Archives for posts with tag: structures

Montreal versus Toronto comparisons are a common conversation I have with people who have been to both cities. It’s also something I have a lot on my mind, as I grew up in Toronto and spent some formative years living in Montreal (and am now back in Toronto — for a bit).

The cities are incredibly different — fundamentally so, especially considering that they are only five hours away from each other (which is considered very close in Canada, for all you European readers). Yes, they are both North American cities, former colonial economic outposts of European countries, and are based on a grid, but the cities that have grown around these shared circumstances are completely different.

I could write an extensive list outlining the differences from my own musings and the many conversations I’ve had with families, friends and strangers (this is a hot topic for those taking rideshares between the two cities), from the most nuanced to the most banal, from the most material to the most philosophical, but these will be topics for other posts.

For now, I’d like to sum up the differences in an elegant analogy that makes use of the cities’ prominent geographic features that my mom used earlier today, an analogy that eloquently describes a lot of my thoughts about these two very-different  yet-similar and thus-irresistibly-comparable places.

Montreal has its mountain, a raised point in the heart of the city; and,

Toronto has its ravines, forested valleys that lie below the street level and are spread throughout the city.

Montreal is easy to read: it is not challenging to find out “where-to-be” to have a good time out with others. Its culture, much like its mountain is centralized, pronounced, prominent and unmistakable.

Toronto is more difficult: one must know where-to-go to find the “good” spots. Much like its ravines, its culture is diffused, sprawling, mysterious and hard-to-find. It’s iconic skyline leads visitors to assuming that this is all Toronto’s got: what’s on the surface, without ever looking below.

So when you visit Toronto: as I say to anyone, “give it a chance”. It is a booming, exciting city, as any city of three million inevitably is. But its articulation, its manifestation of the “good life” is less marked, visible then in Montreal.

So get out there, climb that mountain —
but also explore those ravines.

Yesterday, I used Toronto’s version of the popular Montreal bikeshare, Bixi for the first time.

The experience was fun: riding through the very un-cyclist friendly streets of Toronto on a very progressive, efficient mode of transportation. It was like a puzzle piece not fitting properly into its spot.

The experience of riding a Bixi is not like riding a normal road bike. It has a unique frame, which results in a broad steering capacity They also boast a wide, comfortable seat, and gear shifters of a design distinct to Bixi bikes. The bikes have a certain sound and rhythm distinct to them; the internal chain clicking away, the sound of the gears shifting.

As a result, it was a strange experience of riding a bike in the streets of Toronto, a bike I had grown to know in Montreal and sensually associate with that city’s streets. When I closed my eyes, the feel of the bike, its rhythm, its feel as it meanders through the streets all made me feel as though it was just another breezy day on some Plateau street in early Autumn. But then, suddenly, I hit a street car track and opened my eyes, remembering that I was far away from the Bixis of Montreal, a small biker on the wide streets of Queen and Spadina in the heart of Toronto.

See also same-space different-place

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.

Being here is realizing that fundamental uniqueness of place.

Being here is that very particular weather at this time of year; The voice of Metro Morning on the Radio.

The Sound of Streetcars scraping against their metal tracks. The Sound of the Subway wooshing underground as you bike north, past chirping intersections;  the stale scent of the TTC.

Being here is knowing that Here is always — the constant clockwork of place that is fundamentally tied to some space, somewhere.

Inspiration

Jack Bishop uses an incredibly romantic, thick brush stroke style, evoking quaint rural landscape paintings of the 20th century, to represent the dominant suburban landscapes that define contemporary Canada. By using a style that abstracts reality, he is able to incredibly honestly engage with the state of affairs of the settings of our lives. Whereas the 20th century romantic landscapes that he is evoking evaded the reality of a dreary industrial transformation of the country, his paintings subvert that style and interrogate the landscapes that define our times.

There is a distinct quality to a row of houses that sit directly on a park in a dense urban core. Though they do not differ at-all architecturally from their regular-street counterparts, it’s the very situation of these houses that creates feelings of fleeting breeziness, of opportunity. These houses are concrete openness.

The houses open to Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto

Concrete openness toward Parc Jeanne Mance, in Montreal

Openness in Halifax, at the Windsor Parkette, just west of the Common

The sense of vision is most important in cities today.

