This blogger (and her blog) have moved

Just over a month ago, I moved to Brussels to start my Masters degree in urban studies. The program I am doing is a 2-year, 4-city Masters program, which will take me from Brussels to Vienna and then to Copenhagen and Madrid. I want to keep writing, so I have started a new blog — La Citadine nomade — where I will continue to write about the cities, especially the places that I am living and visiting over the next two years.

Here it is if you want to keep reading: http://lacitadinenomade.wordpress.com/

 

Times Square: More than yellow blurs and bright lights

This past spring my job involved bringing two architects from Gehl Architects – Urban Quality Consultants to Montreal and Quebec City to give two-day Master classes to professionals in city planning and design. On the first day of the training, David Sim, partner at Gehl Architects and our main presenter, showed images of the new and improved Times Square. Street space that had before been reserved for automobile traffic had been transformed, practically overnight, to include bicycle lanes, larger pedestrian paths and public space in which to sit, stand, talk and enjoy the city.

This remarkable transformation of one of the most famous public spaces in the world made me think back to my first experience with Times Square. In 2006, my high school graduating class visited New York City. I disliked the city so much during that first visit that when we arrived at our next destination, Washington, D.C., I bought an “I ♥ D.C.” t-shirt just to spite New York.

I especially struggled with Times Square, where we walked nonstop among a constant flow of pedestrian traffic. There was nowhere to stop or sit or stand in the public realm, only stores and restaurants offered some escape. The blaring sound of traffic and honking all around us, we finally took shelter in the giant Toys ‘R Us, sitting on the floor of a quiet aisle. My pictures from Times Square are a stack of yellow blurs – taxis racing along past us. At the time, I really felt these photos captured the essence of the city.

Picture I took in Times Square, circa 2006

A picture I took in Times Square, circa 2006

The present Times Square, a place where people can sit and stand, catch up with friends or enjoy a coffee, is a drastic improvement on the one I experienced in 2006 and which is immortalized in the photos of so many tourists taken over the years of yellow blurs and bright lights.

Do cyclists go on more dates?

I don’t know if cyclists go on more dates, but I have been asked out twice while on my bike and I doubt it’s because my helmet looks particularly good on me. So what is my theory? Being on a bike increases our proximity to those around us and thus the possibility and ease of connection. We are on the same level as other cyclists and pedestrians. We can see and hear each other, make eye contact and are not separated by any physical barriers.

In fact, it surprises me that there aren’t more connections between cyclists (or pedestrians, for that matter). As cyclists, we often act like we are driving a car; we pass each other, we speed ahead, we express frustration at those cycling slower than us. We have become commuters on two wheels.

However, biking and walking have so much potential to increase social interactions and this ease of interacting also increases safety. We are able to make eye contact, we are moving at slower speeds and we can stop more readily (although reluctantly) for pedestrians and oncoming traffic. Conversely, in a car we are far away from each other, separated by a metal and glass box and immersed in our world of Top 40 music, audio-books or phone conversations (hands-free, of course).

Walking and cycling in the city give us a chance to take in the city around us, look at others, smile perhaps, and create a (if fleeting) connection.

This blogger (and her bike) went to Quebec City

A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to spend two days cycling and walking around the city, collecting images for the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre. Here are some of my pictures and some of my thoughts about the city.

My quick jaunt at the end of April

Scottish-style architecture

French-style architecture

I went to Quebec City for work at the end of April. While I was mostly indoors and did not get a chance to explore, I did get to walk around Vieux Québec. What I found most remarkable was the mix of French and Scottish architecture, sometimes on the same street (which I saw all the more because I was wandering around with a Scotsman). 

Bicycle paths

Bike path along the Rivière St-Charles

Bike path along the Rivière St-Charles

Quebec City has incredible bicycle paths, so I was lucky that both my lift to and from Quebec City were with people who have bike racks (thank you, AmigoExpress). I biked along the St-Charles River and to the Chute to Montmorency. The bicycle paths are wide and often separated from traffic, although they are more recreational than utilitarian.

Bicycle crossing button

I noticed two things that are different from Montreal’s cycling infrastructure. First, cyclists cross intersections at the same time as pedestrians, since bike paths are shared with pedestrians and runners. Also, pedestrians never cross at the same time as cars in Québec. When it is the turn of pedestrians, cars are stopped and when the cars are moving, pedestrians cannot cross. While the intention must be to eliminate conflict and reduce accidents, it means that pedestrians wait an incredible amount of time before they can cross. The second thing I noticed was that Québec has Vancouver-style crossing buttons that cyclists can use to request that the traffic signal change. Unlike pedestrian buttons up on the sidewalk, these buttons are at arm’s reach from one’s bicycle so that cyclists need not dismount and climb up onto the sidewalk to use them.

Sitting on a piece of history

Something I love about Québec is the use of the ramparts. Young people often sit on them, sometimes picnicking or reading. It is fascinating to see people use such historic elements of the city for day-to-day activities.

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La calle de la muerte, Québec edition

Road back from l’Ile d’Orléans

I was already at the Chute to Montmorency so I figured “why not bike over the bridge to l’Île d’Orléans?” I got directions and started biking over the bridge, but soon realized why I was the only cyclist on the road. The bridge is narrow, with just enough room for two lanes of traffic and a small sidewalk on both sides. The road and the bridge were jammed with traffic (I imagine people returning from a weekend of strawberry-picking). I ended up biking across the bridge and halfway up the hill before deciding to turn around and head back to Québec. I will have to visit another time.

