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Cross-posted on Spacing Toronto, and co-written with Brendan Stewart 
Note: this article was written in the summer of 2019, and is reflection on WexPOPS, the pilot project of plazaPOPS, a high-impact, low-cost and community lead approach to enhancing strip mall landscapes in Toronto’s inner suburbs. plazaPOPS emerged from my thesis research while working toward a Masters of Landscape Architecture at the University of Guelph.  You can read my thesis here

WexPOPS is a pilot of the plazaPOPS project, an initiative spearheaded by Daniel Rotsztain, aka The Urban Geographer, and Brendan Stewart (OALA, CAHP), professor of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, and former Associate at ERA Architects.


In an interview supporting his recent book Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure can help fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life, NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg points to an idea that many urbanists take for granted, but that the general public may not: “[T]he social life we experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a context for it. It can be supported or undermined by the places where we spend time.” In other words, there is a relationship between the design of our physical environment, and the social life it enables, or not.

Klinenberg urges his readers to think about the types of places that foster connections and relationships between people and that build strong communities not as nice to haves, but rather as an essential infrastructure that buttresses the foundations of democracy, inoculating society from many of the challenges that define our current moment. He argues that “social infrastructure” will only become more critical as communities are forced to adapt to the challenges associated with climate change.

Closer to home, the Evergreen Foundation’s Towards a Civic Commons Strategy proposes a similar vision for “a network of public places and facilities that enable communities to learn, celebrate, express collective actions, collaborate and flourish, together.”

Inspired in part by these ideas, we’ve been working for over a year on an experiment to test the potential of creating a type of civic commons/social infrastructure within the ubiquitous strip mall parking lots that define the main streets of post-war neighbourhoods across the country, and which are home to millions of Canadians.

Open from July 5th to August 17th at the iconic Wexford Plaza at Lawrence Avenue East and Warden Avenue in Scarborough, WexPOPS is the result of more than a year of community consultations, planning and design work, and a collaboration involving 19 Master’s of Landscape Architecture (MLA) students from the University of Guelph, graduate business and planning students from the University of Toronto’s Rotman CityLAB fellowship program, a 15-member local working group, and a partnership with the Wexford Heights BIA.

The City of Toronto’s Public Realm Unit, Scarborough Arts, the TRCA, the Arab Community Centre of TorontoMural Roots, the Working Women Community Centre and a number of local businesses who supported the initiative in various ways, including the Kirakou family, who own the Wexford Restaurant and the entire plaza and generously hosted the project.

Funded by Parks People’s Public Space Incubator Grant, generously supported by Ken and Eti Greenberg and the Balsam Foundation, as well as the City of Toronto’s BIA Kickstarter Fund, WexPOPS proposes a big idea: to test the viability of exchanging parking spots for a community gathering space all on private commercial property. It’s a new take on POPS — privately owned public space — and experiments with the city building potential that commercial business owners can exercise by enhancing community life in the neighbourhoods they serve. Hopefully, they’ll also seeing an uptick in business.

Similar strip malls are found throughout Toronto’s inner suburbs and in post-war neighbourhoods all over Ontario and Canada. In many cases, especially in Toronto, the retail remains vibrant and local, serving as important settings for community life, and features numerous restaurants and shops serving food and offering goods from all over the world. The Wexford Heights BIA, a two-kilometre strip running between Victoria Park and Birchmount along Lawrence Avenue East, features over 60 restaurants, and has been celebrated by food columnists as a major dining destination.

The project grew out of Daniel’s fascination with the strip malls he frequented in his youth, culminating in his 2018 MLA thesis at University of Guelph, which was overseen by Dr. Karen Landman and Brendan Stewart. It builds on Daniel’s work as an artist, examining the setting of Toronto’s public life, including All the Libraries Toronto, his documentation of all 100 public library branches in the city, as well as a recent residency at Yorkdale Mall that asserted the centrality of private shopping centres in Toronto’s social geography.

WexPOPS also builds on Brendan’s citizen engagement Tower Renewal work with ERA Architects, including parking lot to community space conversion projects at the East Scarborough Storefront (2010 – 2015) and Ridgeway Community Courts (2015-2017) in Mississauga.

