only by larger waterways — nature’s version of “No Outlet”. Perhaps the logic of the mangrove swamp has seeped into development patterns of Naples and its isolated communities. Or perhaps, more simply, the area was developed too recently, too in the thick of car dependency, to have had the chance to manifest any differently.