THE CASE FOR HOMELESSNESS

Homelessness is a widely misunderstood and stigmatized concept.

Most understand homelessness to be unkempt people, often men, living on the street.

The broader and more factual way to describe homelessness is ‘anyone without a home.’ Anyone with lack of stability, privacy, safety, and identity of place to call home, can be classified as homeless.

The homeless are…

People living on the street

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People living in shelters

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People temporarily without shelter

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And people who are precariously housed, or at risk of becoming homeless

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The homeless male stereotype does in fact comprise the largest share of the homeless, however more and more we are seeing families, women and children, youth, and persons with mental illness struggling to find and afford shelter.

Homelessness is increasing. This can be due to system causes, such as increasing poverty, housing affordability, limited social housing programs, poor discharge planning from institutions, and limited community support services. Increased homelessness can also be caused by individual causes, such as inadequate income, unemployment, family breakdown, family violence, physical and mental health issues, and substance abuse problems.

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Obviously, homelessness is not as simple as it seems. It is not just ‘that guy with the beard’ begging on the corner who is too lazy to get help. It is very often not the result of personal failures. Rather, outside factors can force literally anyone, any type of person, into varying degrees of homelessness. Without the proper education and system opportunities, these homeless people may resort to difficult methods to keep their income afloat in order to survive, such as begging, prostitution, stealing, and illegal sales. Many people who resort to these methods do not wish to continue, but feel they have no other choice.

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This is why pointing the finger at the homeless is ignorant, and we should instead be looking at the bigger picture – how can the city system improve as a whole to reduce the likelihood of people finding themselves in a homeless state, to provide awareness to the general public about homelessness, and to provide safety nets for those who are forced into homelessness?

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For one, housing costs continue to rise, making housing incredibly difficult to afford to begin with. This is where affordable housing comes in – non-profit or co-operative housing communities where some or all of the rents are subsidized (as defined by the City of Toronto). This means that households pay a fraction of the price for living in a given unit, and affordable housing along with government assistance accounts for the rest. The rent price for affordable housing is geared towards the resident’s income in order to make it affordable on a case-by-case scenario.

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Images taken from powerful affordable housing campaign in Toronto

Historically, in Canada, the availability of affordable housing has steadily declined, specifically in Vancouver and Toronto. This decline has occurred because affordable housing is a financial challenge – both during its implementation and throughout its maintained life. There are some poster-childs of affordable housing that have dealt the right cards at the right times and [have debatably] stood the test of time (Regent Park), however it is currently a difficult task to gather any support for new affordable housing in Ontario. Affordable housing is also wrongly and negatively stigmatized by outsiders, making it a real challenge to propose financial and social solutions such as social mix developments, which aim to mix ethnicities, demographics, incomes and housing types harmoniously in order to create a stronger community that prevents social exclusion and polarization.

With Toronto’s affordable housing regulations, the City is trying to preserve what affordable housing currently exists. The regulations essentially tell developers that they can implement their proposed design on affordable housing land, as long as they replace the affordable housing units and give tenants a legal right of return. This, however, does not solve displacement and identity issues, which can become root causes of homelessness to begin with.

article-2252602-16A29121000005DC-731_964x667It is my hope that homelessness can become less stigmatized, because I believe that with the proper education, communities and systems can better understand how to handle it. Homelessness is an unfortunate reality – something that we see in every city, something that will happen. But are we equipped to handle it? Are we equipped to face the homeless as human beings with individual stories? Are we equipped to treat the homeless with the same respect that any other person would receive? Are we ready to raise awareness about homelessness causes, and topics such as where the homeless can comfortably get shelter and receive guidance?

What type of first steps do you think would help the homelessness case in your region?

 

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THE LANGUAGE OF THE CITY: URBAN SEMIOTICS

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Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.

For example, we know what the meaning of the “boy” and “girl” bathroom signs are in the same way that we know, or may be intrigued to know, what we will find if we continue down a certain path.

