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Paris is behind me now July 2, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, explore, journey, learn, life, urban, world.
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along the Seine 1

Holidays are hard. Well, maybe not the holiday itself, but the post-holiday adjustment. I’m not talking about jet lag or laundry, but a kind of ennui that seems to last for weeks.

rue MontorgueilWe lived in Paris for 10 days. The five of us rented an apartment, bought groceries, walked everywhere, visited museums, took a couple of train trips, attended concerts and lunched at a café on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. I believe that the tight itinerary expertly researched by Lavenderbay (check out her daily Paris blog starting here) helped us to truly experience the best of the city. It was wonderful and exhilarating. At times it was overwhelming and exhausting, but it wasn’t hard.

The hard part was coming back. The hard part was getting used to no longer having fresh croissants for breakfast, or stepping out of the door to browse any number of interesting boutiques or market stalls, or being able to take one of a multitude of metro lines to another exciting destination. We live in downtown Toronto, the biggest city in Canada, but it doesn’t feel at all like Paris. It feels, well… disappointing, sleepy, provincial.

Chinatown - 5.24 pmI know that sounds harsh. But think about it: there are lots of cars and pedestrians at rush hour, but at most other times, all except the malls are nearly deserted. There is a city market, and a few other neighbourhood markets if you know where to look, but they are the exception and not the rule. It feels like most of the population is indoors — in their cars, at home in front of the television, shopping in a grocery store or mall… The part of Toronto that most seems like Paris is Chinatown. Does that seem as strange to you as it does to me?

Obviously, Toronto (and Canada in general) just doesn’t have the wealth of history, architecture, and upheaval. Canada isn’t centralized like France, where Paris is not only the capital but the cultural centre, the showcase and heart of the country. And Canada is too big and too under-populated — even in the city-centres — to support such an efficient transportation system.

metroWe might imagine improvements, though. For example, I could like to see what would happen if a large population centre actually decided to excel in public transportation, and invested in it, so that everyone who lived in that geographic area could travel quickly, on time and relatively cheaply. Imagine what our cities would look like if they were designed for people, not cars!

taxiAh, well. Canada is where I live and Canadian is who I am. So, what would bring a tourist here if they come from a city such as Paris? We pondered this question for a while, and decided that it was the space, the open vistas, the wild country, the untamed wilderness. Toronto is not a cosmopolitan city, it is merely a place where people live and work. There are some nice museums and art galleries, some decent culture and beaches. And we do have history here, it’s just different, it’s just spread out and diluted by this huge country.

This is the land called “big lonely” by the hobos who used to travel by boxcar during the Depression. This is the country that spans a continent, bordering on three oceans. This is an open country, not confined by history or geography, celebrated for its peaceful and liberal attitudes. Yesterday was Canada Day. I’m glad I’m home.

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Taking out the trash April 29, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in consumer, environment, learn, life, urban.
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Canadian icon
A few days ago, while I was walking along the sidewalk beside a gas station, I witnessed a 30-second non-verbal exchange that spoke volumes. The passenger in a truck filling up at the station dropped a cigarette package out the window. The pedestrian ahead of me — a tall, slim, ipod-and-shorts-clad athletic man — immediately stooped and picked up the offending piece of litter, showed it briefly to the startled passenger, then calmly dropped it in the nearby trash bin as he strolled by.

I braced myself for what might happen next: an apology, an insult? But there was no reaction. I glanced at the faces of the two guys in the truck as I walked by, and they seemed amused, as if they just saw somebody doing something silly. I felt like saying something to support the actions of the litter-nabbing pedestrian, but there was no confrontation, no chance for me to speak out against litterbugs, irresponsible behaviour, jerks… well, you know.

But that didn’t stop me from continuing an imaginary conversation in my head, however, as I reflected on other occasions when I have seen careless — as in, “I couldn’t care less” — people dropping their trash on the ground.

Like the time I was walking behind a mother and two young daughters, one with a new doll encased in plastic packaging. The daughter with the doll lagged behind as she worked to get the doll out of its packaging, and when she released the doll, she simply dropped the plastic packaging on the ground.

