Archives for posts with tag: infrastructure


Vancouver City Council recently voted to remove the elevated highway-like viaducts that have been cutting off its Chinatown and Strathcona neighbourhoods with the rest of downtown Vancouver and False Creek.

Of course, this is a fantastic development for Vancouver, continuing a long history of progressive, people-oriented urban planning.

The removal of these viaducts will improve the surrounding area, making it safer and less hostile to pedestrians. And no, it won’t mean downtown Vancouver will not be inundated with cars. People who chose to drive downtown will find other options, and (hopefully), the money gained from unlocked development opportunities will go directly to transit funding.

As you may know, I visited Vancouver and the Lower Mainland this past summer. I had the opportunity to explore the spaces under — and over — the viaducts.

I was pleased to discover there was a bi-directional bike lane running the length of Vancouver’s viaducts. Approaching the viaducts from Main Street, the elevated roadway and its bike lane quickly climbs uphill, becoming suspended above the city. The feeling of biking the viaduct lanes was thrilling – high above the streets, the viaducts runs over many intersections, curving around the often-renamed Rogers Arena, and depositing cyclists to Yaletown at the base of Vancouver’s downtown core.

GVO-Eds-ViaductBikeLane-5 2926442 cyclinggroupupdunsmuir

I’ve explored car-style, human scale infrastructure on this blog before, where I described the thrilling experience of biking Halifax’s similar highway-to-nowhere Cogswell interchange, and Montreal’s Rosemont Flyover. Car-style infrastructure at a human scale, I wrote, offers a change in the rhythm of a city and a truly unique urban experience. That is, if it doesn’t define the urban form, and if adequate space for pedestrians is provided.

So, like many urbanists, I celebrate the taking down of Vancouver’s viaducts – ugly barriers that favour cars over humans, preventing vital urban life from thriving.

But I also lament their loss. We praise the Denmark’s cycling highways while we take down our own in Canada.

Imagine what the debate would be like in Toronto if there was a bike lane on the Gardiner Expressway!

Myriam Amsterdam 2

I love using my bike as a mode of urban transportation.

So I was obviously thrilled to spend five months in Amsterdam, the world’s number one bike city — breezily coasting my way from point A to B, wind in my hair, legs going and heart rate flowing, blissfully taking in all that pretty pretty that makes up Amsterdam’s canal filled, cozy urban landscape.

Once the initial thrill of taking in all the  elements of an advanced bicycle-society subsided, I began to miss walking as a mode of transport. “Then you should have just walked places, instead of biking to them,” I hear you say, but it’s really not that simple. The bicycle has an allure, a magnetism that sucks you in, gets you hooked and makes sure that you need it. My life in Amsterdam was bike-based, and I understood how to engage with the city exclusively via this mode of transport. I could not fathom that something 10 minutes by bike could be a 30 minute walk, and never was able to plan for that.

Indeed, the bike’s force of attraction is so strong that it pulls you onto its saddle, and renders you a mindless pawn in the chaotic ballet that is bicycle traffic in Amsterdam. By this I mean biking everywhere always can put you into something of a mind zonk, comparable to the mindless automaton we inevitably become after too much highway driving.

Biking everywhere in Amsterdam, I began to miss that fine-grained understanding of a city you can only get by walking. I know Amsterdam as a series of blurs punctuated by more intimate knowledge of specific destinations, without any of that random familiarity acquired from a slow shuffle through a city.

And that’s why I’m happy, in a way, to be back in Toronto — a true walking city. With the dominance of automobile infrastructure, unreliable public transit, and a lack of amenities for bicycles, walking emerges as the most palatable alternative to the car. So I am back in Toronto, happily absorbing the city at a snail’s pace.

Of course, I would instantly trade it all for a Toronto with advanced bike infrastructure and a culture that supports it. This is not a criticism of Amsterdam’s bike infrastructure. Perhaps it’s a coming to terms with returning home to a city that offers almost nothing for commuter-cyclists — a positive outlook for this idealistic urban geographer.


