Sunday, December 19, 2010

Street Art is for the Birds

I came across some cute street art in the alley just off Borden south of Bloor Street of what appears to be a city of yellow birds hanging out their laundry. I could be mistaken, but it looks pretty new. The alley is filled with all kinds of graffiti, particularly on the side of the Tranzac, but this stuff stood out. It's amazing how much some well thought out painting can turn what is usually an unpleasant space into something cool that you want to explore.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Richmond Street Gets a New Sidewalk

When I first started working in the 401 Richmond building at the corner of Richmond and Spadina I was surprised to find that the stretch of Richmond between Spadina and Peter had a sidewalk only on the north side of the street. Not only was there no real sidewalk, but drivers on the one-way Richmond street would zoom down the road as if it was some sort of urban highway. So I was happy when we got the notice that the City was going to be constructing a sidewalk starting in September. That sidewalk is now pretty much finished. And it's amazing what it has done to the experience of walking that one block. The experience has been documented by a blog operated by Urban Space, the property group that owns 401 Richmond.
Not only was it annoying to have a full sidewalk only on one side of the street, but the big mostly blank wall of the 401 Richmond building coupled with the not so interesting facade on the north side of the street made for an unpleasant experience dodging hidden driveways and attempting to walk the block as quickly as possible. Basically, the road wasn't stroll-worthy. It was a way to get somewhere, but nothing else.

The introduction of not only a fairly wide sidewalk but also street trees (and lights I think to come as well as bike parking hopefully) has done amazing things to the feel of the street. What was once a stretch of barren, car dominated road now has the potential to be a pleasant experience. Not only that, but I'm willing to bet that simply the presence of pedestrians walking on a legitimate sidewalk will slow the drivers down coming around that curve. Suddenly, it's not just a place for cars, but people too.

The above pictures shows the sidewalk under construction. The drainage grate line is the previous sidewalk edge and shows how much the space was widened when the parking was removed.

A recent fire alarm at 401 Richmond demonstrated the usefulness of the new sidewalk when fire trucks pulled up against it and people used the now increased pedestrian space to gather and wait.

I can't wait to see what the street looks like in the Spring when the trees start to bud. Next up for Richmond Street? Separated bike lanes perhaps? Hopefully? Maybe?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Photo: Highway Loop-de-Loop

This image might be super old in internetland (2 years), but I just came across it in a Google search and thought it was nifty. It seems to be attributed to NL Architects in the Netherlands. If Robert Moses had been a little more creative, this is what we might have got.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Toronto Needs More Contra Flow Bike Lanes

One of the first things I had to get used to when riding my bike around Toronto after moving here from Vancouver was all the one-way streets. I now live in the Annex and am entirely surrounded by roads that switch one-way directions seemingly every block. For the first two weeks I lived in Toronto, while I was walking everywhere and waiting for my bike to arrive (I shipped it here), I thought these switched-up one-way streets were a great idea for traffic calming on what are mostly residential streets.

And then my bike arrived.

Attempting to be the law-abiding bike rider, I went out of my way to follow the one-way street system as much as possible. But here's the thing: If the City of Toronto refuses to put in decent bike lanes on heavily used and often pot-holed filled arterial roads (Spadina, Bathurst, Bloor, Bay, etc) so that novice/nervous cyclist can feel safe, then they need to rectify the one-way street problem for cyclists because that's where they are being pushed. I'm comfortable riding on busy streets, but many are not. Cyclists are told basically that the main roads are not for them, but then the infrastructure isn't there on the minor roads (and there aren't enough Harbord Streets in the city yet to provide an alternative).

There is a fix to the one-way street problem in Toronto and that's the use of contra flow bike lanes. These are bike lanes that run specifically on one-way streets that allow the bike a designated spot to travel in the opposite direction of car travel. I have used one in the city already (but I know there are others, so please point them out), which is on Strathcona Ave just east of Withrow Park. I know this has been a dialogue in the city long before I moved here in May 2010. A quick google search turned up tons of posts on sites like Biking Toronto, Urban Toronto, and Spacing that dealt with the subject.