I promptly picked up the plastic packaging, caught up to the young girl and said, “You dropped this. Excuse me, you dropped this.” The girl looked at me blankly, and glanced at her mother, who had stopped and turned around. I pushed the packaging into the girl’s hand. “You dropped this,” I repeated, “and if it’s garbage, the garbage can is right over there.” I gestured to the garbage can a few steps away. She looked at her mother, but her mother just stood there, watching, saying nothing. I waited. The girl glared at me, but finally took the package and threw it into the garbage can, then rejoined her mother. I walked away, seething.

Do I need to say why I was seething, why I was incensed that someone could carelessly drop trash on the ground when there are recycling containers and garbage bins at every street corner? Do I sound old-fashioned (or just old) to complain about littering, to see it as a sign of disrespect for other people, as an act of vandalism against everyone who does their best to keep their neighbourhood or their city clean and tidy?

And it’s not only our cities — garbage dumped in the world’s waterways is getting so bad that some people are calling the ocean “the world’s largest landfill.”

Following the 2007 international clean-up of beaches in 76 countries, the Ocean Conservancy reported that volunteers gathered an incredible 2.3 million pounds of trash. The largest percentage of litter was cigarette butts. In the city, I think the dubious honour of a second-place prize would go to coffee cups.

Volunteers found 81 birds, 63 fish, 49 invertebrates, 30 mammals, 11 reptiles, and one amphibian entangled in debris such as plastic bags, fishing lines, fishing nets, six-pack holders, balloon and kite strings, glass bottles, and cans. Aside from urgent issues like pollution and harm to natural species caused by this littering, there’s the question of intent: is this the kind of heritage we want to leave the next generation?

cigarettes are top trashI know littering isn’t as important, in the scheme of things, as global warming, war, ethnic cleansing, HIV/AIDS and poverty, for example. But to me, it’s a sign of a bigger problem. It shows an apparent lack of willingness to take responsibility, to acknowledge that our actions — or inactions — affect other people. And that, I believe, is serious.

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Related Links:
Wired: “Drowning in an ocean of plastic”
BBC: “Author hits out at litter culture”
Ocean Conservancy website
“Litter: It’s often a different story on the street”

Green glass, blue sky April 7, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in Canada, diversity, environment, life, nature, urban.
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photo by Gillian Barfoot (aka Seeing Is)

The spring migration has started here in Canada. All manner of birds — either planning to stay for the summer, or heading to a more northern destination — can be spotted by those with time and the inclination. What’s that twitter? Did you see a flash of yellow up in the tree? Crane your neck, pull out the binoculars, sift through descriptions in your favourite bird book…

And if you live in Toronto, head downtown where birdwatching is made easier by the presence of a pile of tall glass-walled buildings. All you have to do is scout around the bottom of the office towers to find a wide selection of birds, all lying still and easily identified.

Since 1993, volunteers with Toronto’s FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) have counted 40,940 birds killed in collisions with office towers. Research shows that glass windows kill more birds — estimated at between 100 million and 900 million — per year than any other cause.

Lights Out Toronto logo

One problem is the office towers which leave windows brightly lit after dark. Night migrants are confused by the lights, since they use the stars and moon as navigational tools. They either flutter around the light until they drop from exhaustion, or fly into the illuminated object. These bright towers cause more confusion on rainy or foggy nights when the birds fly at a lower altutude. The Lights Out Toronto program has been developed to encourage business owners to reduce their night lighting, especially near windows.

Another problem is the fact that glass walls and windows tend to reflect the surrounding environment. If it reflects their natural habitat, the trees, shrubs or sky where they would normally take refuge, chances are good they’ll fly towards it. Some buildings place trees or large plants just inside their windows, attracting birds to their death. In other situations, glass on both sides of a building creates the illusion of an unobstructed corridor. Birds will gather momentum as they prepare to fly through the perceived passageway.

The increased interest in creating green buildings may spell trouble for birds, as passive solar heating emphasizes windows, lots of windows. The highly efficient “low-e glass” — low-emittance glass coated with metal-oxide to keep the summer heat out and the winter heat in — has a dangerously mirror-like quality. Even the green roofs reflected on surrounding buildings can lure birds into walls.

This realization has led to a number of solutions and innovations as homeowners and architects try to make their buildings safer for birds.

A porch is enclosed in bird-safe mesh at the Ford Calumet Environmental Center in ChicagoSeveral innovative designs featured in Architectural Record earlier this year feature buildings with “visual noise” — patterns that make birds realize the glass windows are an obstruction. Small openings and mesh coverings (as used to surround the wide porch in the photo on the right) also help deter birds.

