Archives for posts with tag: urban design

This post originally appeared on Spacing Toronto 

To the delight of many, it was recently announced that the TORONTO sign in Nathan Phillips Square will remain in front of City Hall until its structural expiry date of 2016, when it will be replaced by a more sturdy set of letters.

Installed as part of the Pan Am Games, the sign is one of the most popular legacies of the event. It is a highly photogenic addition to City Hall, offering the perfect spot for selfies amongst the sign’s many Ts Rs and Os.

The old saying is that “life imitates art” — but with the immense popularity of the TORONTO sign, it might be more accurate to say that these days, “life imitates graphic design.”

The dominance of graphic design culture — researchers now estimate we’re exposed to5,000 ads per day, and the number of graphic designers in Canada has increased rapidly over the last few years — has reached its apotheosis in the 3D TORONTO sign. Photos of Nathan Phillips Square and City Hall now automatically take on the look and feel of a highly designed poster.

The TORONTO sign is part of a global trend of huge letters in prominent public space. It’s most direct precedent is the I amsterdam sign. Situated behind Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum since 2005, friends visiting the Netherlands are almost guaranteed to post photos of themselves climbing the iconic red and white letters. The ONLY LYON sign followed in 2010 and the BUDAPEST sign in 2014. It was only a matter of time that big font would come to Toronto.

I amsterdam

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Budapest sign

This isn’t the first time art has affected landscape. Big, wooded parks with meandering pathways like High Park in Toronto, Central Park in Manhattan, and Mount Royal Park in Montreal, were all inspired by Romantic landscape paintings of the late 19th century. Spreading as a park format worldwide (most major North American cities have an equivalent), these pastoral parks are a reflection of what people in burgeoning industrial cities needed from their landscapes — and how they idealized them.

But the blending of graphic design and landscape architecture is evidence of a new kind of relationship we’ve developed with our civic spaces. No longer pastoral retreats à la High Park, with our smartphone cameras always close at hand, a landscape must be striking and photographable to make an impact. And giant, Instagram-able letters are the most effective way to communicate the core of most messages on social media — “I was here.”

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Yesterday, I had the pleasure of volunteering at the 7th annual Complete Streets Forum, a meeting of urban planners, designers, politicians, advocates and urbanists of all stripes committed to building streets that make room for all users — not just cars — in cities across the world.

The conference was hosted by the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation at Daniels Spectrum, an art centre managed by Artscape in Regent Park. Regent Park is currently undergoing “revitalization”, and is home home to a number of innovative urban design features, including what’s almost a complete street.

The conference was invigorating. It is inspiring to see all the work folks are doing to advance inclusive, healthy and active street design in municipalities across the world.

The morning’s first keynote Speaker, Dr John Pucher, set an energizing tone for the conference as he spoke excitedly and passionately about the need for complete streets. He shared his research team’s findings that women are an “indicator species” for good bike infrastructure (more women biking = more bike infrastructure, and vice versa!), and that children who walk or bike to school are half a year more intelligent then their driving contemporaries.

Tactical Urbanism: Lesson in Test Driving had Nathan Westendorp and Robert Voigt share their experiences working with cities to pilot projects at 0.75% of the budget of the overall cost of the implemented project. The “try before you buy” mentality means smarter city building, and everyone, even urbanist focused city planners, can learn from the experience. I also enjoyed the idea that DIY city repair, like citizens painting their own cross walks when the city ignores the need, can be dangerous, and we need a way to leverage that energy and make the city more responsible and nimble to the requests of citizen groups.

Dr. Jeannette Montufar spoke after lunch about the history of transportation planning, focusing on “how we got here”. Her historical analysis showed empathy for the decisions of urban planners of the 50s and 60s who opted to build “ribbons of pristine concrete” through “slum” neighbourhoods. They were trying to make the world better, and could not anticipate the negative effects a total highway society would bring. Dr. Montufar’s perspective as an engineer was valuable, and she spoke about the need to get engineers to conferences on complete streets. Public realm is often in the department of transportation, and engineers are as the ones implementing the design of roadways. In terms of street design, they are only being taught to maximize capacity — thus missing on the essential stop and chat nature of a city.

