Views from the upper floors of Concordia University’s EV Building
Archive for August, 2007
A couple of days ago, Dale Duncan wrote on Spacing Toronto about sharrows, or shared road arrows, a new type of cycling-related road marking that is slowly becoming popular across North America. When I saw what they looked like — a bicycle symbol topped by two chevrons — I realized that Montreal has been using sharrows for a couple of years. The first time I saw them was in the McGill Ghetto, where in 2006, city workers painted them on Milton and Prince Arthur Sts., along with a couple of counterflow bike lanes.
As with any type of cycling infrastructure, cyclists are divided over the benefits and effectiveness of sharrows. Some criticize them for lulling cyclists into a false sense of security while doing little to remind drivers that they are legally bound to share the road with people on bikes. (The same argument is used against bike lanes, bike paths and just about every type of initiative that segregates cyclists and motorists.) Others, though, think they’re a good way to realign drivers and cyclists, getting bikes out of the dangerous “door zone” while reminding motorists that cyclists are present.
Sharrows, it seems to me, should be considered just one infrastructural tool among many. In the McGill Ghetto, a neighbourhood just east of the McGill University campus in downtown Montreal, they appear to work very well. Milton and Prince Arthur, parallel one-way streets heading in opposite directions, have long been used as the main east-west link from the Plateau Mont-Royal into the central part of downtown. As such, the number of bikes on these mostly residential streets is consistently high. (At 5pm on a Thursday last year, I counted 24 cyclists passing through the intersection of Milton and University in less than a minute.) Cyclists heading east from McGill have always rode against westbound traffic on Milton before switching over to eastbound Prince Arthur; cyclists heading west from the Plateau would ride against eastbound traffic on Prince Arthur before switching to westbound Milton.
Naturally, a large mass of cyclists heading against the traffic flow on these two streets was potentially dangerous for cyclists and motorists alike. For once, the city’s response was ingeniously simple: they established counterflow bike lanes on Milton for a few blocks east of McGill, using sharrows to direct cyclists towards Prince Arthur, where a normal bike lane took them east into the Plateau. Further east, at Prince Arthur and St. Laurent, another counterflow bike lane was built to lead cyclists to Clark Street, where sharrows direct them down to Milton Street.
So far, from what I have observed, the system is working. But that’s only because it is just that: a system. If the sharrows were used in isolation, without the bike lanes, I doubt they would be as successful. They also work because they are prominent — at intersections, four or five densely-packed sharrows are painted in succession, creating a clear path for bikes and making it impossible for drivers to ignore — and positioned in the centre of the road, rather than on the side where cyclists would be vulnerable to car doors.
Sharrows definitely have a place in our streets — but not in isolation and not as a replacement for bike lanes.
Scenes from the 510-Spadina and 506-Carlton streetcars in Toronto
Oilsands refinery in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo by Chad Young
VBS.tv, the online documentary arm of Vice Magazine run by Spike Jonze, has a thought-provoking documentary called Toxic Alberta available to view for free (in 15 segments, with some interruptions for ads). The film touches on the extreme environmental impact of tar sands operations; the burning of natural gas to reform bitumen into crude oil is responsible for a staggering 20% of all of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and this is set to rise as there are calls to quintuple output in the next decade.
However, the film also inadvertently exposes the crisis the boom towns face, in terms of managing a 9% population growth rate. Most cities struggle to deal with 2-3% growth; 9% would be crippling. (Imagine adding another 100,000 people to Montreal in a very short time.) Thousands of people — many of them Maritimers looking for work — have flocked to the towns of Fort McMurray and Fort Chipyewan. I’ve heard stories of people getting paid insane amounts of money — even fast food workers make $20 an hour — and thus everyone with some sort of skilled trade has headed west. The documentary bears this out, with one surveyor mentioning a $10k monthly paycheck.