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Urban space always has a significance; there is an utilitarian purpose for an urban distribution based on functions and usages.

Urban space is made up of paths, enclosures, districts, intersections, and points of reference.

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Urban semiotics are about the consciousness of the symbols’ functions in urban space, rather than simply the structures themselves. There are marked (signs) and non-marked (spaces, feelings) elements.

There is often a difference between significance and the reality itself–occasionally even a conflict–when it comes to objective geography and the reality of maps. Ever experienced a city and then looked at a map of the same area afterwards? It’s usually shockingly different than what you thought it would have looked like.

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So the city has a language, speaking to us with its built form, and we reply with where we are, where we live, where we travel and where we look.

The city is a writing; whoever moves about in the city is a sort of reader who, according to his obligations and movements, samples fragments in order to experience them. You can change the whole poem by taking a different street.

All photos taken by author in Geneva or Paris.

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ON COMPLETE STREETS

The road is frequented by a variety of users – drivers, public transit vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians. However, as each of these users, there are many obstacles, which typically involve the other users getting in the way. This is most common for drivers – since the typical North American road design is oriented towards easy mobility for cars, drivers have adjusted to a culture of innate entitlement for the road. This makes it more difficult for pedestrians and cyclists to get around, less likely for people to use transit, and increases the likelihood for a collision.

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It is no longer uncommon to hear about cyclist deaths in the City – and it’s not always one person’s fault. It’s the way our streets are designed. There are definitely careless drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, that cause accidents. However, if the road was designed to cater for everyone equally, in a way that prevented anyone from feeling like they ‘own the road’, then everyone would naturally look out for each other.

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A ‘ghost bike’ commemorates the death of a fallen cyclist in a roadside accident.

There is a fairly modern transportation policy and design approach called ‘Complete Streets‘ that advocates the ‘share the road‘ mentality. The goal for the Complete Streets approach is to achieve and maintain safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation. In many cases where the Complete Streets approach has already been implemented, the designs have proven to improve safety, health, economic and environmental outcomes.

measuring-the-street Since automobile dependence has been engrained into American city designs from the start, many regions are interested in adopting Complete Streets policies into their own Official Plans, in order to move forward in a more sustainable and safe manner through design. This is part of the reason why roundabout, public transit and bike lane funding have become such hot topics, for example.

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This rendering illustrates a person’s idea of what Yonge street could look like if it was redesigned under Complete Streets standards. Notice a few things – wider sidewalks, bike lanes, interlock pavement for drivers (the more detail in the paving, the more likely people are to slow down, reducing the likelihood of a collision), and seating.

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Complete Streets means everyone shares the road. Complete Streets means everyone gets equal respect. Complete Streets means everyone gets to where they are going safely.

SOUL OF THE COMMUNITY: What Makes People Happy With Their Communities?

Why do we live where we live?

What factors make the place where you live the place where you want to live?

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You’re probably thinking because it’s pretty, with a great beach, a thriving art scene, or a great night life. Perhaps good schools for kids, or amazing job opportunities.

A recent study looked at significant drivers which make people love where they live. They are:

  • Basic Services
  • Economy
  • Education
  • Leadership
  • Openness
  • Civic Involvement
  • Social Offerings
  • Safety
  • Social Capital
  • Aesthetics

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Of all the drivers studied, the 3 most important stayed pretty much consistent across the US, with 43,000 people interviewed.

  • Openness: How open or welcoming a community is to different types of people
  • Aesthetics: How visually appealing it is (such as physical beauty and green spaces)
  • Social Offerings: What types of opportunities there are for people to interact with one another (such as entertainment venues and places to meet)

Drivers like these cause what’s called resident attachment, which is how emotionally connected someone is to where they live. Attached residents have a strong pride in their community, a positive outlook on its future, and the sense that it’s the perfect place for them. And the more attached a person is, the less likely they are to leave, and this makes for a more talented workforce, a growing population, and general satisfaction and pride in community. In addition, residents who like where they live are generally more successful, which leads to a growing local neighborhood.