After an afternoon walking tour of the revitalization of Regent Park, including the project’s complete-ish street between Regent Park Park and Nelson Mandela Elementary School, I was delighted to hear from Heidi Wolf, of NYC’s Department of Transportation. She spoke clearly and passionately about her work documenting the Before and After photos of New York’s many urban design and complete streets projects. She stressed the need for clarity, including people in the photos, and getting the same angle for the before and after shots as essential to “selling” the projects to the city, developers and citizens.

The day ended with an engaging panel on the redesign of Eglinton Avenue, moderated by Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. Incredibly, despite the current anti-bike, “war on the car” rhetoric in Toronto, city council approved a 19km separated bike lane, running along Eglinton Avenue, as part of the streets redesign in conjunction with the coming LRT. The panel included an urban designer, cycling advocate, community faciliator, and a representative of the area’s BIAs, and focused on the difficulty of suggesting a bike lane to business owners who overestimate the amount of business the yget from car drivers. A 19 kilometre separated bike lane on Eglinton! How exciting — but the details are material for another post.

Thank you to TCAT for hosting such an excellent, informative and positive conference. I left feeling inspired, energized and motivated to contribute to a world of increasingly friendly environments for pedestrians, cycling, transit and cars. Congratulations to all the presenters and attendees, it was a pleasure meeting you and I look forward to working with you in the future!

Spadina Avenue, closed to traffic - Pedestrians and Streetcars mixing. Image courtesy of BlogTO

Spadina Avenue, closed to traffic – Pedestrians and Streetcars mixing. Image courtesy of BlogTO

Love it or hate it, Nuit Blanche delivers the spectacle of Toronto’s streets crammed full of people. With the sidewalks at capacity, and many streets closed to car traffic, we are treated to a hyper-urbanized version, 24/7 version of Toronto. Every October, the city becomes fully animated — perhaps a preview of things to come if population growth keeps apace in the next 50 years.

This year’s edition of the all night contemporary arts festival included the addition of new zones. Along with Fort York and City Place, Spadina Avenue was closed to traffic, and many artworks were displayed along the street.

The experience of Spadina closed to automobile traffic was highly enjoyable, providing a new perspective on the potential of this thoroughfare. The broad avenue, with dedicated street car tracks running down the middle, naturally lends itself to being a pedestrian boulevard. The dynamic was reminiscent of Las Ramblas in Barcelona — a boulevard famous for its walking culture.

I noticed, however, Torontonians struggling with the concept of a street being set aside for pedestrians and streetcars. Though barricades and traffic police were present to ensure that people would not cross the tracks when streetcars were coming, people kept on running through the tracks at the moment a streetcar was approaching.

The mix of a pedestrianized thoroughfare and streetcar tracks reminded me of some of my favourite street designs in Europe, where this kind of configuration is more common. As a past post explored, along Leidsestraat, a pedestrian-only street in Amsterdam, people freely walk along the tram tracks until one needs to pass by. The street is both a tram track and a pedestrian walk way and works beautifully. In Manchester, dedicated Tramways line the central Piccadilly Gardens, a bustling square. The square’s surface covers the entire area, with only slight demarcation of where the trams run, other than their tracks. The flow of this place is lovely — as pedestrians cross the square without stress, and avoid the trams when they come every-so-often. And when they do they blow their gentle whistle and all the senses have their outlet.

Making room for trams as the need arises, on Leidsetraat in Amserdam. Image courtesy of Urban Capture

Making room for trams as the need arises, on Leidsetraat in Amserdam. Image courtesy of Urban Capture

Pedestrians share space with trams and their tracks in Manchester. Image courtesy of ManchesterHistory.net

Pedestrians share space with trams and their tracks in Manchester. Image courtesy of ManchesterHistory.net

In Toronto, where we’re not used to this kind of shared space (yet), things were a little more challenging. Perhaps the presence of safety officers and infrastructure contributed to the tension, and people would have been better of interacting with the streetcars organically.

