April 29th, 2013

Les boules roses

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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When the stretch of Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal’s Gay Village was pedestrianized for two and a half months in the summer of 2008, it was accompanied by a strange policy that forced the street’s bars and restaurants to serve only Labatt beer products on their outdoor terraces. Merchants were unhappy and for good reason: it was summer-long corporate takeover of public space. (I said as much when a journalist for the Globe and Mail called for my opinion — ah, my glory days as a local pundit.)

Things have mellowed out since then. The Labatt-only policy was scrapped and car-free summers are now a well-loved tradition in the Village. What’s especially remarkable is that, unlike Montreal’s other street fairs and festivals, which ban car traffic for a few days or weeks at a time, the Village pedestrianization lasts the entirety of the summer — day and night, rain and shine. I think it owes a big part of its success to artist Claude Cormier, who draped 200,000 pink baubles over the street in 2011. Les boules roses proved so popular they returned the following year, and they’re poised to make a comeback this year, too.

The pink balls work because they create a sense of enclosure. One of the problems pedestrian streets face, especially in a car-dependent North American society, is that they often feel empty and sapped of vitality. You don’t realize how much space cars take up until they’re gone; a street that seems narrow when it’s filled with traffic, like Ste. Catherine, suddenly feels vast when the asphalt is clear. The baubles counteract that by tricking the mind into thinking the space is smaller and busier than it actually is. Plus they’re fun. And, you know, gay.

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March 28th, 2013

The Seawall in all its Incarnations

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Walking the length of Vancouver’s Seawall is a lesson in design fads and fashions. The Stanley Park stretch dates back to 1914 and is elegant in its simplicity; a rough-hewn stone wall threads its way around the park’s craggy shoreline, rainforest on one side and cool Pacific waters on the other. Near Granville Island, the path takes on a late-70s look with brick paving, timber planters and suburban landscaping, a trend that continued into the 1990s, with some variations — square-cut timber gave way to painted steel tubes as the material of choice for benches and railings, and the pine trees of the 70s were usurped by a 90s love of palms, which matched the SoCal architecture that was fashionable at the time.

By the time the late 2000s rolled around, fashions had changed yet again, and this is reflected in the newest stretch of the Seawall, which runs along the southeast side of False Creek next to the Olympic Village. The materials used are at once rustic yet contemporary: cool materials like concrete, granite and steel juxtaposed with warm timber. Natural shorelines were preserved rather than obliterated, wild grasses are abundant and there is generally a more diverse array of spatial experiences than on the more rigid parts of the Seawall: paved plazas, boardwalks, pebble beaches, piers jutting into the water. (The entire Seawall is documented on Google Street View, so feel free to take a virtual bike ride to see if you agree with my impressions.)

It’s that depth of experience that sets the newest part of the Seawall apart from its predecessors. It is not simply a space meant for enjoying the view; it’s a space that encourages active participation. There are lounge chairs, a seemingly unregulated community garden and — most interesting of all — there’s Habitat Island. This spit of scrubby offshore land is accessible only at low tide via a pebble beach. The last time I visited, on a sunny spring day, the island was filled with people: teenagers rummaging through the bush, some people smoking pot, others drinking beer, families examining the aquatic life of tidal pools. It’s a lovely, unmanicured island, its wildness made all the more striking by the wall of glassy condominium towers across the water.

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September 13th, 2012

Cicchetti veneziani

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There’s always a disconnect between the way a city is portrayed on screen and the day-to-day reality of its existence. New York isn’t actually surly taxi drivers and whistling construction workers; you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from every street in Paris.

But Venice is the exception. There is nowhere else like it. What’s more, it never changes, at least in the physical sense, except to gain a few more layers of patina, a few more cracks in the bricks of its foundations, the water of the canals lapping a little bit higher with every passing year. The evening I arrived in Venice, after taking shelter from a momentous thunderstorm, I walked along a canal in Cannaregio, past polished wood motorboats and old women watching from the windows, and thought: is this place for real?

Of course, even if the Venice of our imaginations coincides uncannily with the Venice of real life, there is far more to it than meets the eye. The biggest surprise was how few tourists stray from the beaten path. Here is a place with a small and dwindling population, where visitors far outnumber locals, and it never takes long to venture into a quiet street where kids are playing soccer and some old timers are taking their first spritz of the day. One evening, walking through Santa Croce, I stumbled across a neighbourhood block party sponsored by the local Communist Party. Hundreds of people — families, mostly — sat on long wood tables, munching on fried seafood and zucchini flowers while they drank beer from plastic cups. A few tourists wandered by, looking a bit mystified, before opening their maps and wandering away.

