Archives for posts with tag: urban space

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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pjm1

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.

pjm3

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

Halifax-01

This is Halifax, today. The main geographical feature of Halifax is that it is a peninsula. Peninsular Halifax protrudes out from the Bedford Basin into the greater harbour. To the west, a thin strip of water known as the North West Arm separates it from Spryfield and the Purcell’s Cove Road area – the “mainland”.

There are no connections over the North West Arm between peninsular Halifax and the mainland – one must travel to where the land connects – at the Rotary – to get anywhere along the western shores of the Arm – a relatively far distance to travel to somewhere that is not too far away, as the crow flies, or the car drives.

Halifax cognitive-01

The consequences of this on the city’s collective cognitive geography is enormous. With no connections, the mainland seems incredibly far away, more like the map pictured above. The mainland is also fairly undeveloped — it remains largely forested, and, along Purcell’s Cove road you can access William’s Lake, and Tea Lake, some of Halifax-area’s most beloved swimming spots.

Halifax with Harbour Drive-01

In the 1960s, an ambitious highway plan would have seen the extension of a highway-like Barrington Street through the downtown, around Point Pleasant Park, and over to the mainland, as roughly pictured in the map above.

The plan, known as Harbour Drive, was never realized, and the highway-zation of Barrington stopped at the Cogswell Interchange.

I often think that the consequences of a built Harbour Drive on our relationship with Halifax would have been profound. Instead of thinking about Halifax-proper as an isolated peninsula, it would form a larger whole, and my life would probably be more integrated into the paths and projects associated with the Spryfield and Purcell’s Cove area.

But while thinking this, I also correct myself because if Harbour Drive was built, it would have been a gross super-highway, leading to the development of Fairview-  & Dartmouth-style suburbs that I would never have any reason to go to – there would undoubtedly be a deficiency of a public realm and walkable, public space.

Since Harbour Drive was never built,  beautiful forests remain.

Halifax with pedestrian bridges-01

It is pity, though, that the mainland seems so far from my life, when it’s actually so close.

It would be so lovely, if pedestrian bridges stretched, across the North West Arm, as pictured above, connecting Halifax and the Mainland –  between the end of South Street and Dingle Park, Point Pleasant Park and Purcell’s Cove. It would bring the forest, the lakes, and the fine air of the mainland closer to our lives, in a lovely, healthy way.

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).


Cross-posted from Spacing Atlantic

HALIFAX – For those who haven’t been scrutinizing the urban landscape for the last few years, the appearance of a centuries’-old house, stilted and shunted to the edge of the parking lot across from the Trident Cafe, must be a mighty strange site.

Having survived the demolition of the neighbouring Victoria Apartments in 2009, the Morris House has since found refuge on an adjacent parcel of land.

Spacing Atlantic reported extensively on the loss of the Victoria Apartments, a beautiful heritage property that has connections with the Morris family, the first and only Chief Surveyors of Nova Scotia. In its later years, the Apartments were a hub for musicians and artists and one of the last vestiges of affordable housing in the city’s South End.

An emotional affair, crowds gathered to share the Victoria Apartments’ final moments.

The historic Morris House, the second oldest wood structure in HRM, seems to have been dormant in the years since its rescue from the bulldozer. But appearances are deceiving, and over the last three years a buzz of activity has been surrounding the Morris House, its preservation and its future.

Since they saved the house in 2009, a Joint Action Committee comprised of the Ecology Action CentreHeritage Trust of Nova ScotiaMetro Transit Non Profit Housing Association, and the ARK have been busy preparing for the Morris House’s next life.

It took some time, but the donation of a lot at the south west corner of Creighton and Charles Streets in the North End secured the Morris House’s fate. When it’s moved in early 2013, the Morris House will be expanded and developed as (energy efficient) affordable housing  for nine young adults.

A rendering of the Morris House’s new home, at Creighton and Charles Streets, with an addition still in the design phase

The project is a beautiful mix of elements that would make any local urbanist melt: the preservation of the city’s heritage built environment, the marriage of old and new architectural styles, adaptive reuse of recycled building materials, the provision of affordable housing, and the monumental filling of one of Halifax’s infamous vacant lots.

It’s no wonder the Morris House has been the subject of countless academic and art projects. (Its allure most recently attracted Anna Sprague, who surrounded the house with whimsical white balloons for Nocturne 2012.) Since it was rescued in 2009, the sight of the lonely house has embodied a powerful energy, it’s back turned to the street it used to be an intimate part of.