In our modern time, the age of high-speed communication, cities are the venues of incredibly dense networks of activity and information. The number of messages that one perceives as they negotiate the streets and paths of a city via car, bicycle or by foot are countless: from explicit advertisements to city logos embedded in the infrastructure; from the way people dress to the facades of strange and familiar buildings.

Our sense of vision both enables and prevents city-induced confusion. The city must be abstracted to be understood. Visible simplification of the complicated-city to simple, readable signifiers, facilitates otherwise overwhelming urbanity.

We could never perceive and know everything that exists in the city — there’s simply too much of it, and not enough time or reason. In a small town, a store, building or person can be made sense of in their entirety, because they stand unique. In the semiotics of the city, signifiers emerge naturally so that some sense can be made of a teeming, highly and densely populated urban place.

In a passive state-of-mind, the many houses and apartments one passes in a city remain two-dimensional facades, with minor features of architecture and quality simplified to tell a story about the contents inside. Houses and apartments are categorized into types, so that in our economy of thought, we can quickly understand these objects and pass them by without constant scrutiny.

People too are visually simplified into signifiers. The shape of a passing person becomes simply that, a passing person — with little thought about their personal history or intent.

My bike lock broke recently, and it no longer locks properly. But I continue to use it, even in extremely crowded city-spaces, because within the complexities of a city, a bike lock loses its meaning and becomes simplified as a signifier. When somebody happens upon my bike, and sees a black U-Lock in it’s typical spot, the fact that so many bikes exist in the same configuration means that it’s automatic message is: “Locked” — even if it is not locked at all.

So what do we do to counter-act the inevitable modern malaise that occurs from a world of so many sensory stimulations that we must simplify everything into symbols? We must be inquisitive, forge meaningful relationships, be forever interested in the urban space that surrounds us. Dig deeper, make communities, and get past the compartmentalization, the visual simplification of the modern city, modern life itself.

This morning I stood with just a towel on in my bathroom, closely inspecting my chin and face in the mirror as I shaved before breakfast.

I looked out of my first-floor bathroom window onto North Street, and noticed that immediately outside my house stood a critical mass of individuals waiting for the bus: a father offering cookies to his daughter, a teenager staring dumbly into the street, and a man, listening to a personal music player, standing extremely still.

What a juxtaposition of activities.

Where else, but in a city? The density inherent, necessary in a city breeds juxtapositions such as the one I experienced this morning. Our compartmentalized, extremly seprate lives must border onto each other somewhere. It is at the seams where urbanity is often most interesting — where we can meditate on the phenomenon of the city, a place where unlikely groups of strangers encounter each other and carry on with their disparate activities, necessarily side-by-side.

The city can be abstracted to be understood.

I have lived in Toronto, Montreal and Halifax, three cities with comparable old-school style Institutional Universities.

I have noted that each of these universities, the University of Toronto, McGill and Dalhousie though very similar in overall design (a main quad, tower/front steps buildings, institutional architecture), their relationship with the city differs immensely.

Let me convey this visually with some abstract maps.

UofT sits in the middle of Toronto, and though a distinct entity, the city filters through it effortlessly. The effect is a university-city soup — space punctured by normal flows and spaces of city-life, with distinct areas of UofT inbetween.

McGill, also in the heart of downtown Montreal, too is surrounded by city, but keeps it at bay — is a special entity amongst an otherwise flowing urban fabric. But it stands open to the city of Montreal, it’s arms wide open, inviting passersby to use it as a shortcut between downtown and the Plateau.

Halifax’s Dalhousie University is less open to the city that surrounds it. It sits in a quiet corner, it’s back turned to the streetscapes it disrupts. Rock walls and inconsistent street patterns lend to the effect that Dalhousie stands apart from the city, providing only slightly permeable space to those passing through. 

A stop-and-chat today at Java Blend inspired me to take note of the various chimneys and chimney designs that can be found throughout the city.

Obviously, there are thousands upon thousands of chimneys in the city, made of various materials, reflective of various periods of design and technology. Some chimneys stand proud, erected in brick with copper adornments, some modern and made of metal, and many are utilitarian, built only out of necessity, without any regard for their importance in the liveability of inhabited space expressed through design.

Yes, yes, chimneys are pretty trivial everyday objects that understandably receive little attention by passersby. As I commented in a past post, it would be impossible to notice and make sense of every element of the urban environment — a city must be abstracted to be understood. But philosophically, focusing and meditating on chimneys provides us with immense insight into our culture, the nature of living, and concepts such as hearth, family, design, repetition and the built environment. Honing in on the mundane elements of the everyday urban landscape provides enriching avenues of consideration and ponderance.

