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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.

Several months ago, your Urban Geographer culture jammed his way through the streets and bathroom-stalls of Tall-ronto, QaRt coding  his and all his friends’ faces wherever and anywhere.

Some thoughts since then:

QR codes are on the wane — I think. Already there is technology that allows one to scan an image, any image, and that is enough to link online, to a website. We’re there already, folks — one step closer to the Internet-Reality, a total World-Wide-Web-geography, heading toward a future where the city blends into the internet, without anyone even realizin’… yet the QR code persists as an icon of these transitional days. Perhaps we aren’t ready to accept that anything, everything? might somehow trigger the internet. Another case of cultural inertia. Perhaps those black and white pixels are a source of comfort in this time of great transformation — they keep it real, somehow, contained — it’s okay, because only the old fashioned pixelated thing will lead us to the internet — the internet is kept at bay, right?

Another thought:

QR codes seem to be incredibly popular in Toronto, but not in other cities. Case in point: Halifax. Another one? NYC including Brooklyn.

Well, those are the only cities I’ve been to since my 2012 Toronto-times.

But it does indeed seem odd that not even New York would have QR-fever. It looks like we’ve got e a place-specific technology fetish, and readers, I’m not at all surprised with where it’s located. What with Toronto being the city of Now — the economic frontier of the Western World — it’s no longer  that old 20th century maxim, “I’m headin’ West baby” only the fresh new “I’m goin’ West but no further than Tall-ronto” kind of economy frontier. It only makes sense that such a current technology, you know, the one that links physical reality with the internet could be squarely found in the gridded streets of T-o-r-o-n-t-o.

Also!

The internet has leaked several QaRt Code spottings my way. They’ve come my way by way of my formal online social networks which leads me to the conclusion that many people have snapped photos of  (or simply talked about) those devilish smiling pixelated faces and shared them with their friends. 

Here are some of the spottin’s I’ve spotted:

From facebook:

And another, from facebook:

And here’s one… from Twitter !

 
 
 
And one more… from Facebook
 
 
 
 
(Leading photo is from my brother’s facebook…)
 
 
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).
Love,
Daniel

One thing that I really learnt on my last-Autumn travels to north-west Europe was that cities are inescapably market-places.

That is their primary function and social purpose, manifested in their built form. They are gathering spots where people can exchange goods and services. We can look at the history of cities, and in their DNA see that the world’s biggest are river- or ocean-side ports, a phenomenon geographers refer to as “break and bulk points”.  Modern cities are often at the shores of rivers of a different sort: highways and traffic corridors, where routes between several major cities converge.

Of course, the magical elements of unpredictable urbanity follow from market-cities, but these are only happy coincidences. A city is about dollars and cents. There is no town without a money-town. $ $ $ and all that.

This sort of irked me on my travels. I grew frustrated that the only thing I could do in each European city I visited was buy things and food, essentially. This is probably an obvious fact to most — but my romantic notions of the city and urbanity fogged the economic realities of the places I visited. I grew tired of only interacting with people over dollar exchanges — it felt inauthentic, ungenuine, not conducive to real connections.

The Really Really Free Market is perhaps a solution to the modern $$$-City.

It can be stripped down to its tagline: “No money. No barter. No trade. Try a new economic model: sharing!”

And, according to its organizers, it is “basically, its a bazaar, a celebration, and a community space for sharing- where people bring what they have to give, and take what they need. Kind of like a potluck, but for goods, services, skills, ideas, smiles”.

I love this concept.

There is an idea circulating these days that there is in fact abundance in the world, and it’s the political/social/economic structures that cause inequality and poverty, not a lack of resources.

Simply put, there is no real need to buy everything. There are so many goods and services lying fallow in our city’s neighbourhoods — there just needs to be a place, a system, to activate this surplus, and re-distribute that abundance.

The third iteration of the Really Free Market in Halifax (following successful stints at the Khyber and George Dixon Centre), is planned for August 12, from 11am to 3pm at the Bloomfield Centre. It’s great that it’s become a semi-regular thing, but, for this “revolutionary” economic model (i.e., sharing) to really change the way we interact with our cities — making them less of a money-market, and more of a social gathering place — is to make this a regular thing, dedicate space to it, rely on it more and more while buying less and less. We already have channels of communication that are facilitating this movement: craigslist and kijiji free sections, free-cycle websites – this is great, and we can build on it: such as a city officially accepting this economic model into its planning, its bureaucracy and systems.

