Monday, December 7, 2009

Evergreen brickworks - Saturday October 23, 10:30 am

The Evergreen brickworks are located on the western side of the Bayview extension. The brickworks were once a quarry where materials were mined to produce bricks used in the construction of many mid-town Toronto neighbourhoods. About 25 years ago, the site was abandoned. In recent years it was taken over by a charity called Evergreen, which refurbished the area and renovated the buildings. To get there, a friend and I walked along a wide trail that cuts through the Moore park ravine. The trail leads to the south west side of the brickworks. The site is centred in a valley. To the west is a large pond, criss-crossed with wooden and metal bridges. A large, open air metal roof that resembles an airport hangar is the main hub of activity. Along one side of this structure are three small brick offices. At the Bayview entrance to the site there are two parking lots, as well as a two-storey brick building which houses a presentation centre. Not accessible to the public is another building that features a smoke stack; this area is still under construction.

Underneath the metal roof, a farmers’ market is taking place. Vendors have lined up tables and tents, and some are working out of the small offices. They sell everything from corn and French fries, to pasta, jam, eggs, and even wool clothing and homemade jewelry. Several environmentally-responsible lawn care companies are represented. All of the vendors are from Ontario and most display signs indicating that their products are organic. One vendor has a photo of farm workers and a sign next to it that reads "the faces that grow your food". At 10:30 am, the market seems to be winding down. One of the vendors we talk to says he sold out of eggs hours earlier, before the market officially opened.

The weather is overcast and a bit chilly, but lots of families are here, eating and buying food. There are crafts for kids and a pumpkin carving station. Some of the vendors shout out what they are selling, and the market is full of noises. There are some hanging lamps, but most of the light is natural. People are walking their dogs, browsing and chatting, and a news crew is filming the action. Instead of garbage bins, there are compost, recycling, and landfill bins. Most people seem to be following the instructions posted above these and sorting their waste accordingly. Outside the market, people are parking their cars, and both a TTC bus and an Evergreen shuttle bus are leaving to take people to Davisville station. Most visitors seem to be upper-middle class – the site is adjacent to wealthier neighbourhoods like Leaside, Moore Park, and Bennington Heights. Inside the presentation centre, an Evergreen representative screens a video about the future of the site and upcoming projects, including a playground. There are several models and diagrams depicting the site’s past, present and future. The building is very reminiscent of a condo presentation centre. Along the trails outside the brickworks, people are hiking, running and jogging. There is also a surprising amount of litter here.

Walking into the brickworks, I was pleased at how well the original character of the buildings and structures had been preserved. The functions and activities of the farmers’ market meshed well with the space, and it seemed like a cohesive fit. One of my first observations was that all of the vendors accepted credit and debit as forms of payment. This is unlike most open-air fairs and markets, where cash-only payments are the norm. It made me wonder if using energy to power the point-of-sale machines was really in line with the stated environmental goals of the site. I felt as though most of the families here were visiting the brickworks for the novelty of it rather than as a genuine attempt at sustainable eating and living. I work at a store in Leaside and many of our customers demand organic products, but continue to drive SUVs. This type of conflicting behaviour is reflective of the current trendiness of environmentalism, which was evidenced at the brickworks.

Our class discussion about the city as a palimpsest connects well with the brickworks. The brickworks sit in what was once nothing but a small valley adjacent to a ravine. A quarry was built here, making the site an industrial symbol of natural exploitation. Then it was abandoned, and nature slowly took over. When I visited the brickworks as a child, the buildings were crumbling, weeds grew everywhere, and animals were nesting among the structures. Finally, Evergreen took over the brickworks and is proceeding with multiple projects to improve the site. Each stage of the site’s progression is slightly obscured, but still present. For example, the smokestack and the graffiti still marking concrete walls. The constant cycle of nature to industry and back again is interesting, although for the first time in its history, the industry taking place there (i.e. the farmers’ market) is responsible and ecologically sustainable. In “Natural Capital”, Paul Hawken discusses both the natural side of economics and the economic side of nature. He elaborates on the well-known wastefulness and inefficiency of industry, and its harmful ecological impact. He explains what industry rarely takes into account – “the “income” derived from a healthy environment”. The brickworks were once an ecologically exploitative facility, but have been transformed into an economically productive site whose participants recognize the value of a healthy ecosystem as well as the value of a dollar.

The brickworks are constitutive of a human/nature relationship, but it is a particularly urban relationship. In order for the brickworks to be successful as a space for markets, children’s activities, workshops, etc, it needs to attract a wide range of people. Its position near wealthy neighbourhoods is beneficial in this aspect, but it also means that certain concessions have to be made for the site to be commercially viable. The parking lot, visitor’s centre, and debit machines are examples of such concessions. They symbolize the give and take necessary to make urban/nature relationships last. The brickworks are also an excellent example of an urban/nature relationship because the site eliminates the perceived distance between farm and city. These two spaces are intrinsically linked, but most people never have the opportunity to see them made visible. The ability to speak directly to the person growing your food, or the person producing natural herbicides used on your lawn is important. Farmers’ markets afford people that ability, and also give them the chance to purchase locally grown, organic products. For these reasons, the brickworks serve as an urbanized, but essential site of interaction in both rural/urban and human/nature relationships.

TTC Metropass - the month of October

A Metropass may not constitute a “site” per se, but I chose it because it is representative of a lifestyle and it links hundreds of sites around the city of Toronto. This is my Toronto Transit Commission Metropass for October 2009. I bought it from the University of Toronto Student Union, where I receive a student discount. The card is lightweight, about the size of a credit card. It features a hologram and a magnetic stripe. I keep it in my coat pocket and use it to ride buses, streetcars, and the subway. I used it to visit most of the following sites.