As it stands right now, no cyclist in Toronto really takes the one-way streets seriously. Including me. And I tried. I really did. I know that probably pisses a lot of drivers off under the banner of the "lawless cyclist" diatribe, but here's the other thing: bikes and cars should not be treated as the same.

Contra flow lanes recognize the different needs and safety concerns of riding a bicycle versus driving a car. The one-way street system in Toronto's residential roads was created for traffic calming, so cars didn't use the streets as speedways to bypass the arterial roads. Bikes don't create the same problem cars did on these roads. They're not as fast, as dangerous for children playing, and they aren't loud and polluting (unless your the kind of cyclist that smokes and swears while riding).

So yes, bicycles and cars are similar in that they are both road users. But it's naive and overly simplistic to say that all laws and rules applying to cars should similarly be applied to bikes without any thought as to the very different nature of safety needs for each. The 4-way stop is another example. Places, like Idaho, have, recognizing the different needs of the cyclist, instituted "rolling stops" where cyclists treat stop signs as yield signs, slowing down and if the coast is clear continuing through the intersection.

Installing contra flow bike lanes on specific routes will legitimate a practice that is already happening in the city and allow it to continue in a safer manner. And drivers should remember that, as I've written elsewhere, bicycle infrastructure is good for cars, too. Delineating between road space for bikes and road space for cars takes a lot of the uncertainty out of the picture. Those crazy cyclists have their own space.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Make Vancouver's Robson Square a Real Square

Vancouver's best public spaces have always happened around its edges, as if some invisible centrifugal force were at play in the city, spinning all the residents to the sea wall. Don't get me wrong, the sea wall is magnificent. It's a gem of which Vancouver should be proud. But as a public space it has to be acknowledged that the sea wall is primarly a linear, moving strip. People walk the sea wall. They bike. They rollerblade. They jog. In other words, they move.

What Vancouver needs, and what was shown to be a great success during the Olympics, is a permanent central square. A place where citizens and visitors alike can sit and take in the bustle of the city. A central spot to meet, eat your lunch, read a book. The Vancouver Public Space Network recognized this need when they held their Where's the Square contest, calling on Vancouverites to rethink the city's potential.

During the Olympics, the redesigned Robson Square showcased this potential. The short block between Hornby and Howe, hemmed in on each side by the courthouse and the art gallery, was closed in order to allow thousands of people to congregate. As the Vancouver Public Space Network points out, the time is right for this area to remain closed. The section of the road in question has been closed for awhile for construction and Councillor Suzanne Anton has put forward a motion to make this closure permanent.

From the very beginning of its life Robson Square, designed by Arthur Erickson, got it backwards. Allowing a road to bisect the space and placing a pedestrian space underneath the street conveys a preference. The preference for cars over people. Literally.

Robson Square needs this portion of the street to stay closed in order to be a successful public space. Its downfall is that the majority of its space is hidden from view. The redesign for the Olympics (read my previous review of it here on Beyond Robson) did much to make this space more comfortable and inviting, but the reality of the situation is that without the closure of the street here the public space remains off the beaten path so to speak, closed off behind bushes or underground.

Much has changed in city planning and design since the original days of Robson Square. We now have car free Sundays where we pedestrianize city streets, and the Olympics saw the closure of many streets to car traffic. There is a longing for these central public spaces in Vancouver and we shouldn't miss the opportunity to make Robson Square into a real square.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Toronto's Very Own Muscle Beach

OK, so not really.

A few weeks ago I walked by Sally Bird Park near the corner of Brunswick and Harbord and noticed something strange inside. Not a bench. Not a fountain. But what appeared to be a bench press and one of those strange running-glider-workout-things. Curious, I investigated further.

During the summer I saw signs up in the park that notified residents that reconstruction and improvements were coming as part of Canada's Economic Action Plan. The money to redo the park is part of the Recreational Infrastructure Canada Program (RInC), with money coming from the municipal, provincial and federal levels.

