Archives for posts with tag: travel

Your Urban Geographer is in travel mode.

Heading west – I’m taking the train across America from Chicago to San Francisco, with a stop in Detroit on the way. A massive city weathering an economic storm, Detroit’s blighted urbanity forces you to confront social equity, racial justice and the tragedies of neoliberalism. The following is a short summary of absurd thoughts I had while visiting Detroit that don’t attempt to address the aforementioned conditions of the city. However, as an outspoken writer with a blog, I needed to get them out.

On comparisons with Toronto 

I must inevitably compare cities with the one I know best. As Great Lakes cities, the cities have lots in common: they are in the same forest, their residential neighbourhoods are comprised of detached houses with similar architectural styles. Their histories, of course, have been quite divergent. Detroit is infamous for relying on an industrial monoculture that eventually collapsed. Toronto is an industrial chameleon, adapting to global economic trends and relying on its centrality to the Canadian economy.

I did notice two quirky comparisons that might be stretching things but I have to share.

Detroit’s highway system, most prominently a north-south U transected by an east-west cross highway looks remarkably like Toronto’s Line 1 subway (Yonge-University-Spadina Line). It even has the same northwest jog around Eglinton West station. It’s even got a Line 4 (Sheppard) equivalent. The comparison is poignant as it highlights Detroit’s reliance on cars in the place of Toronto’s not-perfect-but-better-than-nothing subway system. But for all its car-dependency, Detroit’s system one up’s Toronto’s in one way: it has a Downtown Relief Line.


Detroit’s highway system

Toronto's subway map has a surprisingly similar shape

Toronto’s subway map has a surprisingly similar shape

On another transit related note, Detroit’s People Mover, built with the same technology as Toronto’s Line 3 (Scarborough RT), sounds the same chime as the TTC when the doors open and close.

On Pizza

I went to Buddy’s Pizzeria and it was delicious.

On blight 

Detroit is massive. It’s often sited that Paris, London and Manhattan could fit within its borders, and there would still be space left. The population of Detroit peaked at 2 million, but today it’s more like 700 000 – 700 000 people spread through a humungous city. Detroit is too big.

Reasons for Detroit’s rampant abandonment and blight are complicated and systemic. They have effected every part life in the city, most prominently enormous skyscrapers with hollowed out windows that are completely empty. Thousands of houses are shuttered, partially demolished, caving in, charred or completely burnt down. The house in its classic form, two stories, with a pointed roof and porch, is a symbol of safety, domesticity, humanity. Seeing so many muted and destroyed by economic and social catastrophe is particularly poignant.



Traveling a far distance always comes with some sort of immersive change in your material reality.

Out of an airplane window, you are privy to the novel world of clouds. On a train, the scenery passing quickly gives way to a blurred reality.

I recently traveled by ferry across the North Sea from the Hook of Holland to Harwich, England. Viewed from out of the windows of the ferry and from its deck, my material reality transformed into the water world.

Material reality

Might I recommend to opt for this dreamy form of transportation to anyone traveling between the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, rather than an enticingly cheap EasyJet flight. Being immersed in the world of the North Sea for seven hours is incredibly meditative. Pushing slowly away from the Dutch coast, we drifted gently toward Britain.

It should also be mentioned that generally, people who take the ferry are not in a rush.

Immersed in a water reality, and in the good company of Ferry-People while floating along the expansive North Sea toward England had me relaxed and curious — a good position from which to enjoy the geography of the world.

(It should also be mentioned that the Ferry was staffed by Filipinos who did not have a Visa for England or the Netherlands. They were stuck — perpetually on the boat, for periods of up to 6 months — after which they returned to the Philippines. A poignant situation to consider the state of borders, visas, and immigration today.)

Last week, I took the bus from Paris to Amsterdam, and watched as France slowly became the Netherlands.

The cultures of Europe are a spectrum over the land, and while some major reference points have emerged, like Dutch or French, there are certainly a lot of in-between cultures. You notice this in the language, the architecture, the agricultural methods. In Belgium especially, I saw French architecture slowly give way to Dutch styles — with so much lovely and interesting inbetween-cultures to vibe on.

As you know, readers, I am returning to Toronto in June to present at the Urban Ecologies conference. I have decided to fly home from Italy — Rome, specifically. I look forward to traveling over land from Amsterdam to Rome. With so many cultures and mountains and rivers inbetween, my question will be, how does the Netherlands become Italy?

Hi fam,
I’m well in New York — staying with a friend, Sasha, in a neighbourhood called Bushwick in Brooklyn. Very cool spot — Mexican/hipster populations — kids playing in fire hydrants to avoid muggy weather — wood sided town-houses a la halifax? — people hanging on the sidewalk with plastic fold out tables and bbqs — nice street art.
Going to Natural History Museum today to sketch elephants. Then to Long Island City (?).
Back in Halifax tomorrow, after a stop at artisan market and brief considerations of whether I should stay in Montreal (prob won’t).

Though the concept of a ‘global city’ is debated, there undoubtedly exists a group of ‘alpha‘ cities that exert a certain cultural and economic influence over the rest of the world.

The world holds these first-order cities, London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, etc, to a certain set of cultural expectations. Famous for hundreds of years, they evoke a very established and clearly defined image, even to those that have never visited them. Through famous depictions in literature, film, photography and visual art, these cities exist as strong identifiable images in the consciousness of the global public.

But what about the second order cities? Cities like Lyon and Manchester? Compared to their alpha-neighbours Paris and London, these cities evoke a much weaker image. Paris’ Eiffel tower and grand boulevards, London’s Big Ben and rainy, winding streets lack an equivalent in Lyon and Manchester in the global consciousness. The lack of an international identity, however, by no means indicates that these cities lack culture. You can be sure that Lyon, Manchester and other ‘second order’ cities have their own extremely rich histories, architectural traditions, urban lifestyles, cultural atmospheres and approaches to planning and transportation management – equally as rich as their first-order counterparts.

I want to suggest that since nobody is holding them to any expectations, ‘second order’ cities allow for a more authentic form of experience for visitors. These cities can speak for themselves, as opposed to having to live up to an identity that precedes them in literature and film.

Obviously, this phenomenon depends on one’s own geography. Those from France, UK and surrounding countries probably know more about Lyon and Manchester than folk from North America, and would thus be able to speak meaningfully about their culture: lifestyle, urban form and architecture. Montreal, itself a second order city, is surrounded by many other second order cities: Toronto, Chicago, Halifax, etc. Despite their lack of global identity, these cities evoke extremely rich images of culture and urban form in our (people from Montreal, Toronto and the Eastern seaboard in general) minds. To the global audience, however, these cities evoke no image at all.

I look forward, and encourage you all, to visiting these second-order cities. With no expectations, I will be able to truly experience these cities as they reveal themselves.