The Metropass can be analyzed on a number of scales. On a personal level, it is a form of access and economic privilege that I carry with me whenever I leave the house. I am fortunate to be able to afford it. I can lend it to family members and extend that access to them. One thing I noticed when I switched from tokens to the Metropass is that when friends or homeless people ask me for a token, I can’t give them anything. The democratic nature of per-use tokens and tickets are eliminated. On a regional level, my Metropass provides me with transportation services, making it easier to visit different places around Toronto. It is cheaper than a car or a cab, faster than walking, and arguably safer than cycling. Although the pass lets me visit different parts of Toronto, I never take advantage of this in order to go out and explore the city. Ironically, the only time I really walk through different neighbourhoods is when a TTC line is down and I have to walk home from U of T. Walking home on days like this, I notice things I never see from the window of a bus or streetcar. It is also a time when I am most exposed to the elements. The Metropass allows me to move from bus to train and back again, without ever going outside. I generally use the pass to get from A to B, and I tend to go to the same places following the same routes. The Metropass provides people with a virtually unlimited number of options, yet they use it for a finite number of personal routes. All of these routes intersect, creating the public transit system. In this way, public transportation is very personal and very public at the same time.

On a universal level, the Metropass says a great deal about urban planning and development, technology, and social class. In London, England, the Underground uses electronic tickets only, called Oyster cards. These cards keep an electronic record of a person’s journey that can be accessed online, and these records have been used to solve several crimes. This use of technology can be considered an invasion of privacy, but it enables the system to process millions of people quickly and efficiently. This sense of being “processed” adds to the depersonalized, public experience of riding on public transit.

In “Transit and the Metropolis: Finding Harmony”, Robert Cervero discusses public transit usage in Europe and North America. He touches on suburbanization, fare increases, and the difficulty of finding a practical balance between urban sprawl and transit development. Cervero outlines four types of “transit metropolises”. Toronto fits best into the “hybrid” city category, because Toronto has adapted city to transit and transit to city. Toronto’s “megacity” status requires that the TTC adapt transit to meet the demands of development. For example, the subway line that will one day reach York University. Development has also adapted to conform to transit patterns; condominiums built on or near a TTC line tout this as a huge selling point. The cost of public transportation is another major issue. The different economic and business centres of Toronto makes it necessary for almost everyone to leave their neighbourhood on a semi-regular basis, and the city’s size and geography make the TTC one of the most practical options for getting somewhere quickly. However, with ever-increasing fares, some people worry that the TTC might price itself out of people’s budgets, making it less and less democratic. This is a serious problem for homeless people, and for people on fixed incomes. Rising fares create a paradoxical situation – living in a sprawling city requires long-distance transportation, but this transportation is increasingly unaffordable as it struggles to meet consumer demand and spread outwards around the city.

The Metropass is constitutive of a human/nature relationship, but the way it connects the two is blurred. The relationship is a positive one because mass transit is an environmentally responsible form of transportation and is really the only way to move millions of people around cities without massive ecological damage. Although people are not interacting with nature directly, they are making a lifestyle choice that is more sustainable than a car-centered lifestyle. The relationship is a negative one because the need for widespread public transportation is a sign that we have planned and laid out our cities (particularly the suburbs) in an economically-driven way that deters pedestrians and cyclists, forcing people to use organized transportation rather than walk. Looked at this way, the Metropass can be considered a necessary evil in the personal yet public relationship between public transportation users and nature.

Dufferin Grove Park - Saturday November 21st, 4:00 pm

Dufferin Grove Park is located two blocks south of Bloor and Dufferin St. At the west end of the park is a large playground, a wading pool, a composting station, and a set of sinks made of cob (a mixture of sand, clay and straw). At the northeast corner of the park are a basketball court, two wood burning stoves, and several long picnic tables and benches. There are two gardening projects, a vegetable and herb garden and a children’s garden. There are also two skating rinks. Next to these sits a building that houses a zamboni as well as a small organic café, a kitchen, a large change room and a performance space.

The weather is crisp, and it is starting to get dark but there are still many children playing on the jungle gym. Several teenagers and some adults play basketball. A few people are walking their dogs through the park. On the rink, two women who appear to be park volunteers test the ice, but it is still mostly water. Inside the building, a woman working at the café plays with her son and chats with another woman washing dishes in the kitchen. A hand-written menu says that the café serves organic juice, fair trade coffee, and home-made bread. In the bright and cozy change room a small wood stove burns in front of a couch and chairs; the walls are lined with photos and newspaper clippings about the park. It is very quiet – the cold weather seems to have kept many people indoors. Apart from the children playing, the only sounds are from the cars on Dufferin Street.

The sense of community here is very strong, and unlike anything I have experienced in my own neighbourhood. My immediate reaction was excitement, but then I began to wonder why more neighbourhoods do not have these types of facilities available. Members of the Dufferin Grove community created a volunteer organization called Friends of Dufferin Grove Park which oversees various activities, and runs the café. Clearly this group has a very strong commitment to sustainable living, and to the growth of the park itself. What I noticed immediately about the park was how self-sufficient it is, and how many activities can take place here. For example, the herb and vegetable garden grows toppings for the pizza that can be cooked in the wood stove. In warmer months, you can eat your food outside or bring it indoors to watch a local band perform. In previous years I have seen puppet shows performed here. One’s role in this space seems to be unlimited – Dufferin Grove has almost everything you could hope for in a park.

Ann Whiston Spirn’s discussion of the “Granite Garden” translates well to the activities happening at Dufferin Grove Park. She believes that many people forget that the same natural processes that take place in the wild also take place in the city. She claims that although the city is not entirely natural, it is not entirely constructed either. Rather, the city is an expression of our attempt to use nature to serve our needs. She also criticizes the well-intentioned idea of “introducing” nature to the city as though it is something foreign. The people of Dufferin Grove recognize that nature is an inherent part of the city and instead of “introducing” natural elements, they work with what they already have. Nowhere is the assertion that the city is an example of “nature serving our needs” more apparent than here. Dufferin Grove is a role model for using nature to serve a community’s needs in a sustainable way. Whiston Spirn notes that incremental changes are more feasible, and more easily adapted to suit the needs of different communities. The members of the Dufferin Grove community definitely understand how to harmoniously fuse “natural” activities like composting and gardening with urban living. Their activities also reflect the community’s needs and desires, because they were not imposed on the park; community members designed and carried out these environmental initiatives themselves.