Apparently, during consultation the public requested, among some safety improvements, that children's playground equipment be replaced with "adult oriented exercise equipment". There was also a request for a "water feature" to draw children to the park, which seems a bit contradictory. Perhaps the water feature is the sweat running off their parents face as they run/glide in place while their children sit and stare at the grass.

Anyway, if you're looking for a place to get in a good work out and then feed some pigeons, look no further than Sally Bird Park.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Picturesque Percy Park Pleasantly Pleases

A few weeks ago I and a few of my school chums were wandering around the area near the future West Don Lands project and stumbled across what appeared to be a park squeezed between an overpass and a bunch of very old buildings. What we had found was Percy Park, which is not even listed as an official park by the City of Toronto (it still shows up as a playground, even though its play equipment is now gone). It was redone in 2006 by Green Force, a show on HGTV about revamping urban spaces.

Here's a before-and-after shot. The 'before' photo is taken from an online community newsletter called The Bulletin and the credit goes to Cindy Wilkey. The 'after' photo is my own.



And just to give you all a sense of how close this park is to the overpass.

This is the little street that terminates in the new Percy Park.

There is some new development near the King St mouth of the street, which attempts to pay homage to the old style Victorian houses, but doesn't quite end up doing it right. There is also now a very ugly concrete mouth of a parking garage entrance at the end of the street.

Go check it out. It's a great example of what could have been a stifled, depressing public space being turned into something really cool. Its location is exactly in the centre of the map above, at the end of Percy street and abutting the Richmond Street overpass.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Photo: Before & After

This advertisement can be found on Bloor St West near Walmer. Apparently if you want to lose all that Photoshop weight you packed on this winter, you can go here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Walk in Nordheimer Ravine Reveals, Among Other Things, a Giant Spider Web

A few days ago, after being holed up in the apartment all day, my Exploring Partner and I decided to check out Nordheimer Ravine, which lies just just south of St. Clair between Avenue Road and Bathurst Street. I have now lived in Toronto for nearly six months and what is great is that I'm still discovering things about this city--things that lie just beyond the boundaries of my apartment within a short walking distance.

Nordheimer Ravine is one of those places where, if I may indulge in a cliche, the city just disappears around you. We entered the ravine off Bolton Drive and immediately were swallowed up by the fiery Autumn colours. For those that lament Toronto flatness, the ravine is a welcome change in topography. It is also the site of one of Toronto's numerous "lost rivers". Castlefrank Brook lies buried beneath.

The path we chose let us out at Sir Winston Churchill Park, which actually sits on top of one of Toronto's water reservoirs. The park seems to be the kind of place that is good for two activities: 1) allowing your dog to romp around with other dogs in the fenced-in off leash area, and 2) running around in circles on its top perimeter. Maybe it's the inevitable onset of winter, or the fact that I haven't lived in a place that gets enough snow to actually do this, but I find myself constantly on the look-out for good places to go sledding once the white stuff drops. The sides of Sir Winston Churchill Park, which slope drastically down into Nordheimer Ravine, look to be the perfect spot to pick up some good speed and not worry about slamming into anything hard at the bottom.

There are a few architecturally grand buildings around, which were done in 1930. I particularly liked the one on the south side. If this had been built today it would be a functional, yet non de-script box, but back then they did things with a bit more flair.

We followed Nordheimer Ravine, where we came upon what appeared to be a subway entrance, but turned out to be an emergency exit. This exit was put to good use in 1995 when a train rear-ended another in the tunnel, trapping people for hours as the temperature rose to over 40 degrees (you can read more here).

Further on, there is another piece of subway infrastructure, this time in the form of a worker entrance/exit. A few bags of garbage labelled TTC were piled at the front and some graffiti was sprayed across its concrete surface. It's unclear whether they are reclaiming this particular area, of if it's a general message to be applied across the city. The shape is kind of interesting, almost like it is welcoming you in with its concrete flippers.

We also, surprise surprise, ran into some yarn-bombing--one of my new favourite forms of street art. This time no nails were put through the tree to hold the yarn (although it appears to be just a dead log). We didn't stick around to find out if there was a similarly sized yarn spider around.