I love the existence of “now leaving” signs in between the towns and cities of Europe. Much like their “now entering” counterparts, a “now leaving” sign is simply the name of the town but with a red cross through it.

These signs will often be on two sides of the same post, marking the literal in-between space in the middle of one municipality and the other. For cartophiles, this is an exciting place to be — a place where you can really “feel the map”.

I have noticed a lack of “now leaving” signs in North America. I find that this marks a sort of geographic dishonesty, as if the town, or city or province is too proud to admit that it has met its end. The example I think about most often is at the border of Ontario and Quebec along highway 401. When you’re driving east toward Quebec, you have no idea when Ontario will end — it’s only the <<Bienvenue au Quebec>> that finally gives it away, and in this way, I feel Ontario resisting the reality of its finiteness.

UPDATE: After speaking with my good pal, the Peripatetic Philosopher, I feel a little differently about the above-described “dishonesty” of the lack of ‘Now leaving’ signs in North America.

Here’s what he had to say about the subject:

“I think the root reason why we don’t have these signs in Canada is because we are less concerned with the identity and boundaries of our towns. This used to be a huuuge concern for Europeans since they have had countless disputes over territory. 

“As much as I’d love to see these signs in Canada, it’s also nice to think that our boundaries don’t really exist. Driving to Montreal, I always look out the window and wonder ‘Is this Quebec? Did we pass the sign. This looks like Quebec’…then I realize I’m still in Ontario. Here, the real demarcation between places is by visual differences in the landscape. and our places are more about landscape than towns. For example, I don’t care about Gwimbelberry or Tinkertown or Haliburton, I care about the Canadian Shield and I don’t need a human-made sign to tell me when I’ve arrived.”

This post originally appeared on the Pop-Up City

Yesterday we celebrated our fifth birthday with The Pop-Up City Live, an experimental event for urban innovators at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam. During the fantastically diverse evening, we were inspired by the Mobiators‘ sustainable nomadism, energized by the spirit of Amsterdam’s community blogs, and mesmerized by psychogeographic tours of Venice and Skopje, along with delicious urban foraged-treats from Lynn Shore and Eleftheria Rozi, and funky tunes from the Deer Friends.

We also watched Sander Vandenbroucke’s fantastic film Brussels Express, a short documentary that explores the trials and tribulations experienced by the first bike messengers in Brussels, Europe’s most car-congested city. With colourful racing caps, stylish shoulder bags and speedy road bikes, Karl-Heinz Pohl and Karel Rowies of Pedal BXL aren’t just passionate about their innovative Brussels business: they are dedicated bicycle advocates in Brussels, a city overrun by cars and frozen in gridlock.

Brussels Express

Brussels Express

Brussels Express features amazing scenes of the city, as cyclists dodge the hostile car traffic and congestion. Watching the film, we learnt just how effective cycling is in a city overrun by cars, as bikes slice right through the gridlock, leaving the standing-cars in a cloud of dust. Pedal BXL can make a delivery within 15 minutes as opposed to the 2 hour norm, and is gaining popularity as the most superior delivery method in the city.

Brussels Express

Brussels Express

Brussels Express is a fast moving and engaging documentary with ultimately hopeful undertones: 10 years ago, nobody was cycling in Brussels, but biking is slowly gaining popularity. Local heroes in helmets and fluorescent vests are beginning to reject car culture, and are starting a bicycle revolution. And with a cameo from former Mayor of Copenhagen Klaus Bondam arguing that Belgians have to take a stand for greater mobility, we can tell this short documentary is a genuine and serious about its appeal for a better Brussels by bike.

We really enjoyed watching Brussels Express last night at The Pop-Up City Live — but don’t worry if you couldn’t make it to the event! You can watch the full documentary online. Enjoy!