The final design of WexPOPS features a series of modular planters, benches, tables and umbrellas, all clad in marine plywood and trimmed in cedar. Occupying ten parking spaces, the installation creates a comfortable and sheltered ‘room’ in the middle of the parking lot, and frames dynamic views of the strip mall behind. The carpentry was done by Guelph-based Ben O’Hara Design, and all of the components were designed as modules that could be re-configured into different arrangements to suit various future site conditions, and also to flat-pack for easy assembly and storage.

Six design concepts for the project were developed through a series of community workshops by student teams in a graduate community design studio at the U of G this past winter, and the ideas most favoured by the working group and a wider online engagement were incorporated into the final design. For example, one student team developed the colour scheme for the project, which includes vibrant red, orange and yellow and was inspired by the spice markets of the Middle East. Another student team proposed a space of lush and immersive greenery, an idea that resonated in the community and which dominates the final design.

In all, WexPOPS features over 500 plants, which are planted in colour-coded pots: red denoting native perennial wildflowers and grasses, orange for annuals, and yellow for edibles. The pots were created from salvaged recycling pails from the university, and were painted and drilled for drainage. The annuals and edibles were grown in campus greenhouses and donated to the project. All of the native plants, grown by Native Plants in Claremont, will be donated to the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, to be planted in a local stretch of the Meadoway this fall.

Twelve local youth from an after-school program run from the Arab Community Centre of Toronto across the street have been hired as site supervisors, stewarding the site through daily watering, waste management and other set-up tasks.

At night, LED lighting within the benches creates a welcoming atmosphere, and the illuminated strip mall signage creates a dynamic backdrop. During several evenings this summer, including an upcoming event on August 17th, the WexPOPS stage (with a mural designed by Echo Railton and painted by community volunteers) offers music and dance performances by local artists, co-curated by Scarborough Arts as well as urban ecology workshops lead by the TRCA.

WexPOPS is meant to be a hub of social activity for the local community, but also to attract visitors from beyond — a desire articulated by our working group, whose members wanted to `put Wexford on the map.’ The space features a neighbourhood business directory which encourages people to patronize the local restaurants and businesses (and eat takeout in the space), as well as a ‘dot map,’ which prompts visitors to place a sticker on a map showing where they live. This data will help the team evaluate the impact and reach of the project. The signs were donated in kind by CAS Signs Company, a printer located in Wexford Plaza a few stores down from WexPOPS. The ‘Wexford Wish Tree,’ inspired by the shape of the sumac and CNC milled by local AC Waterjet, poses a different question every two weeks and invites visitors to write their answers on a horticultural tag and tie them to the tree for others to read.

WexPOPS may be popping down after August 18, but the proof of concept has already inspired many to reconsider the potential of privately-owned strip mall parking lots as community gathering places, including, perhaps most importantly, the Kirakou family — the property owners and our project hosts. To more concretely determine the project’s impact, the plazaPOPS team is conducting a public life study, modeled on methodologies pioneered by Denmark’s Gehl Architects. We are also studying the impact on parking and local business activity. The Rotman students, guided by Prof. Rafael Gomez, prepared a background study that informed the research design.

Project findings will be published later this year in an exit report, but already, many working in the urban design, community arts, and economic development sectors have noted the potential for applying the plazaPOPS concept beyond Wexford Heights, understanding the value of creating space to support the social life of communities in strip malls across Toronto, Ontario, and Canada.

photos courtesy of Rotsztain and Stewart


More information about the project and its design and planning process are available at www.plazaPOPS.ca and via twitter and Instagram at @plaza_pops. You can reach the team at plazapops@gmail.com.

CGielen-7A

Photo by Christopher Gielen via Fast Company

I’ve heard a rumour that beyond Toronto’s downtown core there is limitless and soulless sprawl.

I’ve also heard that South West Florida is one big suburb — highways, gated communities, big box stores and all.

Sure, there’s a veil of misguided, anti-social and environmentally detrimental human-built infrastructure that characterizes these places.

But, I urge you, to look beyond the illusion of sameness perpetuated by our circuited experience.

There’s magic there, past the highways and the malls.

Don’t accept the myth of the bland. The apocryphal accounts of suburban monotony.