Then the ravine ends, and we were spat back out into Toronto at the site of the St. Clair West subway station. In a city where a lot of natural topographical elements were either shaved off or filled in, it's nice to come across a place like Nordheimer Ravine.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Minor Street Art On Major Street

Today I was walking home from Kensington and came across these cute decals pasted onto the sides of utility poles between College and Ulster on Major. My favourite has got to be the tiger because she just looks so damn majestic.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

9 Observations About Toronto By a Visiting Vancouverite

Recently, I had my friend Robyn from Vancouver come to stay. She was here for a week. Now that I've lived here in Toronto for four months, I was curious to see what an out-of-towner who had never been to Toronto before thought about the city.

Without any further introduction here are Robyn's 9 observations about Toronto:

1. Liquor. Where are all the LCBOs? Apparently there are approximately three locations in the greater Toronto area and if they deign to open on Sunday it is from noon to 1:30pm. Apparently, if you want to have liquor in your home for the weekend it's prudent to start planning three business days prior.

2. Perhaps this is because THERE ARE BARS EVERYWHERE. A bar on every corner! And each with its own individual personality. And the patios! If you want to sit on the patio in Vancouver show up 2 hours in advance or in November.

3. Early 20th century housing. Not being a student of architecture or design I have no idea how to refer to the beautiful Victorian, bay-and-gable and annex type houses that can be found throughout Toronto's neighborhoods. These buildings have been around long enough to see dozens of residents come and go, giving them each their own little history. I imagine that most of them are haunted. Believe me, the ghost of Margaret Atwood will not come to rest in some Concord condo down by the waterfront.

4. I know I just praised your historic buildings, but seriously when was the technology to build bathrooms above basement level invented?

5. Public transit. Your style of transit is confusing to me! I can have a transfer, but only if I swear to continue on in the same cardinal direction at the earliest opportunity. If I should stray even one stop forward the whole deal is off and I have to spend another three dollars. I suppose this is useful if you have to commute to Toronto's outer limits, which I believe are now somewhere around Detroit.

6. ROB FORD. What is this thing? At first I assumed it was a piece of intentionally antagonizing performance art commenting on the encroaching Americanization of the Canadian political landscape. I later came to find out this is a REAL PERSON. Although, unless you are an immigrant, a minority, gay, a woman, under age 45, a cyclist, homeless, use public transit, a city contracted employee, a lefty socialist or Italian his possible win should not affect you.

7. In some circles throughout the rest of Canada, Toronto enjoys a reputation of some super urban, treeless concrete moonscape (city governance is conducted from the belly of an alien ship, after all). This leads me to believe that those commenting spent the entirety of their time in Toronto at the downtown Sheraton and did not once hie themselves to google maps. It seems like every building in the city has a few trees out back, many with fruit ready to pick!

8. Terrifyingly whimsical architecture. The ROM: I think I could actually cut myself on this building. The AGO: I am slowly ascending into the belly of a snail and the snail is full of art. The Sharp Centre for Design: I always wondered how I was going to die and now I know it is crushed from above.

9. And finally, Pizza Pizza. How did this chain become so ubiquitous? I checked wikipedia, and did you know that when in the GTA you are never more than 8 meters from a pizza pizza? Have you considered converting some of those pizza pizzas into liquor liquor stores?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Walking Through Toronto's Laneways with Graeme Parry

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of attending a free walking tour of Toronto's laneways led by Graeme Parry. We met at the corner of Queen and Bathurst and soon the group had amassed to more than 60 people; the largest group for a tour yet, Parry said. The tour took us on a winding route through the graffiti-filled alley just south of Queen West and then north-west up to Dundas and Ossington.

I have always had a bit of a love affair with alleys, jump-started, I think, by an interest in the street art found in Vancouver, a city I explored as a suburban teenager and eventually moved to in 2003. Alleys were always my best bet to get a glimpse of colourful murals and quickly-drawn tags that were too often scrubbed clean from any wall facing a more public area.