Uninviting benches

I had some fun while I was in Québec taking pictures of benches in the city that I found  no one was using – and for good reason. Some were broken, others were made of dark metal (and sitting under the blazing sun), others were covered in graffiti and one was even installed on a slope. Here are some of the best examples of the worst benches. DSC00988 DSC01706 DSC00966 DSC02004 DSC00935 DSC00943

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sainte-Foy: The suburbs are just a hop, skip and a small bike ride away  

Sign reminding pedestrians not to jaywalk while the intersections are 500 m apart…

Ste-Foy

I could not believe the incredible difference between the central and historic neighbourhoods of St-Roch, St-Jean-Baptiste, le Vieux-Québec and the suburb of Sainte-Foy, where I went to get my lift home and where the Université Laval campus can be found. The suburbs are alive and well in Québec.

The power of architecture in creating social interaction, an anecdote

In a big city, one does not always get to know one’s neighbours. Our neighbourhoods are dense, our neighbours are busy and lest we run into each other in front of our apartments, we sometimes do not even know who our neighbours are or when they move.

While this is more an issue of renters and subletters, a category that I find myself in and will for years to come, this lack of connection with my neighbours changed in 2011 when I moved into one of the most convivially designed apartment buildings.

The building had a central entrance that all tenants of the four apartments used. At the top of the first set of stairs was an atrium that all four apartments gave onto, two on the first floor and two on the second floor, where I lived. This meant that almost every day I saw my neighbours. I saw them in the morning as I left and in the evening when I got home. We would keep our doors open on the atrium, so that music, conversations and sounds passed through our shared space. We would sit in the atrium, have drinks, chat. We grew to know each other.  While sometimes I wanted to slip in and out of my apartment unnoticed, I was thankful to have formed a relationship with my neighbours. And all of this thanks to the design of my apartment building (and the willingness, of course, of my neighbours).

This blogger went to T.O.

Last week I visited Toronto for virtually the first time. I have been before, but on both occasions I spent little time in the city proper, but rather I was in the suburbs or shuttled off to Guelph, ON.  I decided that before I leave this country for the next two years, I should explore Canada’s largest city – and I was going there anyways for a conference. Here are some thoughts about Hog Town.

T.O. SkylineDefinitely not Montréal

I am a bit surprised that this left such an impression on me: Toronto is not Montréal. Obviously, right? But I was surprised by just how different the two cities are. If anything, it reminded me of New York. Large scale, skyscrapers, business suits combined with cute residential neighbourhoods, hipsters, large subway stations and lots of parks. Yes, Montreal also has all of these things, but Toronto feels more like a sibling of NYC.

Fika café

Lots of Fikas

When I travel alone I often end up in cafés. Café-going offers the perfect combination of people-watching, meeting strangers, getting a jolt of caffeine and philosophizing as I stare out the window onto the street. On my first day in T.O., I was exploring Kensington Market in the rain. Ready to take shelter, I popped into the first cute coffee-serving establishment I saw: FIKA. I was attracted to Fika because I found out several weeks ago from Danish visitors that Fika is a Swedish institution. It means “coffee break with conversation”. I had my coffee and was sitting in Fika, but there was something missing: conversation. I quickly met and chatted with Colombian PhD students sitting nearby. Afterwards one of them gave me a tour of the University of Toronto campus en route back to his lab. First Toronto Fika accomplished.

Making Friends

Traveling does something to me. I think it makes me walk a little slower, sit a little longer and welcome conversations with strangers. I supposed in my day to day life I stay busy with work, friends, and activities. I walk a little faster, with more purpose perhaps, than when I wander in an unknown city.

Travelling as if it was two thousand and five

I must be one of the few left who does not have a smartphone. Sure, I think it is useful, especially for travel. I often find myself wishing I had a little map in my phone, or an app that could tell me where the closest café was. However, armed with a “dumb phone”, a paper map and a friendly demeanour, I explored the streets of T.O.

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How did I find things? I had locals to meet up with who told me where I could meet them and helped me get to where I was going next. I also met some nice folks sitting in cafés, one of them even drew me a little paper map of where I should go next and what streetcar to take.

Toronto: a city of skyscrapers, men in suits and… beautiful green spaces

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DSC01199While my first brush with Toronto was in the Central Business District, surrounded by men in suits, skyscrapers and construction (it is construction season all over the country, it appears), I spent a lot of time exploring parks. Toronto has beautiful green spaces right in the city: the Toronto Islands, High Park, Trinity Bellwoods, Christie Pitts and, a bit further out (but my favourite!), Evergreen Brick Works.

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 One last thought: Not quite pedestrian and cyclist friendly… yet!

The streets of Toronto still need some work before they are completely pedestrian and cyclist-friendly. The streets are wide, the traffic is fast and the streetcar tracks seem to make cycling a risky activity. Some streets signs even give priority to traffic over pedestrians.

This Blogger (And Her Blogging) Have Moved

I must confess, I am not longer dwelling in the suburbs. While I am from the suburbs and remain interested and determined to work on making suburbs more sustainable, especially from an urban planning and transportation point of view, I have moved from Pointe-Claire to St-Henri in Montréal’s Sud-Ouest arrondissement.

Near the Canal Lachine, Sud-Ouest of Montréal

I have also started to blog for Global Site Plan’s The Grid. 

I will be posting about urban planning, transportation and urban design in Montréal every two weeks, so keep on reading.

Here is my first post about winter cycling in Montréal. It was picked up and written about on Planetizen.com (which is kind of exciting!).

I will keep writing on this blog about suburban transportation and planning issues, while I continue to live a less suburban lifestyle.