In any case, I was delighted to experience a step toward shared flexible space in my own Toronto. Little by little, we are demonstrating that streets are not only for cars, and can host multiple uses, complimenting and accommodating one another as the need arises.

In honour of winter, I would like to re-post an essay I wrote in 2009 for Spacing Montreal while I was going to McGill University for Urban Geography. It was a very snowy winter that year. Kind of like this one, in Toronto.

Are there any natural paths along your walks this winter?

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When walking through Montreal, we cannot deny the usefulness of the shortcut. Shortcuts that are used a lot demonstrate  the lovely chaos that occurs when a side walk doesn’t quite meet our pedestrian needs.

Most pedestrians share one goal: to get between two points in the city as fast as possible. Ideally, urban planners would design paths that meet our needs perfectly, with major routes that bring the maximum number of people to the places they want to go.

Well, the utopian city in a planner’s mind does not exist.  We all have different orientations toward the city. We all have different ideas what we need to do and where to go, with different preferences for transportation. Ideally, a city is flexible enough to accommodate that.

Though planners couldn’t possibly provide sidewalks wherever you would want to walk, the city makes itself available for some crafty self landscape design. A simple example is the phenomenon of natural paths.

The most common example of natural paths are the ones that form at many street corners. Cutting every corner makes a walk much faster. So, inevitably, corner sidewalks are often usurped by a pythagorean line from A to B.

Living in a winter-city gives Montrealers a unique perspective on the natural path phenomenon. Every winter in Park Jeanne-Mance, the city ploughs paths that trace the perimeter of the park, the slowest route for someone who wants to walk across.

Having to walk through the park daily, I’ve found that shortcuts through the snow appear every winter in the same place. A path that initially manifests as a narrow track of boot prints, meandering past trees and picnic tables, slowly evolves to become wide and navigable.

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We can read these indexes of movement as evidence of Montreal’s collective unconscious. The natural path through the snow also shows me that ultimately, I rely on the actions of others in urban space. It’s angle shortens the walk for the most number of people, and is a beautiful instance where natural human behaviour manifests in collective rationality and the logic of a city can be easily read.

Another example can be found on Ave des Pins, just west of du Parc. When the city redesigned the intersection to fit a more human scale, a large fence was built separating the north and south sides of Pins in order to prevent pedestrians from jay-walking through the fast-moving traffic. Despite these efforts, a path has formed directly through the seemingly indestructible steel fence. We can again appreciate the organic and collective nature of our negotiation of Montreal’s urban space and realize that ultimately, our city is formed by its citizens: our actions, our behaviours and our habits.

pins

Negotiating a new place comes with inevitable comparisons to places you are familiar with. This is an inescapable quality of being human: we integrate new knowledge by embedding it within the systems of knowledge we’ve already constructed. When you visit a new city, it really is difficult to accept it as a place in-and-of itself, and comparisons to London, New York, Toronto, Venice are almost inescapable…

Along these lines, I’ve detected a specific comparison mechanism I’ve employed in my negotiations of Amsterdam: comparing the scale of the built environment. This allows for comparison of two cities not by specific architectural styles, but the size of the elements of the cityscape. My analysis of scale falls along an axis with “cozy, human scale” on one end and “car-oriented hell” on the other, with lots of variation in between.

Here are two fun “scalar equivalencies”, or “synonymous scales” that I’ve encountered and thought-up while exploring Amsterdam. I am sharing them because they stood out as quite stark to me, and allowed me to meaningfully understand these parts of Amsterdam without a constraining comparison. Comparing places by scale allows the places to “be themselves”, while allowing a meaningful understanding of the potential uses of these spaces outside my direct experience of them.

