Tag Archives: cities

Apparitions – Night/Shift 2014

Earlier this year, following the call for proposals for Night/Shift 2014, JMA and MT Space sat down to discuss a collaborative piece between our architectural practice and their theatrical one. Early on, John suggested we consider doing something that engaged the public space at Kitchener City Hall. We found that both parties were deeply interested in looking at issues of public space in relation to individual identity and community interaction. We wanted to do something provocative, fun and interactive, that would in turn create a dialogue between strangers, and thus Apparitions was born.

We came to the title Apparitions for our piece, with the thought that the installation and its actors were a temporary appearance that offered a reinterpretation of the way that people commonly interact with the public space at City Hall. Our actors were in a sense apparitions themselves; slipping in and out of the actor / audience role.

After months of development and discussion, the form of the physical installation was decided upon. Since there are two mirrored porticos in front of Kitchener City Hall, we decided to create an illuminated veil with a projection screen at each portico. This would enable audiences to see and talk to each other instantly. At each portico, actors from MT Space would invite festival participants to interact and play across the divide of the civic square.

Apparitions - John MacDonald Architect

Apparitions – John MacDonald Architect

Heedless of this year’s first snowfall, on Saturday, November 1st, an enthusiastic team of volunteers along with friends of JMA & MT Space, worked together, to assemble the installation for its one night performance. Several sponsors provided us with the materials needed to put on a great show. Although there were some technical difficulties to work through early in the evening, overall the installation was a great success.

At Night/Shift, people of all ages interacted with each other through the screens of Apparitions, sometimes singing songs, dancing, asking questions to strangers or mimicking actors. It was all great fun and at the same time, reflective of what public space is supposed to do; bring people together.

Apparitions-Screen Shot

Apparitions-Interaction

screen interaction 6

Apparitions-Play

Apparitions-Community

Apparitions-Community

We’d like to take a moment to thank our sponsors who made this possible: Canadian Tire, Kitchener Wilmot Hydro, CRS Contractors Rental Supply, Form & Build Supply, City of Kitchener, Christie Digital and Sherwood Systems.

Also to our volunteers, who laboured tirelessly, giving generously of their time and muscle – Thank you for your hard work. This would not have been a success without you.

Moving Back to the City; The Urban Living Trend

The suburbs became the epitome of the ‘Canadian Dream’ following World War 2, as couples desired settling down,  more privacy, and raising children in safe, quite neighbourhoods. Then came the Baby Boomers; wanting to create much of the same lifestyle as their parents, the suburbs thrived through the 60’s and 70’s as large homes and modern cars became status symbols. Today things are starting to change, with raising gas prices, long commute times and a growing awareness of environmental issues, people are saying no to suburbia and are moving back to the city.

Echo Boomers, Generation Y, Millennials, or whatever you like to call them; the children of the Baby Boomers have historically tried to separate themselves from their parents and their new lifestyle choice is no different. Moving to the cities Echo Boomers are a major contributor to this migration trend and are helping create this new lifestyle norm. Growing up in the suburbs this generation is opting to live close to work, restaurants and entertainment; abandoning the car and saving on time and gas costs. This urban lifestyle is about walking, biking and public transit (they aren’t call Echo Boomers for nothing). This generation doesn’t see the need for large half empty homes, lawns that need constant maintenance, or having to drive to the corner store, instead the desire is to be centrally located. According to Statistics Canada the density in large Canadian cities grew an average of 126.26 people per square kilometer from 2006 to 2011, topping the charts where Vancouver who’s density increased by 210 people per square kilometer and Toronto, increasing by 177.1 people p/ sq.km. It’s all about location and the most sought after are becoming those within the city.

Despite Generation Y’s quest to separate themselves from their parents, Baby Boomers are following the initiative of their children and making the move  themselves. As Baby Boomers approach retirement they are realizing their large, empty homes require too much maintenance, and the family vehicle continues to cost more and more to drive. Many Baby Boomers are seeking homes that better suite their lifestyle; hunting for smaller home which require little or no maintenance, are in close proximity to all amenities, contain a sense of community and can easily be locked up when traveling. Downtown condos are becoming a popular choice, offering Baby Boomers the lifestyle they are looking for. With so many people now competing for the same properties, prices are on the raise.

