Archives for posts with tag: street

tree& in this vein, Christopher Hume recently wrote an excellent homage to the late Michael Hough, a Toronto-based landscape architect that intuitively understood the interdependencies of nature and cities, and tirelessly promoted this philosophy.

“Ecology is urbanization,” he declared, “and urbanization is ecology.”

See also tuin./town.

I’m a gardener too —

— slowly accumulating knowledge, tips and tricks each summer of urban agricultural experience. A garden is a wonderful thing. It provides an incredibly calm environment to absorb the wisdom of horticulture, philosophize, sit quietly and think about the world and us and eternity.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about beans and their trellises these days.

I love what they say about the relationship between people and the rest of the world, the rest of nature.

We plant bean seeds and then we build trellises that will soon support them. Trellises are often made of thin string or twine, and can be built in many ways. The beans need a trellis — they rely on having something to grow up-on to thrive, to ensure they don’t suffocate themselves, to give room to the flowers and eventual beans that pop out periodically from the vine.

String-trellises give a gardener an opportunity to trace the route that the beans will grow up-on; the beans will inevitably follow that route. Unrolling a ball of twine and building a trellis is determining the shape of the future plant.

Like a magic finger tracing lines in the air, we point at the sky and lead the future bean-vines upwards.

An “artificial” infrastructure is the frontier of a living system, and, is not apart from that living system.

Are the cities we build for ourselves not similar?  We pave a path, and life inevitably follows. We trace a route over the hills and into the sky, and a city sprouts.

I guess this is an opportunity to meditate on the quality of roads — traced-then-fulfilled life-paths, in an era of premeditated urban plans. Living in Halifax makes this especially pertinent, where new roadways are typically of the highway and subdivision varieties.

A street is a necessity to a thriving, diverse eco-city-system. When we build them, let’s take this into consideration, and hope — know, almost — for the best, that good streams of life-force will follow.

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.

The other day, walking into the Shoppers Drug Mart at Almon and Robie in Halifax for the first time provided me with an interesting experience of urban space.

After walking through the automatic doors, with a quick right turn, I swear I had been in this store before. The layout: cosmetics on the right, followed by hygienic products, food, with the pharmacy at the back, the photography centre at the far right and and the magazines at the front, presented a space that I surely had negotiated many times in the past.

I quickly realized that besides a few minor differences: a “healthy food” section instead of Canada Post, exclusively English signage instead of bilingual, the layout of the store was exactly the same as the Shoppers Drug Mart I frequented in Montreal, on St Laurent, just north of Avenue des Pins.

After recognizing this fact, I found myself caught in a strange experience of convoluted space and place, the result of occupying the exact facsimile of a store I had gotten to know very well over the past four years, within a profoundly different context. Instead of the neighbouring yoga studio, the Banque National, Pawn Shop, The Main, St Cuthbert with it’s beautiful triplexes and the mountain in the distance, from the same windows I saw a very different street scene in Halifax: a suburban parking lot, and auto-body shops at the fringe of the North End.

The streetscape outside Montreal’s Pharmaprix – the heart of the Plateau, on greasy St Laurent

The more “suburban” setting of Halifax’s North End Shoppers offers a completely different scene as gazed from its windows

My experience of the same space, same store-layout, experienced in different places, different cities was an opportunity to think about the unexpected side effects of the homogenization and mass production of architecture and the layouts and designs of big-box, suburban developments and stores. In cases that suburban design infiltrates urban settings, the lack of differentiation in design of the layout works to emphasize the differences between the stores, as opposed to having the more expected adverse effect of making every place seem the same.

My experience of living at the lovely-and-bustling corner of Duluth and St Urbain in the south-west corner of Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood has taught me a valuable lesson about how minor features in informal urban design can transform the most intolerable, noisy thoroughfares into places where people want to be. This adds evidence to my theory that the smallest, slightest changes to anything, can make enormous differences.