Soon, however, I began to appreciate more than just the thriving graffiti in the alleys. There was something else intoxicating about wandering the back-streets of a city. A feeling of being off-the-grid, even though you are very much still on the grid. It's a private space that is still public, quieter and, as this Spacing article points out, less commercial than walking along the street. Alleys can be dirty, filled with garbage, and not well lit, but they also challenge your view of your city, force you to acknowledge the existence of a different part that may not always be displayed or sanctioned.

Vancouver always had a bit of a scrubbed-clean feeling to me -- a toy recently removed from its shrink-wrapped packaging -- and the alleys showed me a different, grittier side to the city. A side much different than the world-class clad-in-glass image Vancouver attempts to portray. Vancouver's alleys, especially in the Downtown Eastside, can be home to sleeping bodies, needles, and drug deals. Once, photographing the graffiti in an alley running parallel to Granville Street I encountered a man smoking crack who identified himself as "Bent Brent" because his arm had been partially severed and reattached at a strange angle. He lifted his t-shirt to show me the scar, then told me to be careful with my camera.

Walking with the tour through Toronto's laneways, we were shown examples of laneway housing, a type of residence being built inside laneways. In cities looking to increase density, it seems a good idea. Vancouver passed a motion allowing laneway housing in 2009 and saw the first opened in 2010. Objections to privacy, access to city utilities, and fire and garbage truck access have become issues and barriers to laneway housing; however, we came across several successful laneway housing projects, including a townhouse complex built on a former parking lot. One, more sleek example of a laneway house, is even featured on page 74 of the Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Toronto and can be found pictured here. Laneway architecture needs to be more inventive, using a smaller space ingeniously. There were some strange buildings, but the one pictured below, with its folded-over peak like a flopped Orca fin, caught my eye.

Parry led a casual, but informative tour and managed the large group well. The laneways we travelled through were mostly empty of people, except for a few curious residents who came to check out the strange mass of people taking pictures of their houses. However, there was one traffic jam created at a laneway intersection where we had to negotiate space with several large cars.

At the end of the tour, Parry explained that one of the things he loves about laneways is how you can get lost inside them in your own city. He asked us how many of us had felt disoriented in the laneways only to dump out at an intersection or street we knew. It was this exact experience that I find so compelling about laneways and one of the reasons why I walked them so much in Vancouver. It seemed a way to renew my vision of the city, wipe away the fog that builds up when you live in a place too long and allow yourself to be surprised again.

all photos taken by me on September 5, 2010 on walking tour route.

Friday, September 3, 2010

30 Days of Biking: West Toronto Rail Path

September 1st marked the first day of 30 Days of Biking, which aims to see participants bike everyday for the month of September. Seeing as biking is how I get around, this should be pretty easy. However, I decided on the first day to bike somewhere I'd never been to before in Toronto, so my biking partner and I went on a trip to the West Toronto Rail Path.

First, I can't believe I've now lived in Toronto for four months and didn't know this pathway even existed. Second, "trip" is probably a misnomer as the path is only 2km long and hardly takes any time to ride from start to finish. Be that as it may, it's still an interesting and worthwhile ride.

The path starts at Dundas Street West and continues north along an old rail line up to Caribou Street, which is a few blocks south of St. Clair. This section, called Phase One, was completed in October of 2009. There is a Phase Two, but it has been delayed due to the Georgetown South Project and the Pearson Air Rail Link. Phase Two would see the rail path extend further southeast toward the edge of Liberty Village. Both the Toronto Cyclists Union and a group called the Friends of West Toronto Railpath are pushing for the completion of the project.

The path reminded me a lot of the bikeways in Minneapolis, a lot of which are paved over old sections of rail. To me, these are the perfect spots for urban bikeways as they are already separated from the grid of the city. Just put down some smooth asphalt over the old rail lines and bob's your uncle: a perfect separated bike lane that hardly interferes with the street system. I believe Vancouver is looking at turning the old rail tracks through the Arbutus corridor into a bikeway as well. Also, it was nice to be off the ball-busting, utility-scarred roads of Toronto and ride on a surface that didn't rattle my teeth too much.

But the best thing about the path is not where it takes you but what you see along the way. It follows an industrial area, with a plethora of brick buildings and factories, their old uses still stamped onto their fading sides (what is oiled clothing?).

