Archives for posts with tag: streets

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!

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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.

Granted, the “world’s longest street” is apparently Yonge Street in Toronto, but besides that I have noticed a very big difference in the naming of steets in Montreal and Toronto. Especially in central Montreal, many minor residential streets maintains their same name despite repeatedly stopping and starting due to hikes in the grid system, highways and train overpasses or parks. As a result, you can still be on Durocher, Hutchison, St Urbain, St Laurent, St Denis and countless other streets all the way across the island, from Rene Lesveque (and often farther south) to the Island’s north shore.

In Toronto, the names of minor residential streets are less consistent. A slight hike in the grid system often means a new name, and certainly the complete stop of a street for a park results in the name of a street’s inevitable death.

I really enjoy the effect of Montreal’s consistent system of street names. The train and highway overpasses that stretch east-west create a great disconnect between the Mile End, Outremont and the neighbourhoods to the north, as one can only traverse North to the South  in this area of the city on a few select streets (or else risk getting a ticket for illegally crossing the train tracks). The consistency of the street names counteracts that – Hutichison remains “the same street” despite the major divide caused by the overpasses.

The consistency of the street names remind you that any place in the city is by it’s nature connected with the rest of the city. It means that even though I’m in a completely foreign and distant neighbourhood, I can recognize where I am and feel connected to it. Good on Montreal for doing that. Perhaps this would aid Montrealers with what Kevin Lynch called the “imageability” of a city: citizen’s abilities to make sense of their city, which he identifies as existentially crucial and improveable by means of certain design feautres. Montreal’s long, consisted street names would result in people feeling more connected to a larger area, and enable easy orientation in an otherwise unknown neighbourhood).

As for the reason that Montreal chose to keep it’s street names consistent where as Toronto didn’t, I often speculate it’s another case of the cities’ English versus French heritage. Looking to the capital city’s of their mother countries, London’s major and famous thoroughfares are often extremely short, contrasted to Paris’  axial boulevards that stretch for miles maintaining the same names.

     

London above, Paris below. The streets in London are curved, compared to the broad, straight boulevards that bisect Paris.

The European roots of the consistency of Montreal streets versus Toronto’s inconsistencies are also reflected in UK versus France park design. The French favour geometric consistency and symmetry, whereas English parks are more chaotic in their attempt to replicate the nature. This can be seen in the parks in the map above. The English garden has chaotic paths that depart from the main trail, the French park is linear and rigid. This reveals elements of their view on nature, and how human’s relate to concepts such as “Wilderness”.

This winter I’ve been incredibly perceptive of Montreal’s incredible snow removal capabilities. As soon as there is a dumping of snow, armies of trucks of a myriad of shapes and sizes immediately unleash themselves onto the street, prowling every block until the snow is sufficiently dealt with.

There is a certain order to the way the removal teams approach the snow. First, a regular plow clears paths through the streets, two paths for two lane streets and so on. By doing this, however, a very large ridge is made that divides the street, making crossing it very dangerous. A second team deals with this: the first vehicle shoots the snow on the street into a humongous truck, who then eventually dumps the snow into the St Lawrence river (the environmental aspects of this are pretty questionable, I bet).

This is followed by an additional team, who artfully plow the remainder of the snow, and clear paths on the sidewalks. Normally, large banks are left on the side of the road, cutting the sidewalk off from the street. Here, the natural path phenomenon emerges in one of it’s most excellent and least predictable states: random paths between the road and the sidewalk, that some brave souls had the initiative to first establish.

Every now and then, however, Montreal’s snow removal crews annihilate these snow barriers that emerge between the street and the sidewalk. It’s always amazing to walk on the streets once this has been done – one feels liberated! Again able to cross the street at one’s own whim.

My roommate, Zoe, returned from Southern Ontario yesterday, confusedly reporting that there was much more snow in London and Toronto than in Montreal. Montreal is notorious for being a much snowier city, explaining her surprise.

I owe this to Montreal’s excellent snow removal service. It’s incredible how modern technologies have been applied to overcoming the harsh weather in this city ( – I often comment on how odd, and brilliant it is that people carry out their business despite these never-ending arctic storms). This city is too good at snow removal to just leave the snow on the street.