The street lights on Palmerston Boulevard, between College Street and Bloor Street, are noteworthy. Alfred Holden, an authority on historic street lighting, describes these as “an authentic street lighting installation … an electrical time capsule.” They date from the time the street was being developed, (1905 to 1910). Termed single pole-top lamps or light pillars, they incorporate single upright standards of decorative cast iron, and glass globes. By 1920, these lamps were commonplace in North American cities for street and park lighting. Business districts usually were illuminated with two fixtures on an ornamental pole, while prestigious downtown streets often featured three lamps per pole. Palmerston Boulevard is one of a very few places in Toronto which still have this style of lighting. Similar lamps still exist on Chestnut Park in Rosedale and the west end of Oriole Gardens in Deer Park. Street lighting in the early twentieth century was often inspired by the City Beautiful movement where beauty and effect were the principal considerations. This style of lighting was designed to illuminate the way for pedestrians, not motorists, as automobiles were not yet come in common use. As lighting for automobile drivers became important, municipal lighting fixtures changed. Pole-top lamps became higher, and moved closer to the street. Bracket-type standards were introduced to hold the lamp over the street rather than the sidewalk. And illumination levels were increased. In many cities, soft incandescent lights were replaced with brighter but harsher sodium-vapour lamps.


see tell me about the palmerston street lamps

Today, two bridges stretch spectacularly across the Halifax-Dartmouth Narrows: the MacDonald Bridge, which terminates just outside my house in Halifax on North St, and the Mackay bridge, which ends farther north, on the northern shore of the peninsula.

Both bridges are quite spectacular in their design, however, the Mackay bridge figures much less prominently in the public image of the city than the MacDonald bridge, despite having almost exactly the same design.

I speculate that the Mackay bridge does not have a personality because it is a highway bridge. Reflecting the spirit and goals of urban planning at the time of its construction in the 1970s, the bridge forbids pedestrian and bicycle traffic, understandably, as it deposits itself into a not-human-friendly series of highway exits on the Dartmouth side. The Mackay bridge is a symbol of car culture, a suspended four-lane highway that shuts people out of experiencing it.

The MacDonald Bridge has a pedestrian walkway, and a bicycle path (though the entrance to the bicycle path is extremely non-sensical, and almost insulting for bike users), but is open to Halifax and Dartmouth as a bridge that, though is breathtaking in its architectural splendour, is very accessible for exploration and experience. It was built in 1955, and reflects a time when cities were thought of in people-terms, before the car dominated as the standard unit of planning. It is a human bridge, and, despite its non-sensibly desinged exit on the Halifax side, is otherwise inviting and enriching.

A diagram of the illogical bike-way entrance onto the MacDonald bridge — I suppose it’s better than having no-bikes-at-all on the bridge — illustration by Sarah Evans

The history of the North End where these bridges currently span is fascinating indeed. I have just finished read Paul A. Erickson’s excellent book Historic North End Halifax, and learnt that two bridges preceded the MacDonald bridge, but were destroyed by fierce winds and high tides. According to a Mi’kma legend, after a white settler caused the accidental drowning death of a young native woman in the narrows, a young Mi’kmaw man declared:

Three times a bridge o’er these waves shall  rise,

Built by the pale face, so strong and wise

Three times shall fall like a dying breath

In storm, in silence and last in death.

Tw0 bridges have already been destroyed — but the MacDonald bridge remains standing. Eventually, at some point in history, the MacDonald bridge will cease to exist for one reason or another.

The Mi’kmaw story above reminds us that, despite out best efforts at permanence, the cities we inhabit are inherently temporary in their ever evolving form.

CITY MAIL is a project by Alison Creba, dedicated to the free delivery of inner-city postables within Halifax. This summer, eight CITY MAIL mail-boxes have been placed around the Halifax peninsula, in a variety of instituions, including Coffee-Shops, Ice-Cream Parlours and Office-Supply-Stores.