You can’t be rushed in Venice. Unless you own a motorboat, the fastest way to get around is to walk — it takes less than an hour to walk from one end of the city to the other, and about the same time if you go by water bus. Many streets are silent but for the sound of sloshing canal water and footsteps. It takes awhile to get used to the pace, but once you do, it’s hard to go back to normal life.

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May 10th, 2012

Guerilla Warfare in Everyday Space

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Tin roofs of a hawker’s bazaar in Kwun Tong, Hong Kong

When I first came across Charles Labelle’s ongoing Buildings Entered project, I was intrigued by the questions it raised about how we relate to the spaces we inhabit. This led me to think about one of the things that has most fascinated me since moving in Hong Kong in 2008: the informal use of urban space, or to put it another way, how people adapt the city to their own ends.

In the years following World War II and the Chinese civil war, hundreds of thousands of people moved from mainland China to Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. A decade after the war, Hong Kong’s population had doubled to more than three million. There wasn’t enough housing for the newcomers, so many built homes for themselves in shantytowns that rose on the hills above Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. At the same time, migrants made work for themselves by selling things on the street: cheap food for factory workers, fruits and vegetables, surplus stock from factories. This continued for nearly three decades after the war. By the 1970s, there were more than 50,000 hawkers in the streets. All of this existed outside the framework of the law: shantytowns were built illegally on government-owned land and most hawkers operated without permits and without paying rent.

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September 29th, 2011

Réaménager la ville avec de simples idées : Petite Italie, Montréal

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Public Space by Daniel Corbeil

Alors que les débats sont parfois lourds dans l’administration municipale lorsque vient le moment de voter des budgets d’aménagement, l’on constate qu’en quelques années, Montréal a réussi à altérer l’image de plusieurs de ses rues commerciales avec des idées simples et peu dispendieuses.

Après avoir passé les derniers mois à débattre et à préparer des projets de réaménagement de l’espace urbain et des rues de Montréal, nous avons constaté que trois éléments ont eu un impact réel sur la qualité de nos rues, à savoir l’implantation de terrasses sur les trottoirs (qui créées des milieux de vie animés), la multiplication des plantes et autres éléments de végétalisation de l’emprise (la plupart des éléments étant temporaires et versatiles) ainsi que le changement culturel chez les montréalais, à savoir le raisonnement selon lequel désormais on ne peut plus accepter que la rue soit un simple axe de circulation des biens et personnes.

Ici quelques exemples de la rue Dante, qui semble désormais un petit jardin en pleine ville et où les terrasses et plantes rappellent finalement la douceur de la Méditerranée…

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August 24th, 2011

Photos of the Week: ATM

Posted in Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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This week’s photos were taken along the Brighton Beach boardwalk in New York by Keith Goldstein.

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August 18th, 2011

Make Your Own Public Space

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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No cycling. No ball-playing. No gambling. No remote-controlled vehicles. No walking on the grass. No fun. Hong Kong’s public parks are burdened by so many rules, they end up discouraging the very thing that parks are meant to provide: an escape from the many stresses of urban life.

The same is true for many of the city’s other public spaces, from sidewalks to plazas and the ubiquitous “sitting-out areas” found in every neighbourhood. Caught in a stranglehold of metal fences, filled with concrete and ugly tile walls, they seem to discourage the lingering and spontaneous interaction that is cultivated by good public space.

In response, Hong Kong people make their own public space. Throughout the city, leftover bits of concrete and greenery have been claimed by citizens and transformed, through piecemeal intervention and crafty ingenuity, into lively, informal gathering spots.

Not far from my apartment in jam-packed Mongkok is a place I like to call the Hill With No Name. I call it this because, as far as I can tell, it has been overlooked by the gods of toponymy: it’s simply a small hill that was never developed, save for an underground reservoir and the Tsung Tsin Primary School. Even my friend Olivia, who grew up nearby and who attended the school as a kid, was stumped when I asked her what the hill was called. “I always just call it the hill behind Tsung Tsin,” she said.

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August 17th, 2011

The Robson Street Lawn

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Vancouver is working hard to shake off its reputation as a somewhat pious city that values good mountain views over vibrant streetlife. Its architecture has seen a shift away from the back-to-nature style of the 1970s, 80s and 90s towards something bolder and more urban, like the recently-completed Woodwards redevelopment. There seems to be more tolerance for cheeky public art — witness Douglas Coupland’s Digital Orca (which makes up for all the lame whale murals around town) and Ken Lum’s Monument for East Vancouver. And there is more and more playful new street furniture.

