Friday, July 30, 2010

Adventures in Suburban New Hampshire

I'm visiting my grandma in her house in suburban New Hampshire located in a place called Stoneridge Estates, although there is neither stone nor ridge nearby. There is however a nice bucolic lake with a sandy (gravely?) beach nearby; however, I was notified by my grandma that the lake is man made, which is fitting for this area. It also seems fitting that I started reading James Howard Kunstler's classic (and so far excellent) book on American urban planning, The Geography of Nowhere.

This truly is the geography of nowhere. It's almost cliche to describe suburbs this way, but the area consists of wide, looping, discontinuous roads with no sidewalks, which are in turn connected to highways that lead to strip malls accessed only through a sea of parking. Why a suburban area with not much car traffic needs roads wide enough for three lanes, I don't know. When looking for a place to eat all that we could see from the highway were the tall signs of fast food and chain restaurants, except it's difficult to figure out which exit to take or which parking lot entrance will connect you to the one you want to patronize.

My grandma's street is so new that Google Maps hasn't even named it yet. I guess you truly do live in the geography of nowhere when even Google doesn't acknowledge that you exist. Each house resembles its neighbour and is set back in a grassy yard that no one seems to spend anytime in except to mow it. Some yards are small (like pictured below) while others are almost comically big. The most activity I have seen so far has been the sprinkler system coming on to keep the grass green.

The houses are large, but toy-like at the same time, like something used to plunk down your spot in Monopoly. SUVs seem to be the common car of choice here, I suppose to maneuver over all those stones and ridges. Here's what the street system looks like:

There is no public transit (everyone has cars and it's not dense enough). I've only seen one person biking so far, but unless you want to bike on the highway it would be hard to get anywhere. I went for a jog at 9am and saw one woman walking her dogs and another woman doing laps in her own oversized driveway while her kids pedalled their tricycles up and down, trailing her.

Everything is so spread out it's almost unbelievable. It's the complete opposite of the kind of place I'd like to live in when I'm old. My grandma can walk to the end of the street to get the mail, but that's it. Everything else you need a car for, and she can't drive. Our errands consisted of visiting an auto repair shop, two banks, a restaurant, a pharmacy and a seniors home--basically an archipelago of parking lots.

We got a taste of just how car-dependent this area is when we piled into the car one morning and realized the battery had completely died somehow during the night, which left me with a slightly panicky feeling of well how the hell are we going to get anywhere? Luckily, a neighbour brought over jumper cables and restored our independence.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Greenest Home on the Block?

In the summer issue of The Atlantic I came across an article titled Xanadu: A california couple seeks to build the world's greenest home. The article enumerates the many high-tech gadgets, monitoring systems, and solar panels used to make this house one of the greenest on the block. And it only cost the owners about 2 to 5 percent more than the average home in the area. Incredible! Oh wait, turns out they are rich folks from silicone valley where the average home costs $5 million dollars. Also turns out their super-fancy-greener-than-thou home is an exurban 5,600 square foot compound. But their pool contains no chlorine and their five electric cars are charged by solar energy and their climate, lighting and irrigation is controlled by iPad and they tore down the fences so all the nice deer can wander unhindered through their property and eat the native flowers. Wowsers!

The occupants say they built the home "to edify others and inspire them to build sustainable, regenerative houses", but this type of so-called inspiration probably does more harm than good to people looking to make their lives more sustainable.

It sends the message that to be green you have to move out of the city, become a technocrat, and spend a fortune to build a sprawling McGreension. In reality, living in dense urban neighbourhoods, in smaller apartments or row-houses, biking or using transit, spending some money for good insulation, and buying less manufactured crap is greener than this Xanadu house will ever be. I mean, they're going to have to fill that 5,600 square feet with something.

Of course, the green economy must love houses like this because it provides a home for all their manufactured technically-advanced goods. Hardly any airtime is given in our capitalist society to the fact that living more sustainably means acquiring less stuff. And yes, that even applies to stuff like solar-charged electric cars and super fancy water monitoring systems. I don't mean we all need to live like Monks, but taking a serious look at our consumption is one of the greenest things we can do.

Xanadu houses encourage over-building and over-consumption, which are two of the things that got us into this mess in the first place. You want to know the best option for the surrounding wildlife? It's not tearing down the property fence so they can walk through, it's not building your house there at all.

This is something that is laid out well, if not a bit repetitively, in David Owen's Green Metropolis. His entire argument is that living in dense cities is about as green as you can get, and he shows this point in a number of ways. However, his argument becomes hypocritical once we learn that Owen himself lives out in the country in a large poorly insulated old house with only his wife (the explanation being that if he moved out of that house into the city, someone else would end up living there and probably be not as green conscious as him--a pretty piss poor argument).