But then my thoughts wandered. What if Montreal did leave the snow on the street? There would surely be enormous snow banks on every street corner – piles of snow that would act as structures characterizing a streetscape for an entire season – mountains of snow that would impede vision at every distance – places where people would break through the snow banks and impromptu ‘doorways’ would emerge, dwarfing the natural paths that emerge from the current state of affairs.

If the snowbanks weren’t cleared, I imagine that often, natural paths through the snow would be replaced by ones that went over the snow. Ephemeral staircases emerging here, a slide, improved with each use there. Some residents would proudly maintain their snow structures, adding architectural elements on sunnier days with packing snow. Others would neglect the snow structures outside their homes, leading to dangerous and forboding entrances and exits through the mountain-banks.

I owe the theory of “seasonal snow structures” to my brother, who has reported their existence in the less snow-removal-able Halifax. And Ted,   helped imagine the snowy structures that would exist if Montreal wasn’t so capable at dealing with the snow.

When I sit in my living room and watch the street, I am amazed by the leagues of municipal snow removers, working “quietly” in the night so that the people of Montreal can enjoy their city the next day, unhindered. The yellow and black trucks and plows that patrol the streets are another instance where one can contemplate the odd nature of the urban –  an intense concentration of human activity; so many interests and motivations and reasons for why Montreal is here, and why I am here in Montreal; the weather patterns that bring in squalls and storms; the architecture and behaviour that has emerged because of them – this is the city – the complex urban.

As I first experienced sometime last August, the vibrant Portuguese community that currently occupies the formerly Jewish south-west of Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood periodically holds Saint Celebrations — street parades that shut down St Urbain between Mont Royal and Duluth.

The effect of shutting down the street proved to be incredibly pleasant. St Urbain is a largely  residential street north of Sherbrooke. Due to the fact that it is a one way thoroughfare that crosses the entire island, extending from the city’s Northern highways, through the residential Mile End and Plateau neighbourhoods, past the industrial area and highway overpass south of Rene Lesveque and, finally ending at Old Montreal, the street is effectively a highway. I live directly on St Urbain at Duluth, in a walk up, my bedroom window on the street, so I know intimately how busy St Urbain can be. Traffic zooms by at all hours of the day, at incredibly high speeds; if the vehicle is lucky to not be stopped by any red lights, St Urbain presents itself as a chute, sending cars zooming southwards.

St Urbain is not the most pleasant street. Though it boasts an incredibly large and beautiful stock of classic Montreal duplexes and triplexes, with the requisite local businesses sprinkled in between, the extremely high speed traffic detracts from the aesthetics of one of the city’s most important streets.

But when the street was closed to accommodate the Portuguese parade, I experienced a different kind of St Urbain. The kind of street that must have been the one Mordecai Richler spoke of so dearly. Gone were the constant wooshes of passing traffic. Rather, silence rued the day. The sound of birds, the summer breeze, the chit chat of passersby, the voices of my friends directly beside me, these were the sounds of the city restored to an otherwise inner-city highway, frozen to accommodate a different kind of traffic.

And then I looked up, and was delighted to see the windows and balconies that line the street populated by curious onlookers, children and adults, watching the parade, delighting in experiencing a St Urbain not characterized by the typical unassociated traffic, flinging across the island at an unbelievable speed from where-ever to some place, but rather, their neighbours, partaking in a cultural activity that evoked the participation not just of those in the parade, but the entire citizenry of the street.

This wonderful experience of St Urbain made me think what limiting the traffic would do to the street. If Montreal were to make it a two way street, which I think must have been its original usage, the pleasant calm that I temporarily experienced would endure permanently. The same happens, I suppose, in Sao Paulo, when every Sunday they close down the central highway that eviscerates the city’s core, handing it back over to the residents of the city, especially those who dwell in highrises that line the expressway. In Sao Paulo, on such a day, the usual racket associated with a superhighway stops completely, and is replaced by the chatter of an impromptu and inherently ephemeral market-esque streetscape.

I don’t expect St Urbain will ever be converted to a two-way street. Frankly, beyond these pleasantries thought up by a naive, idyllic urbanist, there is no need to restore quiet to St Urbain. I imagine that the street is a necessary north-south thoroughfare, accommodating a noticeably immense amount of traffic’s journey across the island. And it’s better than the alternative: a real highway, cutting up the unique Plateau urban landscape (see: autoroute Decarie).

I suppose that I’ll just have to enjoy the wonders of a temporarily closed St Urbain as they come and go.