Smoke stacks point up into the sky, while graffiti provides a colourful mural along the pathway in places where both sides aren't dripping with vegetation.

Riding through the rail path feels almost like you have been transported to a different place. The sounds of the city virtually disappear and there is no car traffic to contend with. It's a view of Toronto I hadn't had before. We encountered only a few other cyclists. One lady was out walking her dog, who ambled on ahead of her. As we passed from behind, her dog unknowingly began to veer left into our path and she shouted out, "Riley, right! Right," leaving us both to wonder if you could actually teach a dog right from left.

Sculptures by John Dickson line the path, an homage to its industrial legacy. The first one I came upon just confused me: a big, mesh triangle extending out of the ground like a shark fin.

However, the others are reminiscent of factories and smoke-stacks.

At the north end where the rail path ends at Caribou Street, there is what appears to be a car repair/junk yard where there are some interesting decrepit cars filled with broken glass, beer bottles and various other garbage.

At the south end where the unfinished rail path rudely dumps you out onto hectic Dundas Street West it can take a few moments to reorient yourself into the city riding frame of mind. It was hard to go from the blissful rail path to being squeezed between a coughing city bus and the curb. Hopefully the city continues the project because it would be a great, safe and quick ride through Toronto. Also, the Junction neighbourhood is a short ride away on Dundas West and we found it was a good spot to have a cold beer after Day 1 of 30 Days of Biking.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

China's Traffic Jam as a Linear City

Just a few days ago the epic 100km traffic jam in China disappeared overnight, but before that it seems as though a small economy had sprung up around the traffic jam to serve the thousands of people caught inside the newly created linear city.

The Globe and Mail reported that nearby villagers were selling noodles and boxed lunches to those in the traffic jam, and that "Drivers caught in the gridlock have reportedly been passing the time by playing cards, sleeping and walking between cars."

How strange though that a temporary (one would hope) almost nomadic in nature linear city with its own food economy and social circles can spring up over a period of ten days on a hot stretch of highway turned parking lot. You can get to know someone pretty well in ten days, so did drivers make friends with their neighbours? Perhaps exchanging real-world addresses so that when the jam finally cleared and their temporary city disintegrated they could keep in touch?

And what if the traffic jam hadn't cleared when it did? I suppose the first signs of traffic jam economics was the villagers selling noodles and lunch boxes, but soon bigger entrepreneurs would move into the area with mobile showers, restaurants, bars and maybe even a nightclub. If the traffic jam had gotten large enough and been there for a long enough time perhaps even a politician would have been assigned to the new "riding" giving a voice for those in what would be called Linear City or Trafficopolis. Eventually the government could build a school or other urban amenities nearby to serve this new population. And then maybe, when the traffic finally cleared, some residents would decide to stay in their newfound home.

This also happens (albeit in a much smaller scale) when people are stuck in their cars waiting in line-ups for a ferry or to get across the border. Growing up in Vancouver with family on Vancouver Island, there were many times when we would be sitting in a vast parking lot of cars waiting to get on the ferry to take us to Victoria. There were shops and a playground nearby as well as a restaurant, cafe, and several washrooms. People walked their dogs, talked to their new neighbours, brought out a frisbee or football -- and then it all disappeared when the ferry loaded and everyone went back to being strangers in their cars.

So, this traffic jam did something else besides reveal the horror that can be a country choked to capacity with vehicular traffic. It revealed how humans can turn a non-place like a highway into something social in just a few days time. All it takes is for everyone to slow down a bit.

Monday, August 30, 2010

City Parks, Burning Man, Roofs That Aren't Roofs, Atmospheric Electricity, & Freeway Demolitions

Could city parks bring urban centres back to life? This article looks at new urban parks in St. Louis, Detroit and Houston. And no, the Detroit one is not a (park)ing lot.

Ever wanted to create a 50,000 person city in the middle of the desert, party for a few days and then take it all down again only to do it the following year? Well, maybe you should go to Burning Man.

These architecture students ask the question when is a roof not a roof? (Answer: when it's a floor. Or a wall.)