Dufferin Grove Park is constitutive of a healthy, committed human/nature relationship. The concept of humans as stewards of the environment is reflected in the community’s efforts to care for the park, but also in their ability to use the park responsibly, and for the benefit of local people. So many “projects of modernity” are designed to separate human and nature, to sanitize the city and to keep nature from intruding on civilization. The initiatives being carried out at Dufferin Grove Park are quite the opposite. They reconnect people with nature and bring the environment back into people’s lives using a space that might otherwise have sat empty. So often people’s relationships with parks are purely aesthetic, but Dufferin Grove is a working relationship in every sense of the word. The community has put the park to work - growing vegetables, composting food, etc – and in return the community works to keep the park healthy. I would imagine that this is a very rewarding experience.

Electrical substation (transformer house) - Monday November 30, 4:00 pm

This site is an electrical substation operated by Toronto Hydro-Electric, located at 640 Millwood Rd. The substation is referred to as a transformer because it processes energy it receives from other power stations in Ontario, and transforms it into more manageable amounts. It then circulates the energy to local houses. The transformer is disguised inside a structure designed to resemble a two-storey house. The house has two large windows on the first “floor” and two on the second. The glass is frosted so it is difficult to get a good look inside, but a table lamp is visible in one window and a binder or manual in the other. A flagstone path leads up to the house, and there are three tall shrubs planted outside. If you walk up the driveway, you can see that the house extends further back than a normal house would, and has a large backyard. A white picket fence and a black and orange reflective post are meant to deter people from trespassing.

The house itself does not seem to emit any heat or noise, although I did not get very close to it. It is not lit up in anyway. The weather is chilly but bright, and there are children walking home from school on the opposite side of the street. There are several cars parked in front of the house, but none of the neighbours seem to be around, and there are no signs of animals. No one has stopped to look at the house, although a woman walking her dog stops momentarily to watch me take photos. Unless you are a Hydro-Electric employee, one’s role at the site is simply to stay away from it.

Observing the transformer, I was reminded by how easy it is to ignore it, because it was designed to be ignored. I walk by the transformer on my way to work every day, and I have never stopped to look at it. I remembered asking my parents about the house as a child; I must have noticed that there was something not quite right about it. I remember wondering what the people who lived next door thought about it, if it made noise, if they liked having a machine for a neighbour. What struck me about the house’s design is how idealistic it is. The house (complete with white picket fence) looks too perfect, and does not really blend with the architecture of the neighbourhood. Rather than disguise the presence of an electrical transformer, the house is instead the proverbial elephant in the room.

The only blatant signs that this is not a normal house are faded hazard symbols attached to the front door and the fence, warning people not to go near the house. The warning signs, although absolutely necessary, are emblematic of a larger relationship with natural forces. At a time when so many energy options are available to us – wind, water, solar – most people continue to rely on energy sources that they have been taught to fear. Electricity is a scary thing, a power source that we are trained to treat with caution from a young age. Perhaps this is why I was so intrigued with the house as a child. It conjures a mixture of fear and curiosity. The feeling that electricity is dangerous, which it undoubtedly can be, is supposed to be assuaged by hiding this power source inside a home - a symbol of comfort and familiarity. I wonder whether people would be more or less fearful were the transformer exposed.

In “The Metabolism of Cities”, Herbert Girardet explains that we take energy for granted because “the impacts of our energy use on the environment… are not experienced directly,” an ignorance that is enabled by transformer houses. Girardet discusses the importance of local energy sources. The beneficial impacts of buying locally grown food are widely known, but these principles can be applied to energy as well. The transformer receives energy coming from more distant power plants and distributes it to the houses surrounding it. If we used local energy, from roof-top solar panels, or windmills, energy would not have to come from so far away, and we could conserve more of it. If people began to explore alternative energy sources, we could decrease our dependence on traditional electricity, strengthening and making visible our relationship with energy. We could thereby eliminate the need for transformer houses.

The transformer house is constitutive of a human nature relationship, but more specifically, it is an elaborate effort to obscure this relationship. The hidden network of electricity that runs through our cities effectively “urbanizes” nature because it makes a product of civilization appear inevitable and timeless. The human-harnessed force of electricity is something people take for granted. Only during blackouts do people reconsider their relationship with electricity. When the power comes back on, our reliance on electrical systems is quickly forgotten. The purpose of transformer houses is to “sanitize” nature – to neatly disguise our relationship with it. They also allow us to conveniently push aside our environmental responsibilities and unsustainable energy usage – out of sight, out of mind. The transformer house is an expression of our desire to ignore nature, to forget about our dependence on its power and to calm our fears about its dangers.

Link to photo collection of other transformer houses:

Tim’s garden, Leaside - Saturday November 28th, 1:00 pm

My friend Tim’s backyard is attached to his parent’s home in Leaside. Tim’s family has always grown some vegetables in their garden, but it was not until this summer that Tim was allowed to use the entire backyard to grow his own. The weather is overcast and very cold, but the sky is bright. There are noises coming from next door, where a new house is under construction. The sounds of a generator and people working can be heard, as well as cars from the street. The garden consists of nine beds, spread out horizontally across the yard and divided by wooden planks. There are three compost bins at the far end where the family composts all of their organic food scraps and some newspaper. There is also a small wooden green house, and lots of gardening tools such as rakes, pots and shovels. Tim grows a wide variety of vegetables, including Swiss chard, potatoes, green onions, eggplant, lettuce, garlic, peppers, beets, basil, squash, carrots, tomatoes, beans and currants. He also buys and sells worms that are used to speed up compost. Although Tim’s parents and brothers use the garden, Tim is the only person here today. He is adjusting the compost, and checking on his worms and lettuce.