Amsterdam’s IJburg <————> Montreal’s Plateau

IJburg Montreal

Amsterdam’s newest neighbourghood, IJburg, is built in the scale of early 20th century North American urbanism, much like Montreal’s central Plateau neighbourhood. Cozy and compact, walkable and diverse, this landscape is not hostile to car use or ownership. There is density, but there is also space.

Noord Amsterdam <————> Portland, Oregon

Noord AmsterdamPortland

Portland is interesting because it is defined by a sort of “walkable suburbanism“. The streetscapes are dominated by cars, parking lots and strip malls, but wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and lots of interesting businesses and organizations make for an easily navigable city by foot or bike. Amsterdam Noord has a similar feel: in amongst the huge roads, parking lots and car repair shops are nice, human scale restaurants and shops, bike lanes and generally well-scaled streets for non-car exploration.

IJburg

IJburg is Amsterdam’s newest neighbourhood.

Though the Netherlands is known for its land reclamation projects, IJburg is built on soil and sand that has been transported and piled up along the Eastern banks of the IJ (pronounced like eye), the major waterway that runs between North and Central Amsterdam and eventually to the North Sea.

IJburg2

IJburg

As it is the focus of much current development in Amsterdam, IJburg is home to some very experimental (/cutting-edge/progressive) architecture and urban design. A lot of it comes from the schools of urban planning and architecture that are viewed as best practice today: the avoidance of single developers and monotonous housing projects with little architectural variance, and the championing of mixed-use, diverse and walkable settlements — the tenets of contemporary urbanism toward the realization of a “livable city”.

One way these lofty ideals are being achieved is the allowance for people to design their own houses.  As peoples’ preferences are unsurprisingly varied, there is a lot of diversity in housing-form. Classical Amsterdam Canal-houses are set alongside dramatic post-Modern homes. (For example, an entirely yellow facade, articulated by small windows on the upper floors). The result is a highly varied and engaging streetscape and a whole-hearted departure from the traditionally homogenous suburb.

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A starkly yellow facade, alongside less extreme post-modern homes

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Urban Planning, a relatively new, and constantly self-justifying discipline has yet to fully heal its reputation from the misguided and heavy-handed plans that defined the field in the 1960s. The success or failure of IJburg, and the urban plan that is guiding its growth, will make a strong statement about the legitimacy of the theories of Urban Planning — and indeed of the entire discipline – today.

Grey

I visited IJburg on a grey March day. The cold wind blew fiercely, making biking difficult, especially on the bridges between the neighbourhoods and islands of Indischebuurt and Zeeburg along the way.

That despite the weather, I felt good in IJburg, is a real testament to the quality of this housing project. A good place feels good in the shimmering days of mid-Summer, but also on the greyest, coldest Winter afternoons.

As a place of urban experimentation, IJburg inspired a lot of thought. Here are some notes on the neighbourhood that I jotted down while exploring earlier today.

☉IJburg is a strong skeleton for a city. But because it is intensely planned, it unavoidably feels that way. People react negatively to places that feel over-planned: spaces that are sterile and uninspiring. With time, however, the messy urbanism that makes cities spontaneous, dynamic and desirable will find its way into IJburg. Once the buildings and infrastructure begin to decay, and the neighbourhood is truly lived in, this has the potential to be an exciting part of the city. IJburg is healthy bones.

☉(Another related possibility is that if there were an economic collapse, and developers/the city became no longer able to continue with its development, informal ways of engaging with urban space becoming the norm, IJburg would provide a good setting for creativity & experimentation)

☉The newest parts of IJburg, those developments at its edge that are mostly vacant or are in the process of being constructed also feel full of potential. Unlike that ghostly feeling you get from the newest phase of a gated community in Florida or empty towers in resort condominiums built for time-share users, the emptiness of the newest parts of IJburg feel like they will soon be home to a busy and well-used city. The potential-energy in IJburg is palatable.

