Archives for posts with tag: imageability
This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto

A few weeks ago I biked over to The Guild park. Known for its collection of modern Toronto “ruins”, a bonus to visiting the park is its unobstructed view of Lake Ontario. Gazing from cliffs high above the water, far from the distractions of the Bluffs or the skyline, and without the Island and Leslie Spit interrupting the horizon, all that can be seen from the Guild’s vantage is sparkling and limitless blue.

It’s moments like this, high above the water along Scarborough’s cliffs, that confirm it for me. Calling this enormous body of water a Lake doesn’t do it justice. Lake Ontario — it’s a Sea.

When I was showing a friend from Sweden around Toronto last Winter, she looked over Lake Ontario and kept casually calling it “the sea”. In Swedish, sjörefers to both lakes and seas, so she wasn’t technically wrong. The roots of most Germanic languages make no distinction between lakes and seas, and it turns out, among today’s oceanographers, there is no accepted definition of sea.

See

A German edition of an atlas map by French mapmaker Jacques-Nicolas Bellin from 1757, from The Historical Atlas of Toronto by Derek Hayes

The same goes for lakes. Though definitions vary, lake often refers to a small, inland body of water. And the way we use it, a lake suggests waters that are knowable, safe and domesticated — calm waters that you can dip your feet in at the cottage.

I know it’s just a matter of language, and may seem trivial. But the language we use says a lot about our relationship with the world, and Toronto could use some help reinvigorating its relationship with the vast body of water along its southern edge. Calling it a lake has made us forget about the water in our ideas of Toronto’s identity and geography. If we started calling it the Sea of Ontario, however, we would be acknowledging the water’s power and mystery, launching it into prominence in our civic mythology.

Over in the Middle-East, the Sea of Galilee is technically a lake. But its importance in the history and mythology of Western civilization transforms this tiny patch of fresh water into a Sea in our minds – a body of water with enough stories and myths that its worthy of its name. (For comparison, The Sea of Galilee is 166 km squared, whereas Lake Ontario is more than 18 000 km squared!)

Stormy Lake Ontario has been known to wreck ships

 Stormy Lake Ontario has been known to wreck ships

Of course, Lake Ontario has its own share of stories and myth. Though a “lake”, this body of water is a powerful force, as mighty as any sea. When stormy, its waves have battered boats and taken lives. Last March, the TRCA hosted Lake Ontario Evenings: Hidden Secrets of the Lake. The audience regaled in tales of Lake Ontario from geographers, historians and marine archaeologists. We learnt of shipwrecks from the War of 1812, and how Robert Ballard, an oceanographer of Titanic fame came to explore a pair of sunken boats, the Hamilton and Scourge. We learnt about the HMS Toronto, wrecked off the shores of Gibraltar Point in 1811, and the Monarch, which sank in 1866 off Ward’s Beach.

Throughout the evening, as the Lake Ontario experts shared secrets of the Lake, they kept accidentally calling it a sea.

The waters have brought trouble to more recent ships as well. I recently encountered a boat mechanic who worked on the short-lived ferry connection between Toronto and Rochester. Its failure is often explained as financial, but the mechanic told me that wasn’t the whole story. Apparently the catamaran, designed by an Australian company for ocean journeys in the South Pacific, couldn’t handle Lake Ontario’s waves. The powerful waters lead to mechanic failure, adding to the cost of operation. The ferry is now in Denmark after briefly doing service between Tarifa, Spain and Tangiers, Morocco, where it sailed passed the other Gibraltar Point.

Though the Great Lakes are often referred to collectively as inland seas, individually, they are rarely given the sea treatment. By taking cues from its size, its stories, and its scope, calling Lake Ontario a sea would elevate its status in the minds of Torontonians, enabling us to embrace our identity as a City by the Sea.

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Check out this quick sketch of a map I made of Toronto:

toronto depiction

It focuses on three dominant features of the city: Highways, Rivers and Trees.

Toronto’s 400 Series Highways, Ravines and River Valley landscapes define this city, and I celebrate them.

Let me know your thoughts about the map in the comments section below!

amsterdam centraal

The train platforms in Amsterdam’s Centraal Station are completely accessible to the public.

You can get to them, even if train tickets have not been purchased. Because of this, the platform is public space — and a direct extension of the city’s street life.

The train-fares in the Netherlands are collected by the OV Chipkaart system. It is highly automated so the gates onto the platform are left open. Paying train-fare correctly is the responsibility of the traveller, and not the train authority. Tickets and fares will often be checked on board, once the train has left the station.

ov chipkaart

The open gates of the OV Chipkaart

That the Centraal Station’s platform is public space means it plays a strong role in the psyche and imageability of the city. The wide open concourse and sweeping architectural arches that form the iconic half-cylindric roof of Centraal Station are available for appreciation from a wide audience, even those who aren’t taking the train.

I like this feature because it is fundamentally about access: not having to pay to get into somewhere changes its nature and role in the city. We can feel the potency of the “public” in public space.

union station

Toronto’s Union Station

Toronto’s central train station, Union Station, is currently undergoing a revitalization. Its dingy train-platform is being “Europeanized”, and plans show a lovely glass atrium with sweeping architectural gestures that reference Train concourse halls built in the late 20th century constructivist tradition (e.g. the Eiffel tower).

union station 2

Architectural rendering of ‘revitalized’ platform

I am excited about this project: it shows a shift in perception and a respect for rail infrastructure as a viable means of transportation versus the car – this is a big deal in auto-oriented North America.

But will the Union Station platform be similarly part of Toronto’s public space, an extension of its street life? Will we be able to explore its grandness without necessarily taking the train? It wasn’t before, and as a result, it doesn’t play a strong role in the city’s image.