There’s something captivating about the persistence of the Morris House, its insistence that it continue to be a conspicuous member of the cast of characters that make up Halifax’s built environment. There will also be something magical about witnessing the historic house sail three kilometers through the streets of Halifax when it is moved to its new home in the North End early next year.

With these qualities, the Morris House project is capable of catalyzing a deep conversation about affordable housing and inclusivity in Halifax, a conversation we desperately need to have. The project is also a dramatic testament to the idea that the “greenest building is the one still standing”.

In efforts to raise funds for moving the house, an Indiegogo campaign has been set up. The house is scheduled to move in early January. 2013. Check out the Morris House website for updates and more information.

Check out the map your Urban Geographer recently had published in the Dalhousie Gazette.

The map was featured in a November 16 story about some amazing adventures and places to explore all accessible by Metro Transit bus!

➷➷➷ ::: CHECK IT OUT::: ➷➷➷

And exhausted from the same ol’ commute on the 52 Crosstown to Burnside, I know where I’m headed on my next day off – a bus-based adventure on the 51 to Shannon Park!

DISCLAIMER::::THIS MAY NOT HAPPEN

Exciting news, dear readers!

All this while, as your Urban Geographer, I’ve been thinkin’ bout the urban landscape – it turns out I’ve been shaping the urban landscape too!

That’s right, loyal followers. I am excited to announce that in a to-be-determined future date, my photo will become Sackville, New Brunsick’s highway sign!

The highway sign currently looks like this (credit to google street view, as usual)  :::::::::::::::::::::

And will soon be transformed to this image, featured below (in low res), originally appearing in a post from last summer. The photo’s rights-to-use have been formally purchased by the Town of Sackville.

The photo is of bright August day in 2011, when Sackville’s main thoroughfare, Bridge Street was transformed to indie-rock paradise by the annual SappyFest. On a journalistic bend for an upcoming Spacing Atlantic article, I climbed the roof of Tidewater books for this sweet-summer aerial view.

I am grateful that the Town of Sackville got in touch with me to use the image – my respect to this special place deepens, my connection to it expands. I am also thoroughly happy to be an official, paid-Urban Geographer, and take with that the great responsibility it brings.

See you on the highway!

In mid-July, my brother and I wandered through the streets of Halifax in search of the Linden – a beautiful tree that blossoms for a few precious weeks in midsummer.

I had previously known the tree only by its scent – a subtle but intoxicating sweetness that accompanies long, shimmering days in the heat of summer.

We were harvesting the Linden’s flower in bulk to dry for tea. Linden flower tea is a potent sedative that regulates blood pressure, helps with digestion and eases anxiety. We were especially keen to haul in a large harvest to meet our needs for the Evolve Tea Hive  later that month.

With black shopping bags, my brother and I headed North by-bike to search for the tree. He had made note of some Lindens in the area in his previous days’ travels, and those would be our starting points.

As I’m of the city, I’m not usually aware of the species of trees in the urban forest. With a quick description of the Linden tree and its characteristics from my brother (who was enrolled in a year-long class in herbalism at the time), my senses quickly shifted from a typical city-vocabulary of sidewalks and pavement, to one rooted in the world of the Linden tree.

Wildcrafting our way North, the logic of the Linden suddenly became the city’s dominant organizing principle. Halifax’s streets started making more sense to me based on their orientation to the sun, the age of their vegetation’s growth. It became increasingly easy to spot where a Linden tree would be – in full bloom it is a golden bouquet, its scent hard to miss.

Biking farther North to the Hydrostone neighbourhood, the warm July wind and delicious Linden aroma fueled my brother and I, keeping us happy and motivated.

Once we hit Duffus Street, the Linden trees stopped appearing. We had found a Halifax tree line:  once fashionable, the Linden tree had fallen out of favour in the planting of Halifax’s relatively newer northern suburbs, and was absent from their landscapes.

On this cold November evening, it warms me to think of this sweet time had with my brother last July; guided by the delicious golden currents of the Linden flower, this is when I learned to read the city from the trees’ perspective.

Leading image is a silkscreen print by your Urban Geographer of the Linden flower – it grows an extra leaf with it’s blossom that is essential to its potency when harvested. 

There’s a juncture in Toronto – in time and space.

It lies at an edge between the Distillery District, and the yet to be built West Donlands neighbourhood.

Last I was there, gazing east from a tight alley of the Distillery, there was nothingness – a chasm of sight and potential. The tight and built up form of the Distillery dramatically gave way to emptiness at Cherry Street, emphasizing the extreme juxtapositions possible in an urban environment – the logic, and on the other hand randomness of fate in the city, where a street, rational and straight, becomes the definite border between two distinct Places.

