Archives for posts with tag: structures

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.


cross-posted froSpacing Atlantic

SACKVILLE – Last weekend saw Sappy Fest Six energize the otherwise quiet summer streets of beautiful Sackville, New Brunswick. The festival features a diversity of musical acts, workshops and art installations that take place in a variety of venues, including Uncle Larry’s Billiards Hall, the Royal Canadian Legion and a Main Stage Tent that closes down Bridge Street, downtown Sackville’s main commercial thoroughfare.

The effect is a unique experience of urban space, where otherwise ordinary features of the town become the backdrops of incredible musical experiences. The festival is an opportunity for Sackville to showcase itself, and submit its streets, structures and parks to transformation and reconsideration by visiting festival-goers and resident Sackvillers alike.

A special buzz preceded the first night of Sappy Fest this year, as a mysterious final act, “Shark Attack!” was billed to play after Owen Pallet, the scheduled headliner. And the rumours were all but confirmed until the Arcade Fire took the stage to an electrified crowd of 1500, screaming and singing along with equal intensity to the stadium-sized crowds this band is now used to playing for.

During the opening refrains of the anthemic “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)” the crowd and band sang together, “Meet me in the middle/ the middle of the town!” There, in the middle Sackville, in a tent on a street intimately framed by 19th and 20th century store fronts, the Arcade Fire played in an exceptionally appropriate setting, in light of this lyric and the subject matter of their music in general.

The Arcade Fire’s surprise concert in the streets of Sackville is a good opportunity to acknowledge this band’s contribution to our collective project of understanding and relating to the complexities of contemporary urban space. Their most recent album, “The Suburbs,” is a thoughtful reflection on what it has meant for a generation to grow up in a country characterized by immense suburban sprawl. The album’s popularity is testament to the importance and ability of exploring concepts of urban space familiar to Spacing readers in a broader context, outside of the immediate planning/urban enthusiast community. Arcade Fire’s reflections on our built environment come at a critical moment when issues of urban planning and design have become central to the public eye. Their songs offer philosophical comfort as we make sense of, and come up with solutions to, the environmental, social and psychological consequences of the sprawl that defines much of the Canadian urban landscape.

It’s notable that in our negotiations of the urban environment, we hardly ever notice the power-lines. In Halifax anyways, they’re everywhere — running along the streets overhead, criss-crossing over intersections  — I can see twelve right now out of my front-room window:

We must see these power-lines as we walk-about the city. They are incredibly conspicuous, starkly standing out against the softer greys, blues and whites of the surrounding urban environment. It seems we choose to ignore power-lines, these black wires that frame almost every road and intersection of the city.

Obviously, many details of a city must be ignored so that some sense can be made of it. Focusing on every element of the urban environment would be impossible, meaningless-ness resulting from the overwhelming amount of information that can be read, scene and heard from the city and those who populate it.

It is these invisibilities that make living — and more specifically living in the dense-clustered-complex-intertangled networks that are cities possible.

Negotiating the city also means choosing not to engage with the hundreds of people that pass-us-by in the streets and parks. Next time you remember, pause, look around, and there will surely be at least three people walking around, carrying on with their own rich, complex, lives. There are always hundreds of people surrounding us in the city — on the streets, in the houses, stores and apartment buildings — we must ignore them or pay them little attention so that we may get on-with-our-lives.

The city must abstracted to be understood, to be inhabited.

This morning I embarked on my first CITY MAIL delivery-route, and observed a lot as I negotiated the streets of Halifax: from as far south as Hollis and South, to as far north as Kane Pl. in the Hydrostone neighbourhood.

The CITY MAIL box at Trident on Hollis St.

Here are some of my initial observations/reflections:

– Wandering the city with purpose provided a fresh and dynamic orientation to the streets: before, I was an aimless wanderer — but my engagement with the city’s roads and built environment transformed Halifax into the background of a journey through a maze-like series of paths and nodes — streets ending abruptly were my foe, and I had to rely on the map of the city I had created in my head, and friendly folk on the street to achieve success

– I experienced the true meaning of the “Travelling Salesman Problem“which had been introduced to me through GIS — using the program’s algorithm function to develop delivery routes that minimize path-over lap and maximize efficiency. As an actor within a wider delivery system I found the greatest challenge was route-planning, and was frustrated when I had to back track.

– The systems of the street numbers often lie! The street numbers up Newton hop – skip – and jump, skipping hundreds of houses — this instilled doubt as to my orienteering capabilities as I tried to locate houses along parallel streets based on inference.

– CITY MAIL gave me the vehicle to tap into an otherwise invisible network in Halifax centred in the North End. A lot of the mail-boxes I delivered to were very far from the North End, but indicators such as the Ecology Action Centre‘s “No Fliers Please” stickers, and “We Support Our Postal Workers” affirmed that these houses in the South and West were distant outposts along a centralized network of communication.

– Many mail boxes, such as the one above, are located outside — which is indicative of the immense trust folks place in others in the city – or perhaps a tacit reverence for the written word; it would be unimaginable to leave your email inbox open on the street giving others the opportunity to rummage through it.

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.

cross posted from Spacing Atlantic

This summer across the country, the idea that vegetables can and should be grown in the city continues to gain momentum. Urban agriculture is a lot of things, but as a formal movement promotes local, sustainable food systems, renewed inner-city social and physical health, and a shift toward people-oriented urbanism. Inner city food production has obvious impacts on the urban landscape, creating pleasant productive spaces in otherwise unproductive, sterile land.