Tim moves around the garden, describing to me how his garden has evolved. He used to grow vegetables for pleasure, but over the years he began to tailor what he grew to his family’s diet. Most of the produce he used to buy at the grocery store is now in his own backyard. Once he convinced his parents its cost-effectiveness was worthwhile, Tim was allowed to expand his garden, and his whole family is now involved in the project. Through trial and error, his gardening practices have changed too. He now grows the plants that need the most tending at the front, and the hardier plants at the back. This may have to change, as the house being built next door will extend across half the length of the backyard, shutting out a lot of western light. This loss of light was evident already, and construction is still underway. This summer Tim may have to rearrange the garden’s layout to make the most of what light is left. Tim explains that one of the biggest challenges of urban farming is that structures are built, moved, and renovated more frequently than in rural areas, and plants often suffer as gardeners struggle to adjust. Tim’s garden is constantly changing, and because it stays in use throughout most of the year, there is always something to do and he is happy to put visitors to work. Tim emphasizes the importance of learning new techniques, and better ways to live sustainably and be self-sufficient.

Although I visit Tim’s garden often in the summer months, I never realized the extent of the work he puts into it. I am usually content to enjoy the (literal) fruits of his labour - Tim often brings over freshly picked tomatoes and currants. I have always derived a great deal of comfort knowing that my food was grown and picked by a friend or family member, but I did not realize why until I began asking Tim about his garden. I think this feeling of security stems from the fact that if I ever wanted to know, the entire chain of production could be explained to me by someone I trust. Because I do not produce any of my own food, I never really bothered to ask Tim how he grew things; I’m not in the habit of questioning the sources of my food. When I started to ask him how different things in the garden worked, he told me that he had learned different methods over the years, and picked up tips from other gardeners. My newfound understanding of the processes behind the food Tim puts on my plate made me appreciate what I had always taken for granted.

Tim places a great deal of emphasis on being self-sufficient, an issue that is discussed in Michael Shuman’s “Import Replacement.” Shuman points out that “community self-reliance” has been the standard throughout human history, but is now practically unimaginable for many people. He admits that becoming self-reliant does often mean decreasing the variety of foods available to a community. However, taking control of food production is economically empowering, and does not require cutting off all connections with outside trade. Shuman is careful to explain the financial risks and benefits of producing your own food, just as Tim had to do with his parents. Although there are start-up and maintenance costs that Tim pays out of pocket, the garden eventually pays for itself.

Talking to Tim reminded me of our class discussion about the chain of production behind McDonald’s restaurants. In the video about how McDonalds produces its chicken nuggets, propaganda and clever editing were used to obscure the timeline of a McDonald chicken’s life. The video completely concealed the networks of food processing. This made our class realize how complex these processes are, and how little we know about our food. At the end of the video, our class was still unclear about how a chicken McNugget actually got made, and we were left with a lot of questions. McDonald’s stressed how sanitary and safe their facilities are, and emphasized the “science” behind their food. This focus is reminiscent of Alex Inkeles’ characteristic of a modern person as having a strong faith in science as a basis for understanding. The irony of this is that despite all of McDonald’s standardization and safety measures, I would rather rely on Tim’s tomatoes - the product of trial and error - than a chicken McNugget any day.

Tim’s backyard is an excellent example of a human/nature connection. His garden project has brought him closer in contact with nature than anyone I know. Like Michael Shuman explained, this type of relationship defined human activity for thousands of years, but in the space of several decades, the link between humans and nature, and between the domestic sphere and food production, has been severed. Many people I know are surprised to learn how much of his family’s food Tim grows, and like I was, how much effort goes into cultivating it. Most people prefer to pay extra at the grocery store in exchange for more variety, but at the cost of sacrificing their relationship with their food. Strange as it sounds, creating a “relationship” with your food – knowing where it comes from, how it was grown, how it ends up on your plate – is an excellent way to reconnect with nature.

Riverdale Farm - Saturday November 21st, 3:00 pm

Riverdale Farm is located at the corner of Winchester and Sumach Streets, just west of the Bayview extension. In front of the farm is a large park. Although Riverdale farm does not have fields in which it grows food to sell, it does have a variety of farm animals which live in small-scale versions of their “natural” farm habitats (I do not know what the farm does with the milk and eggs its animals produce). A path leads through a gate attached to the original farmhouse, and past two barns that house pigs and horses. There is a large pen where two horses are eating. As you walk further down the path, there are several small pens on a hill. Goats and sheep and can be seen eating and relaxing. A couple of chickens roam freely. There is a pond full of ducks, with a viewing platform for children to observe them more closely. Across from the pond is an indoor hall where a few children are working on crafts. Past this is a small museum. There are street lamps in the park and scattered through the farm, but these have not been turned on yet and it has just begun to get dark. Most of the noises at the farm are the sounds of children shouting and laughing, and a dull buzz from cars on the Bayview extension. The animals themselves are almost silent.

All of the visitors to the farm today are families with very young children, and many seem to be tourists. The day is overcast and fairly chilly and many families are packing up to leave. The animals are relaxing in their pens, eating and watching the people who are watching them. A father points out a goat to his young daughter and picks her up to get a better look. Most of the children are straining to get closer to the animals. In the indoor hall, children are drawing while an instructor talks about the farm’s animals. Outside, most parents are picking up belongings and calling to their children to hurry up. In the park next to the farm, people are jogging and walking their dogs, and children are playing tag.

What struck me immediately about the farm was how small it appeared. I visited Riverdale several times on field trips in elementary school, but had never been back. The farm did not meet my expectations on this trip. It was much smaller than I remembered, and seemed less vibrant. There also seemed to be fewer animals, although this could have been related to the weather. As such, most of my observations disappointed me. I noticed that there were “Do Not Feed the Animals” signs placed prominently throughout the farm, and I wondered how effective these are.

What was obvious was the dichotomy between access to and protection from the animals (and their protection from us). The barriers between humans and the animals are clearly mutually beneficial. Policies about feeding protect the animals from harm, while chest-high wooden fences prevent animals from escaping or children from getting too close. However, chickens wander loose around the farm and seem oblivious to children’s attempts to touch them. For kids growing up in downtown Toronto, Riverdale farm is arguably the closest one can come to animals (other than domestic pets). Visitor’s experiences at the farm are mildly scripted – almost everyone follows the asphalt path from barn to pen and back again, observing the same animals in the same order as everyone else. The visitor’s role is primarily one of observation; interaction with the animals is fairly limited.