The problem is that planning has lagged far behind. The influx of newcomers and lack of housing has left many in a quasi-homeless situation. On top of that, the enormous salaries have distorted the local economy; a one-bedroom apartment rents for $1800 a month, and a small house can cost upwards of $500,000. Developers are building everything from dormitory-style bunkhouses, to subsidized apartments. One developer, quoted in the film, says that ‘anyone making less than $70,000 here basically needs public assistance.’
When the boom is over — or if there’s a massive switch to renewables and energy efficiency — what will become of these towns?
Shelter is a weekly Montreal Gazette series that peeks into the lives of ordinary apartment-dwelling Montrealers.
I was surprised when I came in. It’s not a typical Montreal duplex layout. The front is what I expected, but the back is very open-concept, with no walls between the kitchen and the living room.
Marie-Louis Letendre: Well, what happened is that (the back) is a new extension and the basement is new, too. Where the kitchen is now, that used to be a bedroom. The renovations started about seven years ago and they’ve continued ever since.
So it’s been …
Letendre: A constant thing. Now, my mom, (who lives upstairs,) is doing the upstairs as well. Because renovations cost a lot, we got the basement and the extensions done seven years ago and now we’re doing the entire front of the house.
You have a big backyard.
Letendre: Yeah. Outside used to be all concrete with ridiculous amounts of grapes. They were wine grapes, so you couldn’t eat them. We didn’t really make wine, so they kept spreading until we did the renovations. We had to have the entire yard dug up to build the basement.
So I guess it was a 4 1/2 when you first moved in.
Letendre: Yeah. Now it’s a 7 1/2. We doubled the apartment in size. It looks infinitely nicer. It’ll be nice when it’s done, but I was joking with the contractor, I said: “What happens when it’s done? Do we start again?” And he said, “Probably.” The renovations never completely end. There’s always something that needs to be done.
How long have you lived here?
Letendre: Since Grade 3. About 12 years. I lived here with my mom, my brother and many foreign exchange students. We constantly had students staying here and renting out one of the two front bedrooms. I kind of got used to random people in my house all the time.
But now your mom is living upstairs and you have three roommates.
Letendre: She’s in the process of moving upstairs. I really like it. It’s comfortable because I don’t have to go through the process of actually moving and relocating and creating a new home.
Linden trees in the old French concession
In 2010, when Shanghai hosts the World Expo, 35 percent of the city is supposed to be dedicated greenspace. The stated goal is provide 15 square meters of green space per resident, with a park or other green feature no farther away than a half-kilometer walk from anyone’s home. It is an amazing challenge for such a huge and overcrowded city. Nevertheless, Shanghai will probably succeed in meeting it, but at great cost to the fabric of this enormous metropolis.
When I picked Shanghai as the Chinese city to consider in my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, I had no idea of the ambitious plan. As an example of what can be done when powerful government combines with capitalistic fervor, however, I quickly learned that Shanghai is unparalleled.
The fruit of this green effort was evident from the elevated highways when I first arrived in Shanghai on the airport bus. Steel mills and industrial plants line the edges of the nearby waterways, their red brick buildings smudged by smoke, gray and black piles of slag and other waste lining the surface roads. But the edges of several compounds are planted in bushes and trees, producing a green contrasting brightly with the dark industrial tailings.
The highway right-of-ways are also lined with green, with footpaths and benches that people use, at least in the center city, like any other park. Further out in the new towns, I later saw that district governments often make other choices, grouping the required green space together to produce big parks filled with sports facilities.
Toronto’s Koreatown, strung out along Bloor Street between Christie and Bathurst, is a brief but intense blitz of signage, the sidewalks along its six blocks lined by sandwich boards, vertical shop signs and hand-drawn posters hanging in store windows.