Resist homogeneity and find the magic that’s everywhere.

DSCF0327The mangrove swamps beyond the highways and strip malls of Naples FloridaDSCF9826

The Don River Dam, just north of Finch and east of Dufferin — embedded within a landscape of sprawl

Currently reading Unruly Places by Alistair Bonnett – highly recommended. 

walkable suburbanism1

Beyond Portland’s downtown, and mostly, in my experience, across the river on the city’s east side, I experienced a very pleasant form of suburbanism.

The cityscape in these parts is characterized by the archetypal suburban elements:  wide streets, stand alone retail plazas, and single family homes with lots of yard space.

The streets, however, were incredibly walkable, and due to Portland’s progressive approach to urban planning, accommodating to cyclists.

As I explored, it became evident that east-Portland is home to a unique urban form: walkable Suburbanism. Yes, the streets were wide, and cars quickly zoomed through them. Cars are not, however, the dominant form of transportation, the standard unit of planning. Ample room is given to pedestrian space, bicycle lanes are omnipresent, and on some streets, light rail takes up a portion of the roadway.

The archetypal suburban architecture also had a walkable spin: retail plazas and restaurants, usually found set back several hundred feet behind immense fields of parking, were rather directly fronted to the sidewalk. Parking, if present, was limited to a small strips in front of stores.

The neighbourhoods were characterized by detached homes, but the area retained its urban feel, with shops and parks nearby.

As developers become more constrained by the cost of goods and transportation and construction, let’s hope they finally heed to the calls of sustainably-minded urbanists. Grey-field sites, such as already developed suburban land, should increasingly becoming the focus of development.

This is the new frontier of urban planning: the densification of the suburbs. Suburbs are already serviced by water, electricity, and transportation, and can easily accomodate more people. Cities, as they are, have vast tracts of land that can support increases of population: we no longer need do to develop farms and forests on a city’s fringes.

Portland’s walkable suburbanism provides a good model for the densification of the suburbs, the real need being in suburbs that have been developed in the last 20 years.

As most of Portland was probably built in the 1950s, an era of suburban city-building that still had an ounce of dignity, its neighbourhoods are well connected, located in walking distance to commerce, and the streets, though wide, are certainly inhabitable. Portland, along with cities like Winnipeg, and inner-suburban Toronto, is lucky to inherit this built form. It is a great mix of the urban and suburban: it heeds to the desires of those who feel they need fresh air and space, but can also be serviced efficiently, is walkable and bike-able, and certainly fosters social relationships amongst neighbourhood fixtures and passersby.

As we densify the suburbs, let’s look to east-Portland for inspiration. Due to history and good conscience, the future is already there, and its thriving.

I noticed a shift in my aesthetic sensibilities as I negotiated the streets of Toronto back in my last several-month stint there.

I started to appreciate, no, really dig, central Toronto houses of the 1960s modernist era — you know, the ones that look like they somehow landed downtown, blown in from some distant suburb.

As I’ve previously described, Toronto is the essential neo-liberal city. It is defined by its lack of architectural unity, rather characterized by the visions of individual actors and their piecemeal city building efforts. The result is an urban form that keeps you guessing: one strip is dominated by slender, elegant Victorian townhouses, the next, a block-wide modernist concrete rental building, the next a hodge podge of architectural styles, eras, efforts.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble on a “little Suburbia” – a row of houses that looks like it belongs in Vaughan or outer-Etobicoke. I get a sense of geognative dissonance in these places, like I’ve defied contiguity, entering a geographic space-warp between central Toronto and suburbia.

Two strips come to mind: the row of houses on the North side of Nassau just east of the Toronto Western General Hospital, and close by, just east of Bathurst on Wolosley just north of Queen.

Suburban townhouses along the north side of Nassau, east of Bathurst

Suburban townhomes emerge out-of-the-blue on Wolseley Street, just north of Queen, east of Bathurst.

And you know what? I never thought I’d say it, but I like these houses, their architectural style, their feel. I like their straight lines, and awkward relationship between window and wall size. I like their reference to a Canada of a different sensibility, their expired mid-century hopefulness. I like that they are big, and spaced out, yet dense and humble. I like their front yards, and how they stand together in the face of a rougher, more diverse urban landscape.

