Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Photo: Layers

A heavily postered wall on Harbord Street in Toronto reveals a layered history.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Four Days in Montreal

I got back last night from four days (well, three and a half if you subtract bus travel time) in Montreal. This was not the first time I had been to the city, but I noticed a lot of new stuff since I was last there for two weeks in the summer of 2007. Namely, more and better public spaces, changes to the street system, and perhaps most drastically, the addition of the Bixi bike share program and a slew of amazing separated bike lanes.


The above picture is Rue St. Catherine, which is one of the main drags in downtown Montreal, spanning the gay village, the Place des Arts, and the major shopping street. The city is undertaking a massive change in tone to the streetscape along certain stretches by taking out the curbs that separated cars from pedestrians and laying the whole road in the same material. Although only parts were open, it's already obvious that this changes how the street feels entirely. Given that when I was there in 2007 for the jazz festival this street was the one closed off for the largest outdoor stage, it only makes sense to be able to create a space that converts easily between road and pedestrian plaza.

This is another section of Rue St. Catherine in the gay village. For multiple blocks beginning at Rue Berri the street has been shut to car traffic from May until September in order to create a pedestrian street where the many bars and restaurants in the area are able to extend their patios. The result is an amazingly vibrant area filled with all sorts of people. We drank many a beer and people-watched along this strip, as it was busy even late into weekday nights.

Montrealers seem to love their patios (who doesn't, actually?) and examples abound all over the downtown. Sometimes it's just a few tables and chairs out on the street and sometimes it's more formal, like in the above picture. While it makes walking the crowded streets sometimes difficult, it definitely adds to the atmosphere and makes for a more interesting walking experience. Plus, you get to see what everyone is eating.

Public Space

Montreal's waterfront, while still littered with industrial remnants, has some really great spots with wide walking and biking promenades and plenty of green space to sit. However, it didn't really feel all that coherent to me, meaning that as I walked along the waterfront there wasn't a sense of unity between all the different pieces. There were a few gems, though, like the small pond/canal featured above.

The area around Place des Arts, where much of the jazz festival takes place, has really bloomed with public spaces since I was there last. There are a lot of plazas, including the one above with some cool water spurts that glow different colours at night. The area consists of a bunch of medium to large-sized public spaces, some with grass, but most with hard surfaces, that all connect up to each other. My other favourite, which I didn't manage to get a picture of, was a grassy field with a strip of sidewalk down the middle that oozed water vapour that was lit up different colours at night. Biking through the fog was a good way to cool down on a hot day.

Here's a strange piece of public art on Rue St. Catherine. The letters looked randomly placed until you stood in the right spot and they coalesced into a sentence. If only I knew French.

And of course there is the square at the Berri-UQAM subway station that turns up in many a tourist photo of Montreal. This square has a sloping grassy hill complete with water features and a hard surface plaza on which you can play oversized chess. At night they moved in a giant movie screen and played Persepolis while a truck nearby handed out free food to those who needed it.


I only took the (bouncy--it has tires!) subway system once in Montreal. The rest of the time I was on a Bixi bike or walking. Twelve dollars bought a three-day subscription to the system, and, with the amazing and connected separated lane network, I could get virtually anywhere I wanted in the city without feeling squeezed by traffic. There was a Bixi station on almost every block, so we didn't have to worry when we went somewhere about where to park. It seemed like every third bike that road by (and a lot of people ride bikes in Montreal) was a Bixi bike.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

It's All in the Details for Vancouver's Sea Wall

(This article originally appeared on OpenCity on August 17, 2011)

Vancouver has always been good at paying attention to the smaller design details that work to make up the larger picture. A walk along the lengthy, winding and continuous seawall that envelopes the downtown core and parts of False Creek is a lesson in details, with well-designed street furniture, beautifully landscaped parks, scatterings of public art, and a thoughtfully integrated system for both pedestrians and cyclists. It’s often said that Vancouver is a city that lives on its edges, and the seawall definitely helps propagate that.

On this particular trip, I was interested in checking out the new portion of the seawall at the site of the Olympic Village neighbourhood (now just called The Village). The area had been under construction for several years and then cordoned off during the Olympics, so I hadn’t gotten much of a chance to wander around the completed site. The stretch of the seawall along the neighbourhood is some of the best in the city, and, with the proximity to the mid-rise buildings that make up the Village, one that exudes the most urban feeling.