I often describe North America as a “private property paradise”. It would be healthy for Toronto’s identity and imageability if Union Station’s platform was a public space, but at odds with the private nature of space in this city. Now that I think of it, the main hall of Union Station, a beautiful concourse is indeed a public space, enabling chance encounters, lingering and undeniably contributing to the imageability of the city. Technology, such as the OV Chipkart system in the Netherlands enables that publicness to extend even further onto the platform — a more equitable experience of the city.

I wonder what the platforms will be like in Union Station.

See also Honour System Anarchy

Amsterdam Pocket Atlas

The City of Amsterdam has put together a very excellent Pocket Atlas, and I’ve had the good fortune of getting my hands on a copy.

The Amsterdam Pocket Atlas provides a thorough look into the spatial qualities of the city, illustrated by maps that describe such delights as Amsterdam’s historical morphology, its tram network, an overview of the city’s mix of functions, green spaces, housing prices and more – a wide range of clearly presented facts expressed in well designed maps.

How thoughtful of the City of Amsterdam to have the Urban Geographers of the world in mind when they put this excellent atlas together.

But I shouldn’t be so naive. It’s obvious from the tone and content of the Atlas that the City is appealing to the corporations and industries of globalized capital –  attempting to attract fickle, foot loose business by enticing them with the region’s diversity, accessibility & connectivity.

However biased the Amsterdam Pocket Atlas may be, it is nevertheless chalk-full of golden nuggets of geographic trivia – a treasure trove of urban geography delights.

The Atlas shed light on something I found particularly interesting: the limits that the Dutch are able to put on the boundaries of their cities. Under a different plan, Amsterdam could very well have expanded infinitely into its surrounding region. Harlem, Leiden, even sea-size Zandvoort could very well be a part of a North American style GAA (Greater Amsterdam Area).

Fixed Boundaries

Reading the excellent Amsterdam Pocket Atlas, I learnt that “for over a century the city acquire[d] space to expand by annexing neighbouring municipalities. Since 1966 the municipal boundaries have been fixed”.

What foresight, to limit the growth of a city – taming the beast before it wreaks havoc on the innocent villages of its hinterland.

Sprawling Toronto did not demonstrate this discipline when it became a mega-city in 1998. Instead, it has become a vast city-region, where a centralized, over burdened municipality has replaced effective local governance. It is a place where the forces of homogenization are something to constantly battle.

The behemoth Halifax Regional Municipality too, could have learnt a lesson from Amsterdam’s spatial discipline when it decided to amalgamate into a too-enormous-to-make-any sense city-region in 1996.

Amsterdam’s ability to limit its borders means a lot of things. It means it is excellently predisposed to make the necessary balance between an ever-densifying city and its highly fertile agricultural hinterland. While Halifax struggles to institute a greenbelt to control sprawl, Amsterdam is well poised for its future.

I don’t know why Dutch cities have tendencies toward spatial discipline, but it manifests in many different scales. For an example, I’ll focus on the neighbourhood level.

Spaarndammerbuurt

Spaarndammerbuurt makes itself explicitly known to its visitors

Neighbourhoods in Amsterdam are discrete spatial units. They are distinct, and have borders that can be easily referenced and mapped. Some neighbourhoods even have pseudo-gates, explicitly marking the space as part of the district: De Pijp’s In/Uit De Pijp sign and the same in Spaardammerbuurt.

In de Pijp

Uit de Pijp

It’s clear whether you’re In, or Uit of de Pijp, a neighbourhood in central Amsterdam

This is also not the case in Toronto – most neighbourhoods bleed into each other, and people have a hard time of agreeing on what’s what.

Its seems the Dutch have no need for the advice dished out in Kevin Lynch’s tome The Image of the City. There is a strong tradition of spatial discipline here. Exploring the city, I feel firmly rooted in where I am, and entirely oriented. Dutch cities are bastions of imageability.

Though the concept of a ‘global city’ is debated, there undoubtedly exists a group of ‘alpha‘ cities that exert a certain cultural and economic influence over the rest of the world.

The world holds these first-order cities, London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, etc, to a certain set of cultural expectations. Famous for hundreds of years, they evoke a very established and clearly defined image, even to those that have never visited them. Through famous depictions in literature, film, photography and visual art, these cities exist as strong identifiable images in the consciousness of the global public.

But what about the second order cities? Cities like Lyon and Manchester? Compared to their alpha-neighbours Paris and London, these cities evoke a much weaker image. Paris’ Eiffel tower and grand boulevards, London’s Big Ben and rainy, winding streets lack an equivalent in Lyon and Manchester in the global consciousness. The lack of an international identity, however, by no means indicates that these cities lack culture. You can be sure that Lyon, Manchester and other ‘second order’ cities have their own extremely rich histories, architectural traditions, urban lifestyles, cultural atmospheres and approaches to planning and transportation management – equally as rich as their first-order counterparts.

I want to suggest that since nobody is holding them to any expectations, ‘second order’ cities allow for a more authentic form of experience for visitors. These cities can speak for themselves, as opposed to having to live up to an identity that precedes them in literature and film.

Obviously, this phenomenon depends on one’s own geography. Those from France, UK and surrounding countries probably know more about Lyon and Manchester than folk from North America, and would thus be able to speak meaningfully about their culture: lifestyle, urban form and architecture. Montreal, itself a second order city, is surrounded by many other second order cities: Toronto, Chicago, Halifax, etc. Despite their lack of global identity, these cities evoke extremely rich images of culture and urban form in our (people from Montreal, Toronto and the Eastern seaboard in general) minds. To the global audience, however, these cities evoke no image at all.

I look forward, and encourage you all, to visiting these second-order cities. With no expectations, I will be able to truly experience these cities as they reveal themselves.