Knowing of the West Donlands neighbourhood and its scope, I would look at this gap at Tankhouse Alley and Cherry Street with a feeling of awe, aware of the inevitable explosion of city that will soon burst out of this empty chasm, blooming into a city, full and real.

From afar, I can’t tell but for dispatches from travelling friends, that the new neighbourhood to the East is already being built up;  the drama of the edge-space is becoming less intense. Soon, but for the obvious differences in ages of the buildings to the east and west of Cherry street, the rip will be sewed tightly shut – and the urban fabric will be expanded into a continuous expanse of city. With time, the border will become less distinct, fading into the linkages that will inevitably be forged between one side and the other.

Looking into the past by virtue of Google Street view has allowed me to capture this rift, compensating for my lack of photo-documentation when I should have…

UPDATE: Going through old photos, while I was bored today at the Archives, I discovered that I indeed captured this Distillery edge space last year, during my September Toronto stint! A cunning Urban Geographer never lets an intriguing cityscape go uncaptured:

The red-bricked path way tapers off into a chasm of nothingness – this tear in the urban fabric will soon be sewn, and a continuous cityscape will fill the current gap.

It’s my first time in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the Autumn – a new experience of a season, in a new place. New rhythms to adjust to, a new progression from lightness to dark to hone in on, a new pace of seasonal decay.

Biking to and from work today, at the twin magic hours of early-morning and pre-dusk – I deeply felt this juncture of my life of new seasonal rhythms, and felt it close, in the quality of light.

How beautiful it is here, on a sunny day in the Fall! A golden quality highlighted a deep blue in the sky, a deep green in the flora, crisp and warm.

I had a neat experience of geognitive dissonance the weekend before last, when I visited by former city-of-residence Montreal, along with many many other people from Halifax.

On Sunday afternoon, I was delighted to find that the visionary producers of Pop Montreal, and local Mile-End public space advocates and super group RuePublique, planned the final day of the fantastic music and arts festival to coincide with Les Bons Voisins de St Viateur, the annual St Viateur Street fair. Providing all-afternoon free shows on the street, Pop Montreal also had its Puces Pop event in the basement of a church directly fronting the fair. The result was a constant flow of people throughout the day, enjoying the street-hangs, slowly filtering through the church doors to enjoy the dense display of crafts on offer.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the Black Street block party only one week earlier in Halifax, I was psyched to get a dose of some Montreal same-same but different. Though entirely different from the residential, leafy neighbourhood times of the Black Street block party, Mile End’s St. Viateur festival was Montreal’s gritty urban iteration of the same culture of the do it yourself, for yourself spirit, and take-back-the-streets attitude.

Several blocks were closed to cars, and the commercial high street yielded to small-job booths of crafters, free bike repair, and food stands by and for neighbours. Both Black and St Viateur festivals rejected corporate aesthetics, favouring the small scale and the scrappy. A successful intervention on the street was the laying of sod — inviting passersby to lie down in the middle of the street, reclining in repose, fulfilling the essence of the Montreal hang in an atypical mid-street locale. A characteristically grey but sunny autumnal day enveloped the hangs, and highlighted the beauty of St Viateur’s built form.

Scrappy DIY art-projects on St Viateur (courtesy of RuePublique Facebook group)

Midday I found myself on a picnic table in front of a brick building at the St Viateur street fest’s mid-point. I was in good company, joined by a few friends I’ve met in Halifax, laughing and reminiscing about nights’ passed. Contently, I looked around to marvel at the delightful street scene, quickly realizing that about 40 people surrounding me were from Halifax, or connected to the city in some way. I tuned into the sound beginning to pour from the nearby bandstand, and started to bopping my head to familiar tunes from Halifax’s Old and Weird. The picnic table, the closed off street, the brick buildings framing the scene, the people surrounding me, and the music narrating it all — the scene was an exact reproduction of SappyFest, an indie rock festival in Sackville New Brunswick, that similarly attracts droves from Halifax, only in this instance, it was several months later and several hundred kilometres further west.

Compare this Montreal Mile End street scene…

to a similar scene in Sackville, New Brunswick

A head-ache, it was – a veritable space-warp. Here was a social network I directly associate with a specific place – Halifax (and including Sackville, the Martime region, I guess) – transposed onto another city, a city that I associate with an entirely different social network to boot.

Pure geognitive dissonance.