☉IJburg is built strongly in the tradition of a early 20th century North American urbanism. It is cozy, and people-sized, but is makes space for car use. The scale reminded me of Rosemount or the Plateau in Montreal.

☉Rather than thinking of IJburg as an extension of central Amsterdam, it might be better to conceptualize it as its own world: a nearby, highly connected village. IJburg’s communications with Amsterdam are strong. The 26-Tram runs every 6 minutes mid-day, and commuters are invited to bring their bikes on board (the only tram in the city to allow this). At €1.95 per trip, the ride is affordable. The 26 also takes an interesting journey through the city from its Eastern edge to the centre. More of a commuter-train, the tram’s route is equipped with level railroad crossings that stop traffic until it passes. This makes the journey to Centraal Station quite fast.

IJburg5

Toward the end of my exploring, I found a part of IJburg that has not been built on yet. It is a heap of sand that protrudes out into the IJ. It is a wild, desertous dune-scape, that, though empty now, feels alive with the city that will grow over it. I walked to the edge of the sandy peninsula and stood, facing the water and the wind. I thought to myself: the Netherlands is a present place. Not too caught up in its history, it embraces and is playful with growth and change.

>> Brief notes and impressions on Rotterdam after my first visit to the city last evening.

Rotterdam1

Rotterdam is a digital city.

Since it was flattened by bombs in World War Two, Rotterdam lost the constraints of history that often come with a heritage built environment, giving space for the emergence of a highly experimental city.

Whereas Amsterdam is analog, Rotterdam expresses the essence of 21st century digital urbanism.

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The Erasmusbruge spans over the Maas

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Building a new home in Rotterdam. Netherlands

In Rotterdam, striking structures that betray their origins in digital architectural software are layered over 1960 modernist apartment buildings and retail strips. Enormous buildings make post-modern statements about space and identity. Digital clocks and screens are common, adding noiseless flashing light to the city’s electric aura.

Rotterdam 3

I visited Rotterdam last night, and experienced a version of the city that I felt to be quite honest: a grey February day gave way to a blustery, snowy evening – the perfect backdrop for a city of futurist metal, steel, and concrete. I was in Rotterdam for a party at the Drijvend Paviljoen – a series of 3 geodesic domes that were lit-up with neon colours and emitting a low electric hum, muted house music that could be heard from outside.

Comparing Amsterdam and Rotterdam is as irresistible as doing the same with Toronto and Montreal. In the Netherlands, these two cities went two very different ways, expressing extremely different elements of the Dutch psyche.

Amsterdam was the capital of design and progressive urban planning at a time when prevailing technology was analog, and so the city is characterized by the physical and mechanical: canal networks, rope pulley systems to ease moving furniture, manual signs announcing the times of the next tram (the mechanism spins hypnotically when the sign changes), and public analog clocks.

Amsterdam

Manual tram signs in Amsterdam

Given Rotterdam’s history, it has had a very different experience of design and planning. I’ve heard that more and more of Dutch culture comes out of Rotterdam, and I get it. Rotterdam is the city of the now: a thoroughly digital urbanism. Despite Rotterdam’s extreme digitization however, it holds remnants of analog Dutch design. As in Amsterdam, the crosswalks in Rotterdam tick mechanically, building up to a rapid clicking that audibly signals it’s time to cross.

this is a >> LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE DESIGN PROJECT >>

I’ve been thinking recently how disorienting it would be to rotate an entire intersection, as if it were on a giant lazy susan.

This would be especially disorienting if it were done to an intersection you know quite well – one that you are familiar enough with to anticipate the string of buildings that will follow from it.

Our urban lives are rooted in the illusion of permanence. Our expectations of what is ahead of us in a city we know well are unwavering. If a city were to change, ever so slightly, deviating from the expected, it would be deeply confusing, disorienting and strange.

I drew these diagrams to conceptualize what rotating a Lazy-Susan intersection might look like.