One of the most intriguing experiments is using ultraviolet coating on glass. Although ultraviolet light is invisible to the human eye, birds see it. The question is still unanswered, however, as to whether ultraviolet coating deters birds.

city squares

Another interesting treatment is called “fritted” glass, as seen in the photo at left, which shows a window installed on a University of Montreal residence building. The small patterns on the glass, along with the green shading, help make the window more visible to birds.

Other ideas include using different colours, textures, or more opacity on windows and glass walls. Shading, reflective solar blinds and curtains also alert birds to buildings.

Last fall, Toronto council created a set of Bird-Friendly Guidelines, a rating and certification system for measuring and registering bird-friendly buildings. The certification program, which isn’t yet mandatory, uses a colour-coded system to grade new highrise and office tower construction. As well as glass treatments, the new guidelines recommends the elimination of mirrored glass, searchlights, spotlights, rooftop and up-lighting, at least during migration periods.

For those folks who live or work in tall buildings, please do what you can to make your windows more visible to birds, and help our feathered friends live to fly again another day.

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Related links:
FLAP: Fatal Light Awareness Program
Form Follows Feathers: Bird-Friendly Architecture
Lights Out Toronto campaign
Toronto Star: “Must buildings kill birds?”
“Green building not so friendly to birds”

Designing cities of the future March 4, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in design, environment, life, nature, science, technology, urban, world.
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IwamotoScott's City of the futureThe signs of urban decay are there for those who have the eyes to read them: leaking water and sewage systems, roadways deteriorating under the weight of too much traffic and buildings crumbling from smog and acid-rain, rotating black-outs and a strained electric grid, problems with water contamination and garbage disposal. Will the aging infrastructure that holds together our cities with a fragile network of wires and roads and pipes be sufficient for this century, let alone the next one?

I’m not talking about whether these things are fixable. All it takes to keep things running is a lot of money and perhaps some improvements in materials, such as replacing ashphalt pavement with concrete, or cast iron pipes with pvc plastic. But all this work is merely maintaining the status quo — how are we planning for the cities of the future?

The lead story on the WorldChanging website suggests that many cities in the developed world have racked up huge “infrastructure deficits” — backlogs of needed work on existing systems, as well as demand for new systems — and quotes a U.S. study which estimates that it would cost $1.6 trillion dollars to bring everything up to date. “Most of the infrastructure we use today was designed a century ago: some of it is based on ideas that go back to the Roman Empire,” says writer Alex Steffen.

“Essentially all of it was designed for a world without climate change, resource scarcity or any proper understanding of the value of ecosystem services. In other words, most of the systems upon which we depend are not only in a state of critical disrepair, they’re out-dated and even out of touch with the realities of our century.”

The article suggests five new ways to prepare our urban spaces for the future:

  1. Adaptive and creative re-use – making the best use of what’s there
  2. Whole-system missions – taking into account the impact of systems on society and nature as a whole
  3. Resilience and survivability – the social and infrastructure net needs to be sustainable and be able to cope with whatever climate changes or epidemics the future holds
  4. Distribution – efficient movement of water, power and other services
  5. Wild ideas – creative thinking can change the world

HydronetAs an example of creative thinking, Steffen points to the design which won one of the Regional Prizes in the History Channel’s “City of the Future” competition. The design by San Francisco architects IwamotoScott takes the city and transforms it using creative ideas like a “hydronet”. The description by Geoff Manaugh on the Bldg Blog sounds like a science-fiction fantasy:

“The project reimagines the entire San Francisco peninsula in the year 2108 A.D., having been overlain, if not completely replaced by, a kind of prosthetic hydrological landscape – complete with underground rivers of algae which will be cultivated as a source of hydrogen for fuel…. Architecturally speaking, the city will sprout a whole series of new structures, including multi-angled fog harvesting machines, tendril-like towers along the waterfront, subterranean transport tunnels, and biologically active reservoirs buried beneath the streets.”

My imagination is really caught by this concept of a truly living city, imagined as a whole system, not just a series of bits and pieces put together all “higgeldy piggeldy”. And like good science fiction, everything imagined here seems not too far from the realm of possibility. Would you like to live in this city? Check out this and other concepts, and vote for your future here.

For more images, check out IwamotoScott’s photoset here.

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