Of course, if this was the only house-form in Toronto I’d probably think differently, but, as a one- or two-off feature in an incredibly diverse city, they provide a nuanced shade to the multi-architectural Toronto pallette.

If I feel this way, I’m sure many other urbanists do as well. My aesthetic shift is probably the result of tired and overdone architectural romanticism. I do agree that Toronto Victorian townhomes are the nicest and loveliest housing form, but my preferences can go beyond a single architectural style. We are culturally saturated with old Victorian Townhouses, and I think looking to relatively newer styles as possible homes, and as inspiring spaces is liberating, and exciting.

Your Urban Geographer has recently uprooted himself, again, and has moved back to his stomping-grounds of last-summer, Halifax, for — at least — another summer.

Coming back to Halifax doesn’t just mean I have to get re-aqcquainted with the peninsular city-proper — for, as you read my begrudging description from last summer — Halifax is part of the greater Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), an crazy-big political entity spanning 5,491 km² (compared to Toronto’s 630km²).  As I explained last year, while there is definitely a need for regional governance, it should not replace the local. The HRM has lumped together downtown Halifax, it’s surrounding suburbs, and extremely remote rural and fishing villages that have little connections to Halifax, yet are governed by the same council.

The very large HRM — dense peninsular Halifax is barely visible on the above map in a bay near it’s south-western edge.

Yes, coming back to Halifax, it’s about time I was re-acquainted with the HRM.

And this summer, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be getting to know it in a very meaningful and thorough way.

In response to the positive elements of such a large political entity, the networks of communications that have inevitably emerged between Halifax and it’s surrounding communities, and the Halifax Regional Municipal Planning Strategy (RMPS), which outlined targets for smart growth, the Ecology Action Centre’s Built Environment Team (specifically, the wonderful Jen Powley) has established the Our HRM Alliance.

Unsurprisingly, given the pattern of politics in Halifax and environs, much of the development since the establishment of the RMPS has been anything but sustainable. Sprawl and thoughtless car-centric growth — large private homes, business parks, and shopping malls built over formerly undeveloped land — continue to define the growth of the HRM and the actions of very powerful developers.

And that’s where Our HRM Alliance plays an important role — acting as a watch-dog of HRM development and giving people a platform to mobilize on issues of growth and sustainability.

The Our HRM greenbelting strategy

As Jen Powley’s assistant, I will be helping her combat the desires of non-progressive developers as the thoughtful of HRM try their hardest to hold back the loose and undisciplined tentacles of sprawl that continue to spill out of Halifax. I will be getting to know these areas, hopefully visiting them, and will be attending many-a-urban planners’ meetings, public consultations, and mayoral candidate panels.

Helping Jen the last few days has lead my imagination to picturing a Halifax that had a chance to be better designed.

HRM’s population is 390 000 people, but spread over a density of 10.4 persons/hectare (compared with London’s 49 and New York City’s 104.3). Imagine HRM’s population with a greater density. Imagine if the patterns of growth of peninsular Halifax spilt out over the arm and into Sackville, Fairview, Bedford. Imagine if the density of Dartmouth was not stunted by narrow minded developers and it continued to build a city in its immediate surrounding areas. Imagine if Halifax’s streets were as endless as Toronto’s — streets like Manning and Palmerston that extend infinitely north of Queen — and interesting, dense, messy urban blocks spread throughout the area, beckoning exploration, fostering rich communities.

Imagine that the previously independent small towns of the HRM bled more gracefully into each other, rather than the cut and dry dramatic intervals of hostile suburban sprawl that are now in between them.

This line of thought lead me to thoughts of reclaiming the Mackay bridge from the exclusive use of cars. This bridge is beautiful, but deplorable. A glorified highway in the sky, it terminates on the Dartmouth side at a highway exit, an impossible environment for a pedestrian. What if we were to extend residential and commercial out and over the bridge, serviced by pipes and wires dangling high above the narrows? It would be whimsical, reminiscent of the Parisian residential bridges of the 19th century — and so symbolic of a movement of smart, thoughtful growth.  An urban geographer can dream… can’t he ?

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.