Using Alison’s words:

CITY MAIL is an initiative dedicated to delivering the letters/postcards/notes that arrive in a handful of mail boxes constructed and installed on lampposts around Halifax. The project has become more profound than simply collecting and distributing letters; it has emerged as a comment on the local social and physical infrastructures that make up our city. CITY MAIL challenges participants to consider the geography of the place they live, asks them to consider not only individual houses, but also community nodes; coffee joints, communal desks, outdoor furniture. It challenges us to think about the routes we take, and the routines we follow. CITY MAIL promotes a unique reflective character that lies distinctly in the act of letter-writing. Perhaps it is because letters move slowly that writing them requires individuals to consider themselves, their communities, their cities. Each letter writes a new story of a personal city, an individual experience.

A city is a fascinatingly complex place where layers of networks and nodes temporarily impose themselves on ephemeral physical urban space. The various patterns of communications, waves of energy, and linkages between geographically disparate places are largely invisible to an outsider. CITY MAIL taps into these city-streams of information while reminding its users of the value of thoughtful, written words and letters — a kind of communication who’s essence lies in its seeming timelessness and artifactuality.

The Urban Geographer is excited to announce that he will become the guardian of CITY MAIL while Alison is away for 12 days, and with the help of another guardian, will be collecting and delivering the mail and newsletters that stream through the iconic blue CITY MAIL-boxes. I am incredibly curious as to how this experience will affect my perception of the city of Halifax. As a newcomer, I have only scratched the surface of the lay-out of this city, and have limited connections to the built environment and the residents who surround me as I negotiate the streets and sidewalks of the city. CITY MAIL, as Alison has said, is much more than delivering mail. I am eager to learn what that means. I look forward to the relationships I will be forging with the many participants that are necessary for an inner-city mail system to function.

I will be recording my experiences, and look forward to sharing them with you as I endeavour on my journey through Halifax as the CITY MAIL messenger.

Obviously, a city is a complicated place. Any municipal project involves causing inconvenience and aggravating someone. It’s always difficult to establish a park, crosswalk or or pedestrian thoroughfare that satisfies everybody.

Often urban planning conflicts are the result of the relative permanence of city infrastructure. A pedestrian thoroughfare may upset some businesspeople who miss the parking, and congest traffic along parallel routes, but brings delight to it’s users who enjoy the experience of walking on the street (though, studies have shown that pedestrianization is good for business – the attraction of more people outweighs the loss of a few streetside parking spots). Mont Royal Boulevard in Montreal experimented with pedestrianization in the 1970s. The road was great on a sunny weekend afternoons but during weekday afternoons, it wasn’t very busy. On the flip side, the transformation interrupted traffic and bus routes, congesting nearby residential streets so much that Mont Royal was deemed better as it was – a regular car-traffic street.

The solution today seems obvious. Pedestrianize the street on the weekend, and maybe weekday afternoons, but leave it open during weekdays. This seems such a simple, straightforward solution. But the bureaucracy and rigid infrastructure of the city makes this difficult, and it’s easiest to do it one way – or the other.

Flexible city infrastructure could solve this problem. We have the technology now, let’s do it! Traffic lights should turn to stop lights at night in the quiet corners of the city, major commercial streets should have automatic barricades that can go up on nice days, bike paths that become void in the winter should be active if it’s been unseasonably un-snowy. Fortunately they do close down Mont Royal on many weekends during the summer, and these weekends are multiplying so much that in the future, I’m sure it will be every weekend.

Montreal is in fact brilliant with its experiments with pedestrianization. Ste Catherine’s east of Berri to Papineau is completely pedestrianized in the summer. This is a beautiful and successful project, made even better with the ceiling effect created by the purple beads that cover the street for many blocks, transforming the space into truly a laterally extended outdoor room. The flexibility expressed in this project is impressive – in the winter the street returns to its normal thoroughfare status  — though I’m sure it would be just as successful in the winter.