Whenever I head up to Little Italy, on my way for a coffee at Caffè Italia or some gelato at the Jean Talon Market, I wonder about Dante Street, a fairly short sidestreet off St. Laurent Boulevard just below the market. Although it is quiet, Dante Street is home to a few Little Italy landmarks, including the Pizzeria Napoletana and the sumptuous redbrick Chiesa della Madonna della Difesa, in which you can find a fresco of Benito Mussolini painted in 1919.
What really gets me about Dante Street is its name, however. A quick look at Quebec’s toponymy index reveals that it was christened on May 23, 1922 in honour of Dante Aligheri. But no other information is provided: I can only guess at the politics involved. Obviously, Dante Street was meant as an homage to Montreal’s Italian community, and it was named just as Little Italy had matured into a full-fledged neighbourhood. But whose idea was it? What kind of deals were made at City Hall? In 1980s Chinatown, a new square at the corner of Clark and La Gauchetière was named after Sun Yat Sen because that was the only name on which everyone in the Chinese community could agree. Was it the same deal with the Italian in 1920s Montreal?
I don’t have the answers. But Dante isn’t the only man of the arts honoured in the vicinity of Little Italy. In fact, a number of short, unassuming streets in the area bear interesting and unusual monikers. One block north of Dante, Mozart Street was renamed in 1912 after previous stints as Marcil and Stanley. North of that, the rue de la Poudrière was named after Molière in 1927 and 30th Avenue was named after Jules Verne in 1912. It’s cute and even a bit whimsical. Maybe the city councillors of Côte St. Luc, when they named a bunch of city streets and parks after themselves in 2001, should have looked east for inspiration.
On my last trip to Tokyo I could not help but remember how important it was when living there to choose an apartment with sufficient light — something I now take for granted since I moved to Los Angeles. When I first moved to Tokyo, I looked at an apartment in the building on the left, on the second floor, the second apartment in. The balcony, which is barely visible, provided the only real source of light. Needless to say, I did not take that apartment.
But other buildings do more to maximize natural light. In the photo below, which I took from my hotel room on a recent visit to the city, note how the taller buildings have a graduated set back as the floors go up, thereby increasing the amount of light available to those on lower floors. I am not sure if this set back is mandated by planning codes and, if it is, whether that has always been the case.
Phillips Square, it has always seemed to me, is inexplicably overlooked. In theory, it should be one of Montreal’s most prominent public spaces, situated as it is in the downtown retail district, across the street from a major department store. While it is certainly busy, though, at least during the day, it has none of the ambiance or notoriety of some of the city’s other parks, plazas and squares. It doesn’t seem like a particularly distinct place to meet and gather; it’s just there.
Yet Phillips Square is one of Montreal’s oldest squares. First laid out in 1842, in what was then an elite residential district on the fringes of town, the prestigious retail stores it lured uptown sparked the rise of Ste. Catherine Street as the city’s premier shopping district. Henry Morgan moved his department store to Phillips Square in 1891; he was followed by Birks, which opened its signature jewelery store shortly thereafter. By the turn of the twentieth century, Phillips Square had become a fairly important transit hub, a role it would maintain for the better part of a century: a 1941 map of the city’s streetcar network indicates that six tram lines passed through or terminated at Phillips Square.
More recent years weren’t as kind to the square. It fell into a sort of decrepitude until it was renovated in 1995. Today, a gaggle of about a dozen vendors ply their wares on the Ste. Catherine side of the square; behind, a midday crowd of office workers, shoppers, students and homeless people sit on the ledges of the square’s stone planters and the steps of the ornate monument to King Edward VII that provides the square with a visual focus.
Phillips Square isn’t a bad public space by any means. In fact, there is a certain solid respectability in its paving stones, flowerbeds and monuments: this is a square being a square, in contrast to other squares that pretend to be parks, like the verdant but much less successful Cabot Square on the western edge of downtown. Still, I can’t help but feel that Phillips Square lacks something. Perhaps it is because it is such a daytime space: when the sun goes down at the shops begin to close, nobody really lingers there. Compare that to Place des Arts, a much less intimate plaza that is nonetheless a popular hangout at all hours.