As I previously described in “a st urbain parade“, St Urbain is a major north-south thoroughfare that transects the entirety of the island of Montreal. Primarily a one way street, which works to reduce interruptions in traffic flow, speeding up traffic, St Urbain connects the north shore, Autoroute 40, and mid and downtown Montreal to the Old Port and Autoroute 20, creating a mini-highway that is frequented by large trucks and buses, along with the steady flow of regular traffic.

Keeping this in mind, St Urbain can be a very harsh place for pedestrians and bikers. Though lined with Montreal’s archetypal beautiful triplexes and requisite small, local businesses sprinkled in-between, the street is much wider than is typical of the Plateau, and the constant flow of speedy one-way traffic creates an, at times, intolerable urban environment.

St Urbain, looking south from Duluth, does not look like the most appealing street to spend time in, even more so due to the constant passing southbound traffic.

Living on the first floor of a triplex on St Urbain gave me first-hand experience of its constant traffic. Besides the consistent wooshing of passing cars, intermittently, gigantic trucks and buses would pass, literally shaking the ground. The inconsistency of the traffic noise made it hard to tune out, like other kinds of “white noise”.

Another angle of Duluth and St Urbain further reveals its barren landscape.

Despite these conditions, the front porch of my apartment, and the corner in general, was a very pleasant place to be.

I attribute this to a number of factors. My porch was a very well defined space – protected by the apartment on one side, a wall of vegetation and a mid-level fence on the other sides. The corner in general was extremely green, the shade and wind that was provided compensating for the constant passing traffic.

An old roommate good friend enjoys the pleasant space created by a wall of vegetation and well defined dimensions of the front porch of our apartment.

With these minimal features — an otherwise desolate, unpleasant place becomes an extremely pleasant space to spend hours in.

My experience of my front porch at St Urbain and Duluth has taught me an important lesson about humans: people are extremely adaptable, and with a few amenities, are more than willing to spend time in otherwise harsh environments.

This is important to consider in urban design. A city inevitably (and due to poor planning/design decisions of the past) has spaces that few people would enjoy spending time by – industrial parks, highway overpasses, water treatment facilities, and ports, to name a few. As cities become the focal point of human culture, and urbanization continues, we must look to these formerly neglected places as the sites of future densification. People will probably shy away from the idea that sites near highways could foster beautiful neighbourhoods and urban spaces — with this post, I am attempting to illustrate the inhabitability of these “desolate places”.

Already, the greyest, most industrial parts of a city have the ability to evoke a certain aesthetic. As the city recycles itself, we will have to confront these decaying industrial parts of our city, and learn to appreciate their beauty, transforming them into habitable spaces. A very possible urban future involves the transformation of formerly industrial areas and highway overpasses to urban parks and densification neighbourhood projects. We’ve seen this already with Toronto’s announcement of the future Don Lands neighbourhood, which will be on formerly industrial land and incorporate industrial features into its design, including an underpass park; another example is New York City’s High-Line: a beautiful elevated park that snakes along formerly industrial areas in Manhattan. Former industrial spaces can indeed be the subject of a shift of aesthetic perception.

This shift in aesthetics can also be detected in contemporary forms of gentrification. Whereas in the past, artists, students and marginalized groups inhabited decaying inner city areas that had been fled by the middle- and upper classes in the mid 20th century, restoring the beauty to the abandoned architectural treasures, since these inner city “heritage” areas have become extremely expensive, the most recent wave of gentrification is in the formerly industrial fringes of cities: Montreal’s St Henri and Point St Charles, London’s industrial areas, Toronto’s Junction Triangle to name a few. We are seeing people take up what they’ve got in terms of affordable housing stock and making, indeed, beautiful places in conventionally desolate spaces.

The examples in this post, my porch on St Urbain, the conversion of industrial areas to neighbourhoods and parks, and gentrification occurring in the industrial areas of cities, are an attempt to acknowledge the malleability of pop-aesthetics and further, to highlight the ability, with thoughtful informal urban design and a minimal amount of elements, to transform desolate spaces to urban oases.