The thing that makes this portion of the seawall so charming is the attention to different details and how they all creatively fit together. Several different materials are used from wooden planks to grass to interlocking brick to sand to granite. The combinations create an interesting and ever-changing texture as you move from one portion to another, allowing also for different levels and separations between uses (lounging, cycling, walking).

The street furniture is comfortable and also ingeniously playful. For example, the metal chairs positioned on the board walk itself are rooted to a pole that allows the chair to spin in circles, so you can face whichever direction you want (or, if you’re me, spin around so fast you make yourself sick). And the street furniture ranges from single chairs, to benches with backs, to benches without backs, to stone blocks. The true accomplishment is how much variety is found without the space feeling disorganized or cluttered.

My favourite example of creativity is found in the long, wooden wave decks about one metre across that dipped every so often to create the perfect spot to fit a reclining body. We’re so accustomed these days to seeing street furniture that seems like it was designed so that no one would want to sit or lie down on it for very long, so it’s refreshing to come across something obviously made for people to be comfortable and enjoy themselves. Imagine that.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Summer Streets Gets New York Moving

(This article originally appeared on Spacing Toronto, August 15, 2011)

On my recent trip to New York I found myself walking Broadway on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, negotiating the sidewalk amidst hordes of people and attempting to stay out of the way of what I have come to think fondly of as the dance between New York’s homicidal drivers and its suicidal pedestrians and cyclists.

So it was with much relief that my travelling partner and I stumbled upon the fourth annual Summer Streets, a Saturday shut down of Park Avenue and connecting streets between Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park (roughly the equivalent distance of shutting down Yonge St from Front St all the way to Eglinton Ave). As a Streetsblog NYC video shows, shutting cars from the street allows for cyclists, pedestrians, joggers, rollerbladers, and parents with children from all over the city and the surrounding area to flood out into the normally hectic street and enjoy themselves.

We rented—if you can call a free rental a rental—bikes and suddenly the open road was ours for the next hour (if we didn’t bring back the bikes in an hour they charged our credit card one dollar per minute. Ouch).

There are five rest stops along the route where, if you are so inclined, you can partake in activities like the “Belly, Butt, and Thigh Workout” or “Barefoot Running” or “Salsa Lessons”. Since we only had an hour before we began to lose our lunch money with each late minute, we zoomed past these rest stops, which were packed with people and music.

Many cross streets were also shut down, but since the stretch of closed roadway cut through so much of lower Manhatten, a few remained open to allow traffic through. There were volunteers at each of these crossings holding Stop/Go signs as well as traffic police posted to make sure cyclists and pedestrian didn’t accidentally coast through. It might have been the only time in New York that I saw cyclists stop for red lights. Or drivers and pedestrians, actually. The only thing crazier than New York cyclists are New York drivers and New York pedestrians.

After the experience of New York’s famously clogged streets, it was amazing to fly down this wide road with thousands of other cyclists. This was a great way to see a large swath of New York and experience the city in a way that is impossible on a regular basis. As we made our way through the elevated roadway around Grand Central Station, we were treated to a view of the normally busy New York streets.

Could we do this in Toronto? When I moved to Toronto, I was immediately impressed with the amount of street shut downs in the summer for street festivals, but would the city be so keen on shutting down multiple kilometres of central roadway so people could ride their bikes and walk?

Spurred on by Bogotá's Ciclovía, these car-free events have been popping up all over the world. Vancouver is attempting their version of this with LiveStreets, which sees eight kilometres of roadway shut down to cars from Kitsilano to Commercial Drive through the downtown core. Not only does this encourage people who may be too timid to get on their bike and ride, but it shows a different kind of possible city, one that gives space back to people.

I went back to Park Avenue a few days later. It was filled with cars, the pedestrians all crammed onto the sidewalks. I saw few cyclists. The air was filled with the sounds of honking.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Walking New York's High Line Park

I know, I know. The High Line, right? So sick of hearing about it. Or, maybe you're not. Maybe you're like that one person I met on my recent trip to New York that had never heard of it. A New Yorker that hadn't heard of the High Line. Kind of like a Torontonian that hadn't heard of the CN Tower. I kind of wanted to slap him.