It’s a fantastic idea that will undoubtedly spread throughout the world as we face the realities of depleting resources and the inevitable consequences  of years of social-environmental neglect.

Plus — I designed the flyer for the event ! I based the type on the beautiful, old and rusty Bloomfield Centre sign, and the building featured on the front is the iconic view of the Centre from Agricola and Bloomfield streets.


See you there!

August 15, 2012,  UPDATE!

Turns out, there’s now a weekly Really Really Free Market, in Toronto! Every first Saturday of the month, at Campbell Park, in Toronto’s west-end. This is surely the first steps toward permanent Free city infrastructure.

See you there, when I’m there!

City Repair’s grid-dissolving, community building philosophy has found its way across the continent, to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The Portland organization focuses on re-purposing urban space through design to facilitate “neighbourliness” and a community-directed sense of place. Painting an intersection is a revolutionizing activity that transforms an intersection from a place to pass people linearly, to a place to gather, meet and make connections.

Mark Lakeman, of City Repair and Communitecture provides a lovely accompanying narrative to explain an intersection painting. He describes the history of the humanuty as the slow spread of imperialism over a world characterized by formerly village lifestyles. Left to our own devices, our former villager-selves would design our living space with dwellings organized around a series of gathering spaces; clusters of shelter with plenty of paths weaving through public places. As imperial power concentrated in centres such as Rome, it spread its authoritarianism, and imposed the Roman Grid over the village life-style. The grid is a major tool of imperialism — it organizes space efficiently, allows for accountability and ease of censuses, it provides good and efficient circulation for the transportation of goods, people, and military services, and it lacks in its design places where people can gather, make connections, and plot to overthrow the imperial power that runs the course of its life.

This is especially true in North America, where over seemingly “blank” landscapes, imperial French, British, Spanish and Dutch powers imposed grids often without provisions for public space.

Lakeman proposes that we return to our village lifestyle, find our inner-villagers, and “dissolve” the ubiquitous grid at every opportunity we can get. Instead of passing each other at an intersection, let’s instead make it a place to meet.

Halifax’s first painted intersection is truly exciting. In a lecture describing his efforts with City Repair, Lakeman references the fact that after the first intersection painting, other Portland neighbourhoods were inspired, and intersection paintings popped up around the city, independently. The movement is now international, and, with the advent of communications technology, good ideas such as these can easily spread across continents to other coasts and other contexts.

I’m excited to experience my first intersection painting. It won’t solve all the problems associated with anonymity and social isolation in cities — but it’s a positive step, and an incredible advance toward bottom up, community-based urban planning: toward an urban sustainability that incorporates the social and environmental, a new city culture that embraces local connections.

Plus — I’ll be selling delicious date-almond smoothies there with my mom — for only $3 a glass.

See you there. 

I’ve written a lot recently about the concept of geognitive dissonance: geography-induced cognitive dissonance. These are moments when the supposed linearity of space gets warped, and you experience a non-contiguous geography. Times when your senses mix, and vision defers to more subtle, powerful experiences of taste, touch, smell that break at the seams of our notion of objective space. Basically, geognitive dissonance is when you’re in one place, but something causes you to feel like you’re in another place, a place you’ve been before and know quite well.

I realize that I’ve inadvertently written about geognitive dissonance many times without naming it as such.

I’ve written about how the sweet-stale subway scent in Berlin transported me to Toronto’s TTC;

I wrote about closing my eyes on Toronto BIXIs, and feeling as if I were on a bike I got to know in Montreal;

I explored the proliferation of heterogenous big box architecture, and how it served to emphasize the difference of context in a pharmacy of the exact same layout in Montreal versus Halifax.

Though there isn’t a post about it, today with my dad, I biked a former rail path that has since been converted into a bike trail in Nova Scotia, and when I closed my eyes, felt I was in Toronto’s belt line – the same soft gravel crunching under moving wheels, the same sense of enclosure between the trees on each bank, the same light filtering through the leaves.

This is a powerful concept, I think.