Riverdale farm can be considered a fairly literal interpretation of Ebenezer Howard’s vision of a “town-country magnet”, an alternative to the isolation of the country and the immorality of the city. The “town-country magnet” was a happy medium that combined the benefits of rural and urban life, creating a mix of nature and social opportunity. As a farm set in the middle of a busy urban area, Riverdale has most of the benefits of rural life. It is fairly peaceful, family-friendly, and allows people to feel close to nature. It also shares the advantages of its urban setting – it is easily accessible and free of charge. William Cronon’s “Nature’s Metropolis”, can be used to analyze the farm from a different perspective. Cronon debunks the perception that agriculture is pure and organic, describing the farm as a “small artificial ecosystem” that “undermined the prairie ecosystem”. Personally I am glad that the farm exists, because it increases awareness about animals and about our food sources. Riverdale Farm is an excellent venue for children in the city to learn about animals, and to experience a taste of farm life that they might otherwise be unable to access. At the same time, the farm’s small scale makes it an unnatural microcosm of an already unnatural ecosystem.

Riverdale farm is constitutive of a human/nature connection, but it is not an entirely authentic relationship. Although the animals are themselves “natural”, their placement within built structures (pens, barns, etc) is incongruent with their natural desire to roam free. The experience of watching people watch animals, who are in turn watching the people, brings to mind the image of a fishbowl. The animals serve an educational purpose and have entertainment value. The fact that they are serving these scripted purposes, in addition their natural ones (reproduction, food production, etc), is evidence that the farm’s activities are artificial at their core. As a sort of “mini-farm”, Riverdale farm is doubly unnatural – an imitation of an imitation of nature.

Yonge-Dundas Square - Friday October 16, 2:30 pm

Yonge Dundas-Square is located at the southeast corner of Yonge and Dundas streets. It was built in 2003 as part of the City of Toronto’s plan to revitalize the downtown core. The square is surrounded on four sides by buildings covered by billboards and video advertisements which extend upwards for several storeys. On the north side of the square are moveable tables and chairs underneath a long canopy made of concrete and wood. Next to this are a ticket booth and an entrance to Dundas station. A covered stage dominates the east end of the square, and the south side is lined by 5 small trees. At the west end of the square is a tourist information booth.

Today is cold and windy, but the square is full of people. Many people have moved chairs into the sun. Students and elderly people are reading, talking on the phone, and watching the activities taking place in the centre of the square. Other people cut quickly across the square. Today an NBA/Raptors promotion is taking place, which consists of a basketball free throw competition. An announcer asks people where they are from, and talks about prize giveaways. A crowd of about forty people, comprised mostly of teenagers and young men has gathered to watch and enter the competition. A few white tents are being set up by workers near the ticket booth. The square is filled with the sounds of people talking and laughing, brakes squealing and idling buses and cars on Yonge Street.

What I noticed immediately about the square is how passive everyone is. Apart from the people shooting basketballs at the NBA promotion, no one seems to be involved in any activity that directly relates to the square itself. In particular, the crowd watching the basketball free throw looks almost zombie-like. Over the course of about thirty minutes, more and more people with bored expressions wander over to watch, and the crowd grows. The people crossing through the square head mostly in the direction of the Eaton Centre and do not appear to notice their surroundings. Several of the people sitting at tables are talking on the phone and face outwards, away from the square. The different activities taking place at this site are separate and distinct, and other than people working (the NBA announcer, the men assembling tents) no one seems to have a concrete purpose for being here. The square is not central to their activity; everything they are doing could be done anywhere. There is nothing inherently special about the space – it acts as a backdrop against which other activities are acted out.

The lack of greenery in the square is apparent. The trees here are not very tall, and are mostly blocked by NBA signs. A few flower arrangements sit on the south and west sides of the square, and seem to be for aesthetic purposes only. The use of water at this site is interesting. There are two angular concrete drinking fountains. Their inorganic shapes are in keeping with the sleek design of the square. On days when the square is relatively quiet, jets installed in the ground shoot beams of water high into the air to make the square appear less empty. My relationship with the square, like most of the other people here, is passive. Although I am actively writing notes and taking photos, I am watching other people. The lack of scripting is what is most prominent about people’s behaviour here. Upon entering the square, it is rarely clear what is happening. Nothing acts as a guide except the movement of other people towards the square. I suspect that many of the people who came over to the NBA free throw did so because they saw a crowd, not because they wanted to know more about the Raptors, or because there were signs directing them.

In “Orthodox Planning and The North End”, Jane Jacobs describes the stereotypical modern downtown core, claiming that “extraordinary governmental financial incentives have been required to achieve this degree of monotony, sterility and vulgarity”. This quote matches my observations about Dundas Square, which for a space full of people, is surprisingly devoid of life. Jacobs argues that city planners and architects have gone to great lengths to learn how cities work and what is good for people, but often just piggyback off old ideas without observing how their plans play out in real life. A design on paper is very different from one in action. I have often wondered if the planners behind Dundas Square have ever had to spend a day there, and what their reaction might be to the way their design is being lived out. Jacobs visited Boston’s “slum” North End neighbourhood, and discovered that although residents were poor, they were statistically healthier than people in other parts of the city, and appeared to be happy, creative, and inventive. The reality of life in the North End defied everything that urban planners had been taught about what makes a city a healthy, positive place, and to maintain this view, they had to ignore the obvious reality that the North End was not a bad place. Jacobs emphasized the importance of both “the science of city planning and the art of city design, in real life for real cities”.