And the fact that everyday objects are so ubiquitous and multitudinous in the dense networked social cultural nodes that are cities, it is so easy to just choose something — any old thing — any everyday object, and find an incredible amount of examples that will offer an infinite amount of particulars to consider.

In my last year of my undergrad degree in geography, I was all excited to write a thesis based on some radical geographic theory: a body of literature called Urban Political Ecology.

But, because my prof adopted a baby, she couldn’t be my supervisor, and I didn’t end up writing my thesis. And i’m glad I didn’t — because if i did i would have spent a year wading through some pretty inaccessible academic jargon — prose, that through a body of technical language had seemed to lost its connection to the very subject matter it was dealing with.

And since i’m a pretty impressionable guy, after a year of research and study, I probably would have started speaking like this and lost my ability to genuinely engage with the content. But there was definitely some good stuff in there – so this post, first presented as a part of the Fuller Terrace Lecture Series, is inspired by what my thesis was going to be on, presented, in what I hope to be a more accessible, and poetic way.

But instead of calling it was going to be the many-subtitled name of my thesis:

Urban Political Ecology:

The Politics of Urban Nature and Urban Metabolism:

Urban Agriculture in Montreal:

The Politics of Food, Nature and Community

I’m going to go ahead and call it:

Even though it often doesn’t feel like it, it’s important to remember that cities are natural things.

Our popular culture has a very specific definition of the word natural, and, as a result, we tend to think of cities as the polar opposite of nature: which is to mean nature as pristine, untouched, isolated wilderness.

But, human activity cannot be viewed as external to the earth’s ecosystem, and cities are the natural outgrowths, physical manifestations of human energy and culture.

Put simply, cities are built out of natural elements from the earth, transformed through socially mediated processes into resources like building material and electricity.

As we can see from this brief history, there is nothing unnatural about halifax —

The city, atop a rock

which used to be covered in a natural forest of trees

the trees felled by human activity

and made into lumber

a forest of houses sprouted where there used to be a forest of trees,

houses built out of the wood of those trees

and though from farther away — the cranes that were erected

and the buildings of glass, concrete and steel that followed,

they too are built out of natural elements from the earth, used as building materials by humans.

Most North American cities have the same post-industrial elements: immense tracts of industrial wasteland, highways, designated green spaces and those middle-spaces along train tracks, on the sides of ravines, beside highways, that are extremely lush, green, and wild but are not officially parks.

These liminal green spaces, not quite full parks, yet too big to just be borders between one part of the city and another, are fascinating to walk through, and using them as a link between urban neighbourhoods, industrial fringe-lands and official parks offers a simulating terrain for hiking. These areas are the epitome of post-industrial urban wilderness. Negotiating thick bush of wild weeds and trees, scaling desolate highway-scapes, climbing over fences and above blasted granite rock walls — these are the spots that urban-nature reveals itself and beckons its exploration.

I highly encourage a post-industrial city-hike to shift your perspective on the very attainable feeling of isolation and solitude, today exclusively associated with “untouched wilderness”, that exists in our urban environments. Though there are no official routes or paths, years of desire lines and natural paths make navigation intuitive, as your eyes follow the natural contours of the land, identifying paths that have been fostered by uncountable individuals in the past lead to wide and navigable routes through otherwise thick brush and hard steel and chain link fences.

I took an urban-nature industrial city-hike the other day with my brother. If you’re in Halifax, I highly recommend this route: follow Barrington north all the way to Seaview Park/Africville — veer toward the harbour and Mackay Bridge. Pause. Take in the splendour of the spectacular bridge as it stretches beyond conceivable perspective into the distance toward Dartmouth. Follow the coast negotiating natural paths, weeds, and rock faces until Seaview Park. Watch the dogs and the people interact. Catch a glimpse of the Bedford Basin — completely polluted, yet beautiful. Jump the north fence of Seaview park — run across the raging highway — hope and skip over the median, over changing car-currents, safely to the other side. Find a desire line, scale a cliff, up and over the train tracks, and through the public housing, depositing yourself back into a different kind of urban nature, the far more organized, neat-lines of North End Halifax suburban paradise. At this high point, atop the rock that is Halifax, enjoy 360 degree views of the eery beauty of this industrial urban-wasteland-wilderness.