Regardless, his points are well made. Houses, like the Xanadu house, discourage and breed apathy amongst would-be green homeowners because it makes sustainability some unattainable feat reserved for only the super-rich with their digital toys when, in reality, the little old lady who walks to the grocery store from her apartment is leaps and bounds ahead in living green and probably doesn't even know it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Officer Collisions, Credit Card Transit, Bicycle Rush Hour, Surrey's New Library, & Affordable Vancouver Condos

An article in the Boston Globe, Trooper Down, Why drivers hit officers on the side of the road, discusses the phenomenon of how police, even when wearing visibility jackets and standing near the flashing lights of their police cars, get hit on the road.

Marcus Gee in The Globe & Mail enumerates the reasons why an Open-payments system is the right track for the Toronto Transit Commission, something I totally agree with as, coming from Vancouver, dealing with tokens and flimsy paper transfers is driving me batty.

And check out the best rush hour in the world, which takes place on two wheels in Utrecht, Netherlands.

Surrey City Centre Library by Bing Thom Architects looks to be an impressive structure and a forward thinking one as well since it will be built larger than currently necessary in anticipation of future use--something that perhaps the people over at the Translink and the BC Government should have thought about when they built the short platforms of the Canada Line.

Vancouver developer Ian Gillespie, the same that brought the upscale Shangri-La Vancouver, and architect Gregory Henriquez, the same that designed Woodward's, are experimenting with affordable condos near downtown Vancouver. How they do it? No parking spaces, for one.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Aurora Andrews Paints the City

I wanted to share this great find that I came across through The City Fix of watercolour painter, Aurora Andrews, who has captured some really great moments of city life, most notably on public transportation.

People watching on public transit can be a rich, disturbing, melancholy and hilarious experience as it is used by such a large cross-section of society, and Andrews paints all these moments perfectly. I wonder if she does the paintings right there on the train, or if she takes a photo surreptitiously and then does them later. I can imagine painting on the train (aside from being difficult with all the jolts and movement) would be a pretty conspicuous activity.

I also like her Grids paintings, one of which, a sidewalk with the tell-tale shadows of gum stamped into it, appears here:

Other great albums are her Moving to New York, Boston, and Brooklyn. What impresses me most about these is that she takes moments or pieces of the city that we might consider as mundane and turns them into something worthy of focus. In her Boston album, for example, there is a painting of a fusebox on a wooden pole with a slice of a brick building in the background, a scene that is a dime a dozen in most cities, but which seems elegant and charming in Andrews' watercolour.

This reminds me of another urban artist, Ingo Giezendanner, who published a book of his city sketches called Urban Recordings published by Passenger Books. His are all ink drawings, but the complexity and detail as well as the wobbliness of the freehand sketches lend a certain funkiness to the scenes.

More of Aurora's work can be found on her blog,

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How Much Do You Trust Your Infrastructure?

A few days ago in The Globe and Mail I stumbled upon this incredible photo taken by Cheng Min of the Associated Press:

It shows the opened floodgates of the Three Gorges Dam in China (also the subject of a very good Canadian film, Up The Yangtzee), which were opened to reduce stress on the structure and help with recent flooding. What is most crazy to me about this picture is not the roaring wall of water (although that is pretty impressive), but the seeming nonchalance of the photographers standing mere feet away from said roaring wall of water. I mean, all that is separating them from certain death is what looks like a pretty flimsy railing and some concrete and they almost look bored.

This got me thinking about how much trust we put in our infrastructure. We have no problems going across bridges, leaning up against railings on the balconies of high rise apartment buildings, or walking under overpasses. City dwellers do each of these things on a fairly regular basis with no heart palpitating thoughts of "is this safe?". All it takes is one trip on a subway system to see all the commuters staring blankly or calmly reading a book as the train they are on hurtles them through underground tunnels built decades ago underneath the city to see how strong this trust can be. There are people placidly taking a dump and reading the morning paper in skyscrapers that are hundreds of feet tall for heaven's sake and we don't even blink an eye at how utterly amazing that is.

Take the recently completed Burj Khalifa (pictured left, courtesy of wikicommons), the tallest building in the world. It is 2,717 feet tall. There has to be some sort of primal instinctual fear that arises when humans step foot on the top floor of that building, and yet soon there will be people going about their daily routine at the top of this building, and then another building will surpass it in height and the Burj Khalifa will one day look quaint. All you have to do is take a look in your city at the skyscrapers that used to be the tallest in the land, and see how utterly eclipsed they have become by those around them to know that one day something will be built higher. But how high can we go before the trust runs out? Is there even a limit?

And it's not just infrastructure, but the people around us as well. Because to live in a city we have to trust them, sometimes with our lives. I often think, while I'm standing on the sidewalk waiting for a light to change so I can cross the street, how crazy it is that all that separates me from the stream of several ton vehicles driven by strangers, is a small curb and what I would hope would have been really really good driving lessons.