Together these two large groups are creating quite a lifestyle tend, raising property values in cities and increasing the number of high rise condos being building. According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing annual report; a record of 27,504 new condo unites where under construction in the city of Toronto at the end of 2011, increasing the city’s total number of condo units to 199,000. Will this urban living trend redefine the ‘Canadian Dream’? What does this mean for our cities, suburbs, transportation modes, property values, and environment? Change is inevitable and it seems we are about to whiteness the next big lifestyle shift; what the outcome will be, only time will tell.

Future Toronto Condo sites. Photo from condo-living-west.com

Upcoming Downtown Tour

I keep meeting people who were on a Jane’s Walk of Kitchener’s Warehouse District last May 1st, given by me and enjoyed by about 80 participants. Lots of community connections were made that day, and it was a great way to see the district with a fresh eye.

Coming up this Monday, November 4, 2010

I’ll be leading a group of cultural geography students from Wilfrid Laurier University on a different tour, but with a similar focus on the realities of design, culture, and the built landscape that is Kitchener’s Downtown.

We are assembling in the Rotunda of Kitchener’s City Hall, at 3 pm, and will be heading out, rain or shine, for a 2 hour walk through the downtown and warehouse district. We’ll examine issues of place-making, heritage and culture, our understanding and use of the idea of downtown, and the relation of built form and architecture to the patterns of our everyday lives.

The tour is part of a third year Cultural Heritage Landscapes course given by Dr. Jody Decker of WLU’s Department of Geography & Environmental Studies. I met Dr. Decker through our efforts to derail the demolition of a cultural heritage landscape in Kitchener’s Warehouse District (unfortunately a lost cause).

Everyone is welcome to join us. It will be fun and informative.

The themes of Dr. Decker’s course, as stated in her abstract, are as follows:

  • The concept of culture
  • The concept of place (community, neighborhood)
  • The concept of landscape
  • The discourse of heritage (conservation, preservation, restoration, revitalization, as resource)
  • Cultural heritage landscapes (CHLs)

I’ll probably be talking about concepts that are most interestly presented in Italo Calvino’s work Invisible Cities, and I’m sure there will be lively debate about what we’re looking at.

Calvino’s imaginative work catalogues 55 cities in a fictional conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, as Marco describes (in fanciful terms) the cities of Khan’s empire. For the short first chapter, see here.

Here’s an excerpt:

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, or agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.
Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.

Look forward to seeing you on Monday. 3 pm, City Hall, Kitchener.

Community Tensions

Recent municipal elections here in our watershed included a referendum for both Kitchener and Waterloo voters on the question of whether each city’s council could discuss the pros and cons of amalgamation. Since these communities have been joined at Union Street for nearing half a century, this is a sort of “across the fence” conversation.

The tension around the dynamics of local and regional governance are real, with many concerns regarding changes to the present uneasy balance of shared and autonomous authority. The tension might even be a good and necessary aspect of our community’s recipe for success.

Other amalgamations in our province (Ontario) have had mixed results, so there’s little evidence that such actions increase efficiencies at the neighbourhood level, and some evidence that decisions move further from the citizen.

In the end the larger municipality, Kitchener, voted 2-1 in favour of conversation. The smaller, Waterloo, 2-1 against. So the politicians won’t be discussing the question. Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t important, or that citizens can’t have that discussion.

A local blogger, Hilary Abel, has started a conversation forum asking Waterloo citizens to share their reasons for voting no. It’s an interesting read.

Dear Residents of Waterloo


Working with Waterfront

Brantford has approved a Waterfront Master Plan. Hopefully it’s a strategic plan more than a master plan. Master plans envision futures that never appear. First phases of master plans do get pursued, however, so let’s hope the first phases are strategic and beneficial, and provide flexibility for inevitable change.

Brantford’s Waterfront Master Plan

The goals (from the Report introduction):

“The Grand River and its tributaries are the lifeblood and a defining image of the City of Brantford. The Grand River valley has a great diversity of natural features and is enriched with an extraordinary historic legacy, evident of the aboriginal and european cultures that have settled this land for over 11,000 years. The Waterfront Master Plan will respect and reinforce this legacy and will define bold new directions that build on the tremendous successes of the City and its partners, who together have established 70 km of trails and hundreds of acres of public space.

