Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How Walkable is Your Neighbourhood?

Yesterday, I stumbled upon a website that uses your address and calculates how walkable your neighbourhood is based on (surprise!) how often you would need a car for basic amenities. The score ranges from 100 (very walkable) to 0 (car dependent). Chances are you already know a bit how walkable your neighbourhood is so there probably won't be any real surprises here, but it's cool to see how your high or low your address scores. Even just for bragging rights.

My new apartment on the corner of Bloor and Spadina in downtown Toronto scores a 98%, leaving me with one of the highest. I'm not surprised by this score at all considering that to do most of my shopping I don't even need to cross a street and there is a subway entrance practically in my back alleyway that connects to two lines. Basically, it's the most convenient place I've ever lived, with the only negative being that I now view walking 2 blocks to get something as 'far away'.

My old place in Vancouver near East 8th and Grandview highway, gets a pretty good score of 89%, while my childhood home in White Rock, BC gets a resoundingly car-dependent 45% (something I knew all to well while growing up). This is a bit lower than the average score, which is a pretty deplorable 49%. Although, it would be interesting to see how much that average score changes if you only looked at urban areas or only at suburban.

Since I don't own a car and haven't driven since I was 18 years old, how easy a place is to walk, bike or use transit is pretty high on my list when looking for new digs. This website should help those that are planning to move and want to know how convenient the location is.

Here's a list, according to of what makes a neighbourhood walkable:

  • A center: Walkable neighborhoods have a center, whether it's a main street or a public space.
  • People: Enough people for businesses to flourish and for public transit to run frequently.
  • Mixed income, mixed use: Affordable housing located near businesses.
  • Parks and public space: Plenty of public places to gather and play.
  • Pedestrian design: Buildings are close to the street, parking lots are relegated to the back.
  • Schools and workplaces: Close enough that most residents can walk from their homes.
  • Complete streets: Streets designed for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Vomitorium: Fact or Fiction

Today I was sitting my wing back armchair reading Lewis Mumford's The City in History and generally pretending to be scholarly when I came across a section in Mr. Mumford's book describing the Roman vomitorium: the a room where gluttonous Romans went to purge themselves so they could eat even more. Say what?

After hours of studious research at the local public library (OK, fine, a two second search on wikipedia), I uncovered the shocking truth: Lewis Mumford was wrong. And there are even whole papers written about it from the American Philological Association. Apparently, although Romans did occasional vomit after a meal (and really, who hasn't?), the vomitorium as Mumford describes them did not exist.

But that doesn't mean the word doesn't mean anything. Vomitoria are passages built into theatres that allow spectators to "spew" out after a performance. I've seen instances of these not necessarily at modern theatres, but at large sports stadiums. I just never knew they had such a crude and awesome name.

This whole exchange leaves me pondering how easy it is to disseminate and multiply incorrect historical information. And also how disappointing it can be sometimes to learn the truth.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Street as Sidewalk

One of the things about living on a busy street in a downtown neighbourhood is that there are always people outside. I have gotten used to opening my front door and being immediately caught up in a stream of people on the sidewalk; however, I was unprepared today when I went out to buy cat food and stepped right into what was a fairly robust street festival.

It's always a bit strange when you see a street, usually reserved solely for cars, taken over by hordes of pedestrians and sticky-fingered children. For one, I got a perspective of my street that I have never seen before: right down the middle. It's a view of the road only seen from those in cars or those navigating Google's street view. Normally, as bipeds, we aren't treated to this perfectly symmetrical cleaving of our streets, having to choose one side or the other to walk on, and it's quite pleasing to the eye to be able to stare right down the middle to the vanishing point.

It's funny, too, that when the streets are closed to cars people still tend to gravitate toward the sidewalks. It's as if streets have some intrinsic centrifugal force that spin the pedestrians out towards the edges. The thing is: people like order. We like knowing that on escalators you stand right and walk left. And street closures, by definition not-ordinary, upset this order. They're chaotic. People bump into each other not because they work against the stream, but because there is no stream. There's just a bunch of people walking. Slowly.

And I like interacting with the street in a way that I normally can't. It's a good reminder that streets don't simply have to be a way to get around, but can be a place to gather. I never realized how fast I walked down the sidewalk until today, when, as I slowly made my way down the five closed blocks, I actually noticed buildings I hadn't even seen before. Usually, I'm in search of a can of beans for dinner, powering through slow-walkers and dreaming of having my own personal jet pack. Or at least wider sidewalks.

I went out later as the festival was in take-down mode. Vans, cars, and trucks wound their way slowly through the stragglers on their way to be loaded up with disassembled tents and BBQs. Seeing your street closed to cars is kind of like seeing someone naked for the first time. I'm not sure if I'll be able to look at it quite the same way again.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Sexy Skyscrapers

It was a few days ago that I stumbled upon the designs for an in-progress condo complex in Mississauga, Ontario (pictured to the left). Dubbed the "Marilyn Monroe" buildings (actual name: Absolute), these voluptuous towers will be the tallest on the skyline for that region.

It's strange to think of a building as sexy, curvaceous, something with junk in its trunk, but it's hard to deny that these towers radiate a certain come-hither coyness. The design is almost bashful, as if the building is at once beckoning you and pulling away.

It leads me to wonder how something that seems as human-centric as "sexy" can be applied to inanimate and synthetic products--everything from vehicles to buildings to Apple computers to LCD TV screens--and what the criteria is for a sexiness in our objects.

The obvious candidate when speaking about man-made products with sex appeal is the car. Cars, with their gleaming, buffed, and curvy exteriors and their slinky, padded and form-fitting interiors seem ripe for the infusion of sex appeal. It could be a cultural thing sure, but I think might be something more to it than that.

I don't own a car, haven't driven since I was 18, and feel myself far removed from anything remotely resembling car culture, and yet when someone points to a Porsche parked on the street and describes it as "sexy" I can understand what they're talking about. Strangely, it is kind of sexy.

That the Absolute condos have been likened to Marilyn Monroe is telling. There's something about the design of them that makes you kind of want to run your hands down the length of the building. We enjoy shiny to dull, curvaceous to angular, fluid to broken, slick to marbled. But not every object with curves and busts elicits this same sexiness. A Coca-Cola bottle, for example, with its hourglass figure doesn't really seem all that sexy.

I suppose the natural endpoint to all of this would be the day when these objects cease to simply have sex appeal and become sex objects themselves--like Real Dolls, those life-size synthetic humans that exist to satisfy sexual needs. This is the ultimate culmination of the object as sex, but does it have to be limited to only dolls?

Maybe we'll see a blurring, when the distinction between objects described as "sexy" and sex objects themselves disappears. The day that drivers have relationships with their cars, take their laptops out on dates, buy their new wine glasses a drink. Perhaps one day, far in the future, some hormone-laced adolescent will look up at the Absolute condos and fall in love for the first time.