Living in a city is all about trust, more so than living out in the suburbs or in the country, simply for the fact that there is so much more infrastructure and people around us that we need to trust. But we don't think about it as trust--this stuff (whether people or structures) is just there. It's only when things fail that we are woken up to the fact that they are people-made structures made by not infallible people. Take the crumbling overpasses in Montreal, or the collapsed subway tunnel in China, or the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis of which you can even watch a video.

Of course, all these failures aren't in the forefront of our minds, otherwise we'd never leave our houses or apartments again. And we'd never have those amazing images of a gushing wall of water at a recently opened dam.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

St. James Town and Regent Park

Yesterday, despite the all-capital severe thunderstorm warnings garnering all the Toronto weather websites, I got the biking itch and decided to brave the possible storm and explore a few parts of the city that I hadn't seen. After reading John Sewell's The Shape of the City (a truly excellent book about the history of urban planning in Toronto), I became interested in checking out some of the housing projects that were created when urban planners had Le Corbusier on the brain and thought bull-dozing areas of the city and constructing towers amidst a sea of green grass was just the bees knees.

There were two places that I wanted to check out: Regent Park and St. James Town, done in the 1940s and 1950s, respectively. Both of these areas saw their streets systems destroyed along with whatever housing occupied the site. They are radically different from each other in look, but eerily similar in feel. My observations obviously stem from an initial bike through the site. I don't live in either of these areas and so can only speak as someone passing through.

St. James Town consists of a number of very tall, very imposing, very wide slab apartment buildings. I rode my bike down one of the "streets" that serves the area, craning my neck to get a good look at everything around me. It's not the most welcoming place as the buildings loom tall on all sides, cutting off light and the rest of the city. It feels very isolated inside St. James Town, as if you have entered another city. I put street in quotation marks because it's mainly a meandering set of curving roads that serve to connect a number of above and underground parking lots. A brick school is located in the centre that looks out of place amidst the towers. There was a farmer's market stand selling fruits and vegetables sitting alongside one of these roads and next to that a woman had plunked herself down on a concrete divider and was having a kind of yard sale sans the yard.

Image from WikiCommons by SimonP

Further south east was Regent Park, which consists of low-rise apartments as opposed to the tall ones found in St. James Town. Most appeared to be three stories and made of a brick. Again, there were no real streets in the area (all having been destroyed during the original redevelopment), but only extended driveways that connected parking lots and walking paths that went to each of the apartment buildings. Again, the same feeling of stepping out of Toronto and into a completely different area appeared. Regent Park is all social housing with a large percentage of the occupants living at or below the poverty line.

The area is currently undergoing redevelopment in order to "undo" many of the ideas put in place by the planners of the 40s by restoring the street system and constructing housing that fits with the surrounding neighbourhood style. Market housing is also planned for the site to help pay costs. Hopefully these changes will see Regent Park become a more integrated part of the city.

What struck me most about these areas was how obvious it was you were exiting something and entering something else. There was a definable moment when I left Toronto and entered each of these housing projects, which is a feeling that I rarely (if ever) get when I bike or walk around other parts of the city. The worst thing to me about these areas is the lack of through streets, which I think is one of the main contributing factors to my disconnected feeling (and the fact that the housing looks miles different from the surrounding housing). It's like a separate box plunked in the middle of the existing street grid of Toronto. Why planners of the past thought wiping out the streets was a good idea, I don't know. Everyone loves streets. The farmer's market and yard sale in St. James Town prove that people want to be out on the street, even when what they have is an extended driveway.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Baby, it's hot outside

After having lived in Vancouver for a good 17 years, I had grown accustomed to 25 degrees being a hot summer day, but since uprooting myself over to Toronto I have had to reconfigure my ideas around what the word "hot" means.

Last week we had a heat wave here that saw temperatures at 33 or 34 degrees celsius with the humidity making it feel more like 44 degrees. Basically it's the kind of weather where upon exiting the shower you could spend the entire day towelling yourself. At some point, you just have to declare yourself "dry" and move on with your day. It's the kind of heat where if you open your mouth outside for just a second your tongue shrivels up into a raisin.

I can deal with heat, but humidity is another beast entirely. Still being new to the city, I wasn't exactly sure where to go to escape from this heat. The park certainly didn't help, even in the shade. The heat makes the city seem more daunting. What was once a short walk had become what could seem like an endless trek across the desert.

Heat waves seem to draw out all the people without air conditioning at home and distributes them at public/private institutions around the city. It would be interesting to see if the level of users of the library or mall shoppers spiked during heat waves. It could be good for business. So I found myself wandering the giant Eaton Centre mall downtown or lounging in the public library. I went into one city building and they even had a sign up that said "Emergency Cooling Centre". I should have gone to check it out, but I didn't. What goes on in there? Someone comes around with a block of ice and rubs it on the back of your neck?

Perhaps people in warmer climates will read this and roll their eyes. I'm sure I would; but for now I find myself sitting all day in my underwear watching the ice melt in my water.