It has been more than a decade since Phillips Square’s last renovation. Maybe it’s time to once again rethink its design. I like the street vendors, which add a lot to the conviviality of Ste. Catherine Street, but they don’t do much for the rest of the square. Perhaps a café stand could be opened in one of the vending spaces, with loose tables and chairs scattered around the square like in Parisian parks. What do you think?
Hammer-and-sickle in Kochi, the largest city of Kerala, a state that has elected several Marxist-Leninist governments
The view from the train window on the trip between Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of India’s Kerala State, and Kochi, its biggest city, is one of nearly continuous development. As I looked out the open windows I kept waiting for the countryside to begin. I shouldn’t have been surprised: what I didn’t properly appreciate was that Kerala, on the southwest coast of India, has a complex, centuries-old pattern of mixing rural and urban that may look like suburban sprawl but, until recently at least, hasn’t been.
Kochi, formerly called Cochin, is the largest city in Kerala state, with a population of about 2.5 million. The region had one of the most strictly-enforced versions of the caste system until end of the 19th century, but now it has made amazing strides toward equality and equity which is the reason I decided it to include Kochi among the cities explored in my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places (Véhicule Press, 2006).
Kerala has the highest literacy rates in India — 94 per cent for men and 86 per cent for women, according to the 2001 Indian census — and the lowest infant mortality rates, 14 per 100,000 births in 2000. Other indicators suggest life is pretty good—without state coercion women have decided to have fewer babies than needed to maintain the population numbers, while life expectancy is right up there with that of developed countries.
Four times — most recently in 2006 — Keralites have elected a coalition government led by Marxist-Leninists, but the ambient political style is far from that seen in Communist bloc countries — or even in the authoritarian democracy of Singapore. In Kerala the emphasis is on community-based action: the great surge in literacy came in the 1980s when local groups worked on the grass roots level to teach people to read. Newspaper readership — a good measure of literacy in action — is now the highest in India. In fact, even though Kerala’s main language, Malayalam, is spoken by only about five percent of India’s population, a Malayalam newspaper has the largest circulation of any daily in any language in the country.
Back in July I asked if anyone knew who was painting the manhole covers of Mile End. Slowly but surely, readers started offering some leads. One mentioned that she had heard the artist being interviewed on CBC Radio, but couldn’t remember which show; another suggested that it might have to do with an arts collective that has recently established itself in the neighbourhood. Sure enough, this week brought with it confirmation that a Dutch artist named Franck Bragigand was responsible for the manhole covers, in a project realized by DARE-DARE, the Consulate-General of the Netherlands in Montreal and Montreal’s municipal electrical commission.
DARE-DARE, it turns out, is responsible for a slough of innovative public art in Montreal. I’ve noticed many of them before, but simply assumed they were unsanctioned street art, not art created with the blessing of the city’s authorities. One project, funded by the provincial government, had the artist Karen Spencer describe her dreams on cardboard, in English, French and Spanish, for an entire year. She then mounted the cryptic cardboard passages on walls around the city. I came across one last winter that read: “I dreamed I criticized J.J. for falling improperly.” Another sign began with the inscription, “Soñé que mis dientes estaban wen mi boca” — “I dreamed my teeth were falling out of my mouth.”
DARE-DARE is headquartered in what has come to be called the Park With No Name, an vacant patch of greenery next to the Van Horne Viaduct at the corner of Clark and Arcade. In true Montreal fashion, the group is not just bilingual, but trilingual — it seems that, for many organizations, Spanish has become Montreal’s de facto third language, perhaps to ease the tension between French and English — and it has hosted some pretty swell get-togethers at its Mile End home, including two big outdoor dance parties in June. A wood-fired pizza oven has even been built in the Park With No Name, ostensibly for community use, but a conflict with the city has restricted its use and might even see the oven demolished altogether.