Things I wish I could pull out of thin air: money, time, really good zingers. Oh, and I guess electricity would be kind of cool, too.

New Orlean's toys with the idea of tearing down an elevated urban expressway. Toronto, take note.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Photo: High Security Flower Pot, Revisted

Weeks ago I photographed this seemingly ridiculous flower pot on Grange St in Toronto. Yesterday I returned and found it had burst forth into the beautiful display you see in the picture above, proving yet again that you can't judge a flower pot by its cage.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Solar Homes, Iceberg Homes, Animal-shaped Cities, Bike Corrals, and Hacked Billboards & Websites

Architect Ralph Disch builds Heliotrope: the world's first energy positive solar home. It rotates to follow the sun where ever it goes. Except at night.

Daniel Andersson imagines the Iceberg house in Finland: a floating house that shows only its tip above water. Soon to follow: the first cruise ship sunk by striking a house.

Southern Sudan unveils plans to build animal shaped cities. It's like animal crackers, except instead of eating them you live inside them.

Vancouver grocery store owner credits the city's "hippy mayor" for on street bicycle corral that fits 18 bikes outside his store on Commercial Drive.

A group of Toronto artist's take it upon themselves to hack illegal billboards and replace the advertisements with their own art. In a twist of irony, the Toronto website has also been hacked, but of a different less artistic nature.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Architecture of Suicide

A few weeks ago now, I was riding my bike down Bloor Street and eventually came to the Prince Edward Viaduct, where the curious architecture of the bridge caught my attention -- a vast net strung up around us. It was as if we were nestled in the world's largest game of cat's cradle.

As it turns out the "net" is actually something called the "Luminous Veil", an anti-suicide barrier installed in 2003 and designed by Derek Revington at the University of Waterloo. Previous to the installation of the veil the viaduct had garnered the infamous distinction of being the most popular bridge in the city for suicides.

All around the viaduct are signs of its unintended use. On each side of the road at the east end of the viaduct there are large signs with a 24 hour phone number beneath for those who feel they need help. And below those, a conveniently installed phone booth. (On a sidenote: there is also a plaque instructing passers-by that this bridge was the one featured in the opening scenes of Michael Ondaatje's In The Skin of a Lion -- in which a woman falls off the bridge and is saved).

However, 7 years after the installation of the veil, it seems that while suicides from the bridge dropped from an average of 9.3 a year to zero a year, the overall suicide rate for the City of Toronto remained virtually unchanged.

The construction of the veil raises questions surrounding the social function of architecture: Can modifications to the built environment act as a kind of inanimate helping hand? Is the presence of a sign and a phone booth a kind of off-site social worker? And what happens when a piece of infrastructure is hi-jacked for an unintended purpose, especially one so heartbreaking?

It makes me wonder, too, why people choose certain bridges over others. I have heard that people will actually travel some distance to get to the Golden Gate Bridge in order to jump off of it. There is even a film about it called The Bridge. How does that lure get developed? In the report on the Prince Edward Viaduct the authors say:
The argument for putting a barrier on a notorious bridge as a suicide prevention tool is predicated on the idea that individuals contemplating suicide have a preference for that bridge over others in the area. "Suicide magnet" may be a particularly apt term that has been used to describe suicide bridges in the sense that different "magnets" have the ability to exert different amounts of pull and presumably, the more pull a "magnet" exerts the less interchangeable it is with other locations. p. 11
So, perhaps even in their most isolated state people yearn for a connection with others -- with something greater -- even if that connection is through death. Jumping off a certain bridge then becomes a statement or symbol, an induction into a community. However, the authors then conclude that the Prince Edward Viaduct was obviously not a strong "magnet" as suicides just moved to other bridges or means.

After I graduated high school, I heard that a student there had left a note saying he was going to jump off of a bridge in the area. Then he drove his car to a completely different bridge got out and, according to one witness, took off his shoes and simply walked off the edge. Would the Luminous Veil have prevented this? What if there had been a phone? Or maybe he would have simply got into his car and driven over to that other bridge instead.