Last week, I came across one such piece of furniture in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The stretch of Robson Street in front of the gallery had been closed for construction for several weeks; when it reopened, a kind of undulating fake lawn was installed. It had bright yellow “grass” and was shaded by white umbrellas; it was a bright, sunny afternoon and the lawn was thronged with people. I returned later, after the sun had set, and sat down for awhile. A couple of guys laid down on the grass, holding hands, and one of them wondered aloud, “What is this doing here? This is so weird!” But if others thought it was strange, it didn’t show. A couple of people worked on their laptops, faces lit by the screen’s blue glow. Others sat cross-legged, talking to friends. It was as if it had always been there.

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July 7th, 2011

Tokyo Vending Machines

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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It’s a huge cliché, but how could I resist?

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May 5th, 2011

Street Furniture in Guangzhou

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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I’ve written a bit about the discarded furniture phenomenon in Hong Kong, where people make up for a lack of quality street furniture by putting household chairs in the street for people to use.

It turns out Hong Kong has got nothing on Guangzhou. In that city’s ancient Liwan District, where leafy, winding streets are lined by family-run wholesale businesses, just about every shop has a jumble of tables and chairs outside. They’re used for meals, boisterous card games and, in the middle of the afternoon, a kind of furtive siesta. (Unlike in southern Europe, most businesses in southeastern Asia don’t close in the afternoon — workers just sleep on the job.)

There’s a remarkable variety of furniture found in the streets. Disassembled sofas are common, along with beat-up lounge chairs and plain dining room chairs. But there are also some beautiful wicker recliners and elegant wooden chairs. After all, when you spend your days sitting the street, you’d better do it with style.

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May 3rd, 2011

Photos of the Week: Mailboxes

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

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Hong Kong mailboxes by Hamachi & Toro

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Taipei mailboxes by Poagao

Every week, we feature striking images from our Urbanphoto group on Flickr. Want to see your photos here? Join the group.

January 26th, 2011

A Short Detour in Mongkok

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Mongkok might be one of the world’s most crowded places, but sometimes all you need to do to escape is to make a right turn down a quiet alleyway. That’s what I discovered when I was walking from home to the Flower Market the other day. Instead of taking the usual route along Sai Yee Street, I ducked into the laneway that runs behind it and discovered a kind of parallel university of greenery, graffiti and informal living space.

One of the first things I encountered was a lean-to with a mattress, some newspaper and various other objects inside. It seems to have been built by a homeless person but I’m not sure if it’s still occupied. Taggers have been using its wood walls as a canvas.

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November 24th, 2010

Nap Time

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Restaurant workers asleep in a Wan Chai plaza, Hong Kong

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October 3rd, 2010

A Window into Kuala Lumpur

Posted in Asia Pacific, Demographics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were celebrating Malaysia’s national holiday at a street party in Bangsar, an upscale neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur. We had just walked there along broken sidewalks, the sun beating down on us — Kuala Lumpur is not the most pedestrian-friendly place — and we were in desperate need of a drink, so we popped into a bar and ordered a couple of beers. We found ourselves in the midst of a panel discussion about what it means to be Malaysian. “Are we a nation or a collection of peoples?” asked the moderator, an earnest young journalist of Indian descent.

One of the speakers, a young half-Chinese, half-Indian man dressed in a traditional Malay outfit (with the addition of red heart-shaped sunglasses) gave a witty and entertaining presentation about the ambiguities of national identity. His delivery was upbeat, but his message was serious and thoughtful: Malaysia could hardly be described as a true nation, he said — otherwise the government would not have to invest so much in convincing everyone that there is such a thing as “1Malaysia” — but it is also more than the sum of its Malay, Chinese and Indian parts. Like Canada, which is also prone to existential crises and frequent periods of self-doubt, Malaysia is a country that exists in a perpetual state of in-betweenness.

This lingered in my mind for the six days we spent wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, a city that few travellers spend much time in and even many Malaysians seem to dislike. For all its importance as an economic and administrative hub, KL doesn’t present itself on a platter like Penang, the darling of Malaysia’s tourism industry. It’s a sprawling, disjointed place that makes casual exploration difficult, but I enjoyed its unpretentiousness and the way it opened a window into Malaysia’s cultural complexities.

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