Lazy Susan Intersection

Going a bit further with the real world example of the intersection of College and Bathurst Streets in the very linear Toronto, I used satellite imagery from google maps to simulate what a Lazy-Susan intersection might feel like from above.

Lazy Susan Intersection 2

And, using the wealth of visual information that google’s street view provides, I went all the way and used photoshop to simulate, quite roughly, the visceral disorientation that might be experienced if a Lazy-Susan intersection were ever implemented. The smaller photos above are the intersection as it is, unrotated.

WEST

College and Bathurst West

Lazy Susan 1 WEST

SOUTH

College and Bathurst South

Lazy Susan 2 SOUTH

EAST

College and Bathurst East

Lazy Susan 3 EAST

NORTH

Lazy Susan 4 NORTH

College and Bathurst North

This experiment might be the most disorienting in Barcelona – where the repeating orthogonal intersections of l’Eiaxmple  are already immensely confusing:

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The RAI  //

                         A night walk, a photo-essay

THE RAI 1

 

 

THE RAI 1

 

 

 

THE RAI 2

 

 

THE RAI 3

 

 

 

THE RAI 4

 

 

THE RAI 5

 

 

THE RAI 6 SMALL

THE RAI 7

THE RAI 9

The Amsterdam RAI Exhibition and Convention Centre  or RAI for short, is a complex of conference and exhibition halls in the Zuidas business district of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. – Wikipedia

Sept 19 Mayoral Debate poster

I designed a series of posters for Our HRM Alliance’s three councillor candidate debates during the 2012 HRM municipal election. The posters are meant to evoke the reality that each district is an essential part of the greater whole.

Spryfield

You may notice that the districts appear rather large: there are only 16 of them, down from formerly 23. The Nova Scotia Utility Review Board (the seemingly true decision makers in this town) decided last year that 23 districts was too many, and to be more efficient, the number would be widdled down to 16. Less people to argue, right?

South end

Also see the September 19 Mayoral debate poster.

As part of the Dalhousie Gazette‘s fantastic Other Gazette, my brother and I have been taking a variety of Halifax landmarks and transforming them into things they kind of look like.

The feature inevitably grew out of one of our favourite teen pass-times, “Everything is Everything”, a drawing game that involves turning a circle with four spokes into anything your opponent challenges. “Everything is Everything” was also the title of the Fuller Lecture I gave in the summer of 2011.

Look-a-likes may be an exercise in exaggerations – but in a world where the fractal nature of the universe is relatively common knowledge, is it so farfetched to suggest the Halifax peninsula looks like a silly mermaid?

There’s some wood scaffolding that’s been up across the street from my house in Halifax for almost two years now. Everytime I pass it I’m amazed it’s been up so long. Whether due to laziness, or forgetfulness, whatever that scaffolding was intended for is a project that has long passed.

Everytime I look at the scaffolding across the street, I’m reminded of an excellent exhibit I saw a few years ago at Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture.  “Actions: What you can do with your city” was an exhibit in 2009 that demonstrated creative, often subversive, ways to meaningfully engage with your city despite laws and conventions that are un-inclusive or non-sensical.

One particularly memorable display told a story of a man in Seville who wanted to add a balcony to his apartment. Frustrated with the city’s strict heritage laws that prevented additions, he vandalized his own apartment in the dead of night. The next day, under the guise of removing the graffiti, he set up scaffolding – and never took it down, finally having a balcony to enjoy the sun on.

Though the scaffolding across the street probably wasn’t put up as a rogue balcony, it has been a presence in my life and has invited me to meaningfully engage with it.

Earlier this fall, a party we hosted in our apartment spilt out onto the street. The happy dancers climbed the scaffolding’s three levels, and danced and hoola-hooped on it til early morning.

The picture above is inspired by the scaffolding and that dance-filled night: It is a mash-up of a photo I took of the scaffolding and figures directly taken from Night Gatheringa beautiful watercolour painting by Rebecca Roher (her work, indeed inspired the whole image…and she was one of the dancing hoola-hoopers that night).