Our class discussions about the criteria of international cities and about Alex Inkeles’ qualities of a modern person may serve to explain why Dundas Square was built the way it was, without greenery and without imagination. Dundas Square is often described as “Toronto’s Times Square”, and the aesthetic similarities are obvious, particularly the giant ads and billboards that frame both spaces. Dundas Square seems to be part of an attempt to make Toronto an internationally acclaimed city. The Square’s design is not particularly original, or Torontonian, or even Canadian. It does not take into account the natural climate of Toronto (it is a frozen wind tunnel in the winter). But it meets the criteria of an international city – New York, London, and Tokyo all have large public squares that feature prominent ads. Dundas Square is just a small-scale imitation of those spaces. In terms of modernity, the concept that nature cannot coexist with modern, sophisticated design, is reproduced in the square’s design. The related ideas that nature is not inherently useful, and has to be economical in order to serve a purpose, are also reflected. The notion that “modernity” is a quality that is, and must remain separate from natural spaces, is very outdated. Organic and sustainable design and building practices are becoming increasingly popular, and the politically correct “norm” in design. Unfortunately, the planners of Dundas Square did not attempt to create a relationship with nature.

Yonge-Dundas Square is not constitutive of a human-nature connection. Nature is clearly secondary to the design of the square. Its main purpose is to function as a container for unrelated activities – concerts, promotions, performances, small markets. It is also a space from which people can - or rather, cannot avoid to - observe a plethora of advertisements. Nature serves a purely aesthetic/utilitarian role in the square. As part of a post-modern project, nature is obliged to be incorporated. Once construction of the square was complete, trees and pleasing flower gardens were added after the fact – organic elements are in no way integral or central to the function of the square. Drinking water, a basic connection to nature, is obscured by modern design. Water is also used (or arguably wasted) as a space-filler. Historically, town squares have drawn people outside to enjoy nature and each other’s company. While some people seem to enjoy the sunshine at Yonge-Dundas Square, in and of itself the space is neither a destination nor a particularly good example of urban nature.

Regent Park Housing Project - Friday October 16, 3:30 pm

Regent Park was built in the 1950s as a transitional housing development for low income families. The development was plagued by poverty and high rates of crime during the latter half of the 20th century. It is currently undergoing massive structural changes as part of a revitalization project. The development is bordered by Parliament, Shuter, River, and Gerrard Streets, and is composed of 3 storey apartments clustered together. There are also some two storey townhomes. There are no roads inside the development; small parking lots and walking paths separate the buildings. These pathways intersect forming interior courtyards. Each grouping of apartments shares a garbage dumpster, which sit just off the walking paths.

Some of the empty buildings have tall, uncut grass growing wild in front of them. There are also drifting piles of fallen leaves and small branches that have not been raked or cleared away. Some homes have weeds and vines growing up against them. The weather is crisp but the area is very sunny; the low height of the buildings ensures that residents receive a lot of western light. The interior of the development is almost eerily quiet – some buildings have been vacated as newer ones are constructed. There are noises from the cars and people on the surrounding streets.

One woman sits on her balcony facing the street, and several children walk home from Regent Park/Duke of York Public School. Near almost each dumpster that I pass are people talking, usually middle aged women in groups of two or three. It is unclear how many buildings now sit empty because of the revitalization project, but there is a noticeable absence of people. Wildlife seems more prevalent than humans here, and there are many squirrels and birds. Many of the squirrels were eating and scavenging through trash they had plucked from the dumpsters.

The absence of people was the first thing I noticed, and on a sunny Friday afternoon it seemed particularly strange. This made it difficult to imagine what the development was like when it was fully populated, and what other activities might have been taking place. I live in a busy, middle class neighbourhood and it was difficult to relate to both the low noise level, and the experience of living in low-income housing project. The eerie silence of the area especially made me feel out of place. At most of the other sites I visited, it was relatively easy to blend in and participate in the activities taking place, and not feel uncomfortable taking photos. In Regent Park, I felt more like an outside observer than at any of the other sites.

Another surprising observation was the way residents utilized the garbage dumpsters as a tool for social connection. Perhaps the interior design of the building limits social interaction, but there are definitely no visible benches or well-designed gathering spaces outdoors. The communal act of throwing out garbage is a substitute, with the dumpsters acting as informal meeting places. The interior courtyards have been cited in the media as an enabling factor in the criminal activity that Regent Park struggled with. When the development was created, it was considered to be very family-friendly because of the lack of dangerous traffic intersecting the apartment buildings. Ironically it was the lack of traffic, low visibility and clandestine nature of the interior courtyards that enabled crime to flourish. The dumpsters are also symbolic of irresponsible decisions on the part of the city. Perhaps it was not considered worthwhile to implement a recycling program in a development that was about to be torn down, but there are always alternatives to just dumping garbage.

Andre Gunder Frank’s critique of “The Development of Underdevelopment” can be applied to the past, present and future manifestations of Regent Park. Gunder Frank uses the example of Brazilian development to argue that development assistance only makes poverty and inequality worse. He discusses the concept of “dependency theory” to show that development creates a hierarchy of “satellites” – towns and regions that are dependent on the economic resources and growth of larger urban areas. Considering that Regent Park is in its third stage – from an impoverished neighbourhood of row houses to subsidized housing development to “revitalized” mixed-income housing – it is clear that development has done little for the Park. This evolution of repeated attempts at gentrification has not made Regent Park independent or prosperous. Instead, the Park relies on city-run projects that shape the development as they sit fit, disrupting the lives of thousands of residents. Was Regent Park an embarrassment to municipal government? Is it being rebuilt for the betterment of its residents, or just to deter crime? The concept of gentrification relates to our class discussion about the criteria for international cities. In addition to Dundas Square, the revitalization of Regent Park is part of a trend of poorer Toronto areas being given a facelift. These projects are always accompanied by government rhetoric about Toronto striving to become an internationally recognized city, and of possibly reclaiming its title “Toronto the Good”. Clearly neighbourhoods like Regent Park cannot remain as they are if they want to be included in Toronto’s idealized future.