It demonstrates that reality is not linear. That our world can never be known fully as objective, and that our senses have transformative, transport-ative properties. Vision and observation only go so far to explain the relationships in this world, as I, for one, experience geognitive dissonance quite often. Perhaps daily.

I know reality through a nuanced, deeply entrenched personal geography, and that personal geography is located squarely in the realm of my senses, altering my perceptions and the spatial locations of vantage points that I interpet the world from.

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.

This morning, in response to an article published yesterday on Spacing Atlantic, I had the opportunity to discuss the possibility of a third harbour bridge between Halifax and Dartmouth on Maritime Morning, on News 95.7 FM.

Yes, your Urban Geographer made his 2012 radio debut as an expert on the topics of transportation infrastructure, traffic engineering, active transportation and discouraging continued car culture in HRM.

Listen to the link to hear all about:

Where the bridge will be, and how much it will cost;

Approaches to transportation planning (building more roads means lest congestion?);

Not anti-car, pro-mobility;

Amsterdam — formerly an anti-bike city;

Multi-modal mobility.

Click here to listen,

&, Enjoy. 

cross-posted from Spacing Atlantic

HALIFAX – With the current studies exploring the potential of a third Halifax harbour crossing, and the recent announcement of the closure of pedestrian and bike lanes for a year and half during planned resurfacing of the Macdonald Bridge, I’ve been thinking about Halifax bridges a lot these days.

Urban planners and city officials have begun to explore the costs and logistics of creating a third bridge over, or under, the narrows between the South End CN Railyard in Halifax, and the Woodside area of Dartmouth. The price tag is an estimated $1.1 to $1.4 billion. According to the Harbour Bridges Commission, the need for a third harbour crossing is due to projected population growth, which, obviously, means more car traffic.

Steve Snider, general manager and CEO of the commission hopes that “more people will get out of their cars, but doubt[s] if all people are going to get out.”

The idea that increased population automatically means more cars is absurd, and the lack of any real attempt at trying to encourage active transportation is disheartening. HRM does not need another car-oriented connection into the peninsula. It represents a backward step in planning, while the rest of the world invests in pedestrian and transit oriented infrastructure at smaller, walkable scales. While the city investigates the possibility of a third crossing, they are also considering cutting funds to harbour ferry services and are continuing to let the Metro Transit system fallow and decay. Plans to widen Bayers road and build even more highway overpasses contribute to the trend of cars-first, people-never planning in HRM.

These issues have lead me to think about that old ramp to nowhere [pg. 6, PDF], up near the Mackay bridge, that extended out toward the water and into the sky, demolished in 2009. There’s surprisingly little written about it, but with a bit of research I learnt that this stumped-ramp was officially called Structure 9, and was originally built as part of the Cogswell Interchange series of planned highways but was never used.

I’m sad that Structure 9 was demolished in 2009, because it would have served as an apt symbol of the current guiding-philosophy of HRM planning. A ramp-to-nowhere, along with the Cogswell interchange, are pieces of highway infrastructure that spin users around and around, getting them nowhere fast.

This city must move away from car-oriented infrastructure. That billion dollars needed for a third harbour crossing could be directly reallocated to transit, alleviating the traffic on the existing bridges with more frequent and reliable bus service, and the funding of more ferry service. The planned closure of the pedestrian/bike lanes along the Macdonald bridge are further evidence of short-sited visions of mobility planning in the Municipality, and symbolic of the city’s official attitude toward active transportation.

Plus, HRM and provincial planners seem to be ignoring that Mi’kmaq legend: any attempt at a third harbour crossing will lead to its inevitable collapse (which can be read about in Paul Erikson’s book North End Halifax.) Let’s hope the city and province heed to the lessons of this prophesy, which in the 2012 context has taken on new meaning. May the plan of a third harbour crossing follow the predictions of the myth, and fall apart before it’s built. Let’s avoid the legend’s foretold disaster, and instead alleviate the capacity of the current bridges in a healthy, smart and people-oriented way.

Photo by  Paul Coffin

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.

Karen Stintz announced the proposed OneCity transit plan today.

Awesome.

Using a language of unity rather than a false suburbs downtown divide. This is one system, one region, the efficiency of downtown routes directly effects the suburban.

Best of luck to the fine people of toronto, may they be protected from divisive politics and incompetent leadership