However, I'm going to assume you've heard of it and don't want to read something else that talks about its innovative reuse of old infrastructure and blah blah blah. I'm just going to show you some pretty pictures.

I walked the High Line twice on my trip, and, if it were legal, I would live there. I wanted to fold it all up, accordion-style, and bring it back to Toronto with me. But then I realized that once unfolded here in Toronto, Rob Ford would probably pave over all the grass and turn it into an elevated highway. Best it stays in New York for now.

As 30 Rock's Liz Lemon so aptly puts it: "I want to go to there."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Photo: TTC Completion Date Accountability Tagger

Just a friendly reminder from an apparently disgruntled Spadina Station TTC rider.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sherbourne Common, Nightclub Edition

It's official. I love Sherbourne Common.

While the park is sure a beaut' of a public space during the day--with its whimsical play equipment, water canals, splash pad, and groundhog sitings--it turns into a whole other beast at night when coloured lights play off the falling water of Jill Anholt's sculptures. Some of the lights even change from blue to green when you walk past them. For a full review of the new waterfront park, check out my article on Torontoist.

Here's a few pictures I took when I was there last night to wet your whistle.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Executive Committee's Game

(this post originally appeared on Torontoist. July 30, 2011)

Remember back in elementary school, when a group of kids would invite you to come play a game with them, explain all the rules, but then, as the game went on, continuously change the rules so the outcome would inevitably be that they won? It was an exercise in frustration and futility. No matter what you did or how much you tried to play by their rules, the outcome was always the same.

This was what came to mind yesterday, watching the Executive Committee as they held their marathon meeting that lasted almost 24 hours as Mayor Ford & Co. heard from, according to the Toronto Star’s count, 169 out of the 344 citizens who had signed up to speak about the core service review done by KPMG. The narrative that Ford & Co. attempted to construct—that the people coming to speak were all from labour and special interest groups—was refuted time and time again as people from all backgrounds and wards came to speak (including the now famous yelly granny from North York).

That the meeting lasted continuously until there were no more people left to speak was no accident, nor was it necessary. The meeting could have been capped at a certain time of night and then reconvened again Friday morning. This would have allowed more people, many of whom were probably unable to spend their wee hours of the night sitting and waiting to be called upon, to participate. This was an intentional move to limit the amount of engagement and discourage those wanting to speak from actually doing so.

There was also the motion Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) put forward to limit speaking times from the usual five minutes down to three minutes. This motion passed easily, with Ford voting in favour, even though he had earlier said that everyone would get five minutes to speak. Hours later, a motion to cut speaking time for councillors from two minutes to one minute failed in a tie, but then Councillor David Shiner (Ward 24, Willowdale), who had been absent during the vote, walked back in and was allowed to vote late, thus allowing the motion to pass. Presto, change-o.

Then there was the one-minute chant of “save our libraries” during head of library workers' union Maureen O’Reilly's deputation, after which Mammoliti exclaimed that if this happened again he would move a motion to end the meeting and hear no more deputations. Ford agreed, saying: "If a councillor moves a motion to end this meeting, it's over. I am being very democratic. I'm being more than fair." You expected him afterwards to look around the table at all the committee members, saying: Anyone? Anyone want to move that motion? No? Damn.

Or there was Ford, pressing the button to start a speaker's time before they got to the table, or moving down the list so quickly that speakers who were seated in overflow rooms couldn’t get there fast enough.

This kind of dirty game–playing behavior is not limited, however, to just this one Executive Committee meeting — it has permeated Ford & Co.'s entire term so far. (Think the behind-the-back motion to kill the Jarvis bike lanes that sprung out of nowhere and without consultation with the councillor in whose ward that bike lane is located.)

But let’s just remember for a moment why it was that those kids we knew, way back when, changed all the rules during the game. The reason was to give themselves an advantage. And the reason that someone would want to give themselves an advantage was because they were afraid of losing.

What usually happens with children who continuously change the rules to allow themselves to win in a game is that, eventually, no one wants to play with them anymore. Or, in more political terms, they’re voted out of office.