Regent Park is somewhat constitutive of a human/nature relationship, albeit an irresponsible one. The lack of maintenance and care for the lawns and plants surrounding the empty buildings is the most visible sign of a faltering human/nature relationship, and contributed to an atmosphere of neglect and abandonment. Our class discussion about Zoo Woods and its maintenance applies to this issue. Zoo Woods was designed to be low-maintenance and appears to grow of its own accord, but a closer look proves that routine pruning and clearing is performed. The grounds of Regent Park do not need to be manicured, but basic activities such as clearing away fallen branches, should be performed for the safety and well being of its residents. The lack of maintenance might be excused by the fact that these buildings will soon be demolished, but it would be interesting to compare the level of grounds keeping in the past with that of the future site. The prevalence of animals is also a sign of an irresponsible relationship with nature, as it relates to garbage. The use of garbage dumpsters instead of a green bin/recycling program is ecologically irresponsible, and makes it easier and more accessible for animals to eat garbage and overtake the area. This is not in the best interests of animals or people. The fact that there is no recycling program shows that this neighbourhood’s environmental needs are not a high priority for municipal government. The City of Toronto can repair Regent Park’s relationship with nature by implementing a recycling program and ensuring that the “revitalized” Park is people-friendly and has sustainable, easily maintained grounds.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Trinity College Green Roof - Friday November 20th, 1:20 pm

The Trinity College green roof is located at St. Hilda’s College Residence, at 44 Devonshire Place. It can be reached by a door off the second floor staircase. The roof began as a project conceived by the Trinity College Environmental Club and was built in the summer of 2008. The green roof is a desolate place on a Friday afternoon in November. The weather is overcast and a little chilly. Noise from cars and people on St. George to the west and Hoskin Street to the south drift upwards, but are muffled by the surrounding buildings. The roof has no artificial lighting. Western light filtering through gaps between the Rotman Centre and an Innis College residence is weak at this time of year.

The roof is the size of a small backyard, about 25 feet by 25 feet. It is contained by a fence made of glass and green metal. A path made of wooden slats stretches from the roof door to a wooden platform at the western end. On this platform sits a long three-sided wooden bench beneath two wooden canopies of differing heights. Next to the bench is what appears to be a large wooden storage chest. The roof itself is covered in a thick layer of leaves and woodchips, although grass grows in its place during warmer months. Four of five clusters of small bushes dot the space, but there is no other plant life. There is also one green metal bench. There are no birds, and the roof’s height makes it difficult for squirrels to reach. The two windows that open directly onto the roof are encased in wooden lattice. No one is occupying the space.

The reason that no activities are taking place on the roof is because the door that leads to it is locked and chained. Although the roof is part of a residence, it is supposed to be accessible for all Trinity College students. When I inquired about the roof at the St. Hilda’s porter’s lodge, I was told that the roof is only opened when an event is being held there. I was told to contact the Dean’s office or the office of the Bursar if I wanted to access it. A custodian overheard this and asked how long I needed the roof for, and I explained I needed to observe the roof and take photos for an anthropology project. The custodian called the Dean’s office to approve my request, and then escorted me to the roof and waited while I took photos. I understand that the College may have security concerns about who is visiting the roof and when, but protocol as extensive as I experienced effectively prevents students from accessing the roof at all.

The rooftop garden is the most personal of my ethnographic sites. Two years ago I lived at St. Hilda’s college, in one of two rooms whose windows opened onto what is now the green roof. I was living there when construction on the roof began in the spring of 2008. Although walking on the roof was forbidden, it was still a nice place to sit on warm nights, store drinks and food to keep them cool, and to watch the sun set. I attended the Environmental Club meeting to discuss the rooftop. Although I was somewhat disappointed that I would be losing what felt like my private rooftop, I was glad that the College was actively involved in such a green initiative, and that other students would benefit. On the Trinity College website, a page is devoted to the green roof, written before its construction. It claims that the proposed garden would be “a leafy sanctuary for busy students and staff, but it would also act as insulation, cooling the building in the sweltering Toronto summers”. I am aware that because of this personal connection, my interpretation of the roof may be biased, and these observations are based on my singular experience with the green roof. However, I think it is fair to say that this particular goal for the green roof – student accessibility – has not been met. Although the green roof may carry out its organic function, no one is there to enjoy it. While the same may be said for an isolated forest, the roof garden was purposely built as a natural oasis for staff and students.

What I noticed immediately when I stepped onto the roof was that the window of the room I used to live in is now enclosed by wooden lattice for privacy purposes. This measure is made redundant by the fact that there is no activity on the roof necessitating additional privacy, save for the occasional event. While I was looking at the site, I was mentally overlapping it with my memory of what it used to look like. The green roof is undoubtedly an improvement, but what did strike me is that students living where I once lived can no longer see the sun set - a welcomed vision in downtown Toronto.

Above: The roof before construction began
Below: A view of the sunset

In class we discussed Trinity College’s quadrangle and a few students mentioned that Trinity’s reputation of exclusivity was reflected in the quad’s design. As a Trinity student myself, I suspect that this could be a factor in the college’s decision to close the green roof, as any safety concerns could have been addressed before construction began. In “Outdoor Space and Outdoor Activities”, author Jan Gehl discusses the importance of “optional activities”; something outside of work, school, and other obligations. Gehl explains that well-planned outdoor spaces are important because they encourage people to spend more time outside. This has positive consequences for social contact, active living, and psychological health. The Trinity green roof is an attractive, well-designed space, and could have positive effects if it were as accessible as it was intended to be. The green roof is evidence that the College is willing to support projects that do not relate directly to academic or administrative functions, but serve people’s social and biological need to be outside in nature. If it were opened up to staff and students, the green roof could fulfill its potential as a “leafy sanctuary” for people to relax, interact with one another, and enjoy nature.

I would argue that the Trinity College green roof is not constitutive of a human/nature relationship. Clearly the roof requires a human presence in the sense that it is a constructed and controlled natural space. However, if no one is actively using the space, does maintenance alone really constitute a relationship? As Jan Gehl’s discussion proved, the demands of urban life have definitely bored holes in people’s relationships with nature. The only way for this site to bridge those gaps between humans and nature is to allow greater access to it.