Halifax has many lovely gardens, many of which can be found on the Halifax Garden Network’s user-generated map. You can, of course, engage in urban gardening in a variety of ways, ranging from formalized municipal allotments, to semi-private community gardens, to straight up guerilla gardens.

The nexus of do-it-yourself city planning and urban agriculture, guerilla gardening is a reminder of the possibility and importance of informal urban design. With the eye of a guerilla gardener, a quick scan of any street in Halifax presents many plots of public and private land that have the potential to be reclaimed and transformed from barren, asphalt spaces into beautiful urban places.

On my regular bike trips to the Far North End, I have noticed the slow cultivation of an otherwise barren lot at Agricola and Bilby. Though I haven’t met them, it seems that an individual or a group of people have taken it upon themselves to transform what was (as some quick Google Street View investigative work revealed) an extremely desolate corner, into a lovely urban space.

 Many vegetables and flowers have been planted, and thoughtfully labelled to educate curious onlookers about the varieties of species grown there. Though the changes are few, the introduction of a variety of vegetation and DIY landscape architecture imbues a formerly neglected, barren corner into a space that is obviously cared for, and as a result, has become a beautiful place to be.

It’s not news that official urban planning in Halifax often leaves much to be desired. A history of decisions that have favoured developers and promoted car culture, Halifax has a notorious knack for destroying communities in the name of potential economic development and urban renewal. With the potential widening of Bayers road on the horizon, it’s obvious that official planning in Halifax, for now, will continue along its historically misguided footsteps, while the rest of the world experiments in progressive, community-oriented urban design.

Guerilla gardens, like the one at Agricola and Bilby, are one of the many ways that we can take shaping-the-city into our own hands. As the summer roars on and the gardening season reaches its peak, let us celebrate these fantastic guerilla gardens, reminders that we do not have to be the passive recipients of top-down city plans, but that we can be, and are, active agents in our cityscape.

The Urban Geographer is excited to have begun contributing to Spacing Atlantic, one of the many blogs within the Spacing network, a group of websites and magazine that focus on Canadian urban issues, ranging from the poetic to the political.

My first post, Guerilla Urban Design on Agricola, acknowledges the possibility and importance of informal urban design in response to the city’s often inadequate top-down planning, focusing on a lovely guerilla garden that has sprung up on a formerly neglected corner in Halifax’s North End.

I have also, in the past, contributed to Spacing Montreal, and have linked the articles below:

Natural Paths, 25 February, 2010

Flexible Bike Paths: Lessons from a Mild Winter, 19 March, 2010

How My Father Sees the Mile End, 7 April, 2010

An Unintentional Public Space, 23 October, 2010

Living in Halifax has given me first hand experience of the “HRM”, the Halifax Regional Municipality. The HRM sort of seems like local politicians saw other Canadian regional governments, such as the Toronto “Mega-City” and the unsuccessful merger of municipalities on the Island of Montreal, and applied it to a region that doesn’t make as much sense.

The HRM, as you can see, makes up a significant portion of the province of Nova Scotia. But size doesn’t matter in agglomerating political districts: what matters is flows — if the flows of peoples, goods, traffic and communications begins to spread widely, over formerly significant geo-political boundaries, that’s when an urban amalgamation makes sense.

But — the HRM — it doesn’t seem to make sense to me, a new-comer to this city. Beyond its immediate neighbours, the towns surrounding Halifax seem pretty disconnected from the Peninsular City. And, whereas in Montreal and Toronto, you have a certain degree of suburban sprawl that sees a significant number of commuters travelling between places, in Halifax, the sprawl is relatively limited, and you reach rural land quickly once leaving the city.

The HRM is an astonishingly big political entity, where people from extremely different walks of life, with extremely different needs and political attitudes, have to somehow come together and make decisions that affect everyone. The consequences are broad ranging, an example being that wealthy suburban, or otherwise interested rural voters will have more influence on city council and consequently neglect the needs inner city urban folk, as we saw in Toronto’s last mayoral election.

Indeed, I believe in the need for regional government. It makes sense that a forum be established where plans regarding such problems as energy and transportation infrastructures, issues that make sense at a regional scale, be discussed and plans executed. But regional government should not replace local, autonomous government. I may go so far as saying local government should have the most influence, nested within regional, provincial and federal levels of governance.

The seeming ridiculousness of the HRM presented itself the other day, when, driving back from Tancook Island, many signs announcing towns along the highway, like the one in the first photo, boasted the HRM logo, with the phrase “Welcome to Our Community”.

It was incredibly strange realizing that we were already “in Halifax”, even though our surroundings included sea side cottages and farms. Most ridiculous was the repeated notion of “our community” — what are these communities, and who established them? What happens to the meaning of “community” when it is constantly repeated in the same monotonus fashion, and is imposed from some distant, top-down governing body? What does it mean when we enter the Community of Halifax? These signs betray the non-sensical logic of the HRM and speak of the continuing trend of potentially harmful centralization in Canadian governance.

As I continue to negotiate the paths and projects  that make up Halifax, and specifically, the North End, I have begun to formalize the structures that are defining my experiences in a screen-printed series of hyper-real, fictionalized, and semi-constructed street scenes.

I have adopted a style that is exploring the use of lines and lived-perspective in the definition and experience of urban space. I am attempting to adopt an “objective” architectural blue-print style, contrasted with warmth due to imperfections and a quality of familiarity

The above-photo is the first draft of the first print of the series: a sequence of four houses on Agricola south of Willow.

I look forward to sharing the rest of the series with you — keep posted!

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.

Aerial photographs by Stephan Zirwes, courtesy of but does it float

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.