  • The waterfront Master Plan will set forth a framework to protect the Grand River and its tributaries as a fundamental public resource for the residents of Brantford.
  • Natural features will be protected and enhanced and the cultural heritage will be interpreted so that all can understand and appreciate this area’s rich history.
  • The trails will be easily identified and accessed, and the network will become a widely recognized destination.
  • A diversity of places to access the water will be offered, providing for a variety of educational, recreational and leisurely activities that celebrate the Grand River and that will engage residents and visitors alike.
  • Appropriate development on adjacent lands will recognize the significance of these locations; be rooted in best practices in city building; strive for design excellence; and contribute positively to the waterfront and Brantford’s image.

And finally, the Waterfront Master Plan will inspire all residents to embrace this vision for sustainability and become stewards of this vital environment.”

Are all communities along the Grand working as hard to build upon this central and defining feature of our region?

Kitchener is working on a park master plan, available here but I’m not sure that the Grand River is properly viewed in the context of a parks plan. The river itself is obviously more central to Brantford and Galt, as the Speed is to Guelph, but the Grand River has the potential to unite us as a significant region in Southern Ontario.

Healthy Cities Help Raise Children

A few years back, our neighbours across the street in our downtown Kitchener neighbourhood (Victoria Park) proudly announced the impending arrival of their firstborn. “Fantastic!”, we said. “A playmate for our own children. More laughter up and down our street!!!” Alas, it was not to pass. The parents-to-be had another plan: a quick getaway to the outskirts of town. “We can’t raise children here. It really would be better for them in the suburbs.” Ouch! We waved goodbye through the exhaust of their moving van, and slunk back to our front porch to ponder our failure as parents. We knew as well as anyone the litany of evil that permeates our culture’s notions of “the City”, in stark contrast to its healthier and morally superior country setting. What were we thinking in exposing our offspring, their minds tender and not yet made up, to straight streets named after citizens, mature trees, and schools with two floors? While we weren’t swaddling them directly in unspoilt nature, couldn’t we at least procure the safety of pastoral scenes but a few subdivisions yonder?

As early as the 1950’s, that prescient urbanist Jane Jacobs lamented the geographic cleaving of North American cities along the lines of age and gender. Communities designed as a daily pattern of break-up, with breadwinners commuting each day to the concrete jungle, leaving the women and children safely ensconced in a more predictable, healthier, and “natural” setting. The gains we have made since those times (for women, for instance) have largely been about participation in this model, not as a fundamental change to it. If anything we have further reinforced the geographic isolation through public school closures and the relocation of high schools out of our downtowns, so that a teenager’s exposure to “life on the streets” is first minimised, and then redefined as a fearful dead end. Our children visit Downtown Toronto more than their own community cores, and they are now a second and third generation removed from any experience of the healthy hustle and bustle of a 1950’s main street.

We have planned our cities to reinforce a perception of urban streets as inherently dangerous. Our media dutifully report and dramatise this state of affairs. Statistics and facts are skewed in support of a powerful piece of urban mythology: Downtown is where the crime is! If we cannot eliminate it, then we should at least contain it geographically. Our hopes for the young and vulnerable are that they be protected from this den of iniquity, only bearing witness to the carnage through the flat screen of NYPD Blue, Cops, and sundry reality shows: the prime-time line-up from which our potential assailants are stereotyped.

Urban districts that do not include for children must surely be condemned as inadequate. The active presence of children is a fundamental measure for the health of our streets. Where they are absent, our design has failed. It is unfortunate that we have so few examples in North America for the integrated design of schools, shops, work, entertainment, recreation space, cultural experience, and accommodation within one geographic district. The City of Vancouver and other municipalities that lack a farm belt into which they might endlessly expand are leading the search for this new city form, and a return to a sustainable urban model for living. In the words of Larry Beasley, former Director of Planning for the City of Vancouver: “without its comprehensive ‘living first’ strategy, Vancouver would be lightyears behind where it needs to be. Most of all, the city would not have realized its dream for an urban lifestyle that will draw people back from their 50-year romance with the suburbs, bringing with them their resources, energy, and creativity to build the kind of remarkable city that an extraordinary natural setting and the city’s people so richly deserve.” Sound appealing? This weekend, why not explore a new frontier.  Bring your kids downtown.