Link to Trinity College’s Official Website – Green Roof Page:

Below: The green roof as it looks now

Mount Pleasant Cemetery - Saturday November 28th, 3:00 pm

Mount Pleasant Cemetery is split into two halves, bordered by Bayview Avenue to the east, Yonge Street to the west, and divided by Mt. Pleasant Road. I visited the eastern half of the cemetery. The weather is increasingly cold, but the sunlight is bright. After a few minutes walk into the cemetery, the hum of cars on Mt. Pleasant Road is virtually the only noise you can hear. Out of respect for visiting families, the noise level is very low here. The road into the cemetery forks just past the entrance, curving north and south toward other plots of graves. Graves are marked by headstones and flat stone markers, and many graves have flowers, wreaths, photos and candles placed in front of them. There are large trees of many different species throughout the cemetery, and flower beds which are empty at this time of year. Many of the older trees have metal plaques at their bases which identify the tree’s species (in elementary school my class came here on field trips to collect leaves from these trees).

About a hundred metres east into the cemetery is an administrative building. Behind this are a cremation garden and a mausoleum. A few hundred metres south is a visitor’s centre and funeral home that is still under construction. In front of this is a heritage seed garden. A sign at the edge of the garden describes it as a “living gene bank” designed to “preserve our horticultural diversity for future generations”. The garden was created through a joint initiative by the cemetery and Seeds of Diversity Canada and contains organically grown rare plant species. Several people can be seen jogging and cycling, and there are many squirrels eating and preparing for winter. Wildlife is prominent - on other visits I have seen rabbits, foxes, skunks, and raccoons. There is one maintenance truck driving back and forth, and four or five parked cars. There is one family leaving the mausoleum.

Walking into the cemetery, the first thing I noticed was the lack of walking paths, trails, or any type of sidewalk. I have relatives buried here and my family lives well within walking distance, but we always visit by car. I had never really questioned this until now. The cemetery accommodates cars much better than it does pedestrians, although joggers, cyclists and people going for walks seem to enjoy it as well. It is relatively tranquil and safe, has well-maintained roads and is a beautiful example of nature in midtown Toronto. However, these activities are informal, and secondary to the cemetery’s main purpose – a burial place where families come to commemorate their friends and relatives. The cemetery is easily accessible by TTC, but with no walking paths or sidewalks, visiting on foot can be tricky, especially in winter and for elderly visitors. This may be a way of discouraging joggers, but it also limits travel options for people visiting a loved one’s grave.

The roads that wind throughout the cemetery act as a guide, scripting one’s visit. Upon entering the cemetery, the main road - which is lined with meticulous flower beds – leads you to a large stone monument of a crucifix. As you continue along this road, you come across several other impressive monuments, such as a life size angel, before reaching the administration office/welcome centre. The graves closest to the entrance are the oldest; many are from the 1920s. The headstones belong almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon men, whose relatives are listed below them. The relative wealth of the people buried here is reflected in the large, elaborate headstones that are prominent in this section of the cemetery (former Prime Minister Mackenzie King is buried here). These types of graves and their position along the main road lend the cemetery an atmosphere of exclusivity and privilege. This “official route” through the cemetery is often overlapped with more personal ones. I unconsciously headed in the direction of my grandfather’s grave, ignoring the set or “scripted” route.

In “Domesticating Urban Space”, Dolores Hayden discusses the Victorian concept of public and private spheres. She lists ways in which urban spaces can be redesigned to better accommodate families, particularly children and the elderly. Hayden’s analysis of both urban accessibility and urban domesticity relate to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. The cemetery, although public, is a site of mourning, one of the most private acts humans engage in. This paradox can create tension, which is reflected in the cemetery’s design. The lack of pathways between grave plots makes visiting the cemetery difficult for the elderly and for families with strollers. Although the roads are built to accommodate funeral processions of cars, very few elements of the cemetery are designed with the everyday mourner in mind. For people who visit here frequently, the cemetery is the “home” of their deceased family and friends, not an impersonal public space. The cemetery understandably cannot cater to joggers or people using the grounds for non-mourning activities. However, for visitors arriving by bike, public transit, on foot, or with strollers, the cemetery does little to assist.

In many ways, a cemetery is the ultimate human/nature relationship. A grave is a space designated for the human body to decompose and literally become part of the earth. This relationship is complex and somewhat paradoxical. Many of the elements that make up a cemetery are designed to ease grief by distracting from death and obscuring natural processes. For example, the practice of embalming delays post-mortem decay. One very obvious example is the dichotomy between natural and artificial plants, and the purposes of each. Floral tributes, both real and fake, inspire questions about why humans use plants to commemorate their dead. Historically, strong smelling flowers like lilies were used to mask the scent of decomposition. Now, they are a popular way to pay one’s respects to the deceased. Many graves are adorned with wreaths and potted plants. More often than not, these are artificial. These arrangements are practical – they do not require care or watering, and can be left alone for months between visits. Like embalming, they are a way of interrupting the natural process of decay.

These plants look gaudy in comparison with actual nature, which abounds in the cemetery. The heritage seed garden, for example, could be analyzed as an attempt to interrupt loss, by preserving plant species and ensuring their future. Some of the plaques found at the base of trees bear a person’s name in memoriam. The act of using a tree as a memorial is significant. Trees are often thought of as timeless and permanent, and the tree is a universal symbol of life and of family. In naming a tree after a person, it is as if the tree can act as a living acknowledgement of the memory of that person. Unscripted examples of nature are also plentiful. A variety of animals have made the cemetery their home. Many families do plant living flowers and shrubs next to graves.

Although death is the reason cemeteries exist, it is life that dominates. I have always found this cemetery to be full of beautiful plants and animals, and in this sense it is more of a celebration of the circle of life than a symbol of death. In Mount Pleasant cemetery, death, life, order and nature, all coexist.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1991.

Wheeler, Stephen M., and Timothy Beatley, eds. The Sustainable Urban Development Reader. New York: Routledge, 2009.