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The researchers found the results of their study to be surprising because they expected that people would value things like basic services more than aesthetics. But as Richard Florida notes in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, “[The] findings actually make a great deal of intuitive sense…Because we expect basic services to be provided, we end up valuing aesthetics a little higher.” They also expected that people would be intolerant of living around people unlike themselves, however, as the level of tolerance rose towards groups such as families with children, racial/ethnic minorities, gays, immigrants, the poor and young singles, the overall happiness of the community increased. The one group that communities were the least open to was recent college graduates looking for work – isn’t that splendid! -.-

The following video outlines what the Knight Foundation hopes to achieve with their research –

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/44252805″>Soul of the Community – Overview</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/knightfdn”>Knight Foundation</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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CONVENIENT OR QUICK FIX?

After hearing the news about a Costco approved to be located on the former GM site in Oshawa, Ontario, I was inspired to write something in order to look at it from a professional and factual point of view. I started off writing about my disagreement with this approval, and what could be done with the site instead. The more I wrote, the more I learned, and the more I added. And I continued writing until now – many months after full build-out. I followed the story closely and I found the whole process very interesting. Since I spent a lot of time researching big box stores to understand the positive impacts of this development to reduce my innate bias as an urban planner, I will begin by summarizing my findings regarding big box development, and then use Costco as my case-study.
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What is a big box store? In a nutshell, it is pretty self-explanatory – it’s big, and usually box-shaped. But what does that mean? Why does that matter? Why is that ‘bad’?

SmartCentres, Oshawa, Ontario

SmartCentres, Oshawa, Ontario

Big box development usually attracts and surrounds itself with other big box development. A great example of big box development is Canada’s largest developer and operator of unenclosed shopping centres – Smart Centres. Why ‘smart’? They are a full service developer and operator that focuses on bringing together big names such as Walmart and Home Depot to one location in order to provide convenience serviced by ample user (driver) friendly parking.

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There is no denying the convenience of this type of shopping. Everything you could possibly need, all in one spot. All you have to do is get in your car, find a parking spot as close to the door as possible, and hope you don’t get hit by another driver diving in for the next closest spot while you cross the clearly marked pedestrian crossing towards the entrance of the store. Ok, ok I admit – I am clearly hinting at something here. 3 words: Car oriented environment. As a well known fact, big box store development does not aim to foster a pedestrian oriented environment. This means big box stores target the driving demographic. If you are a pedestrian on your way to Best Buy good for you, but you are a minority. Even if they live on the other side of the street, most people feel uncomfortable walking to these places, and that is because they are not designed for walking,  biking, and usually transit. They provide large parking lots for drivers, and they provide everything you need because they know you can put it in your car to bring home.

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I know what you’re thinking – why does multimodal mobility matter? I’m not trying to advocate walking to Walmart. If I go to Walmart, I drive. Period. But what if Walmart was brought down to a pedestrian scale? Would you walk then? At least sometimes?

Do you dare to be this guy?

Do you dare to be this guy?

I realized that big box stores are constantly characterized by remote locations, impermeable exterior design, and vast parking lots. What would it take to bring them closer? A new design perhaps? Increased multimodal connectivity would reduce the need for 3/4 parking lot space, and stores could face the sidewalk. Same product, same convenience, but more human-friendly. Right?

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This is where Oshawa comes in. Oshawa was given a golden opportunity on a silver platter. The GM plant was demolished, and a very large brownfield opened up in the Downtown Shoulder Area (DSA). If anyone knows anything about Oshawa, they would know that it is often plagued with snarky nicknames like ‘the dirty shwa’ or ‘the shwa’, which is usually said with a demeaning or embarrassed tone. The thing is, not all of Oshawa is ‘the shwa’. ‘The shwa’ is really a name for parts of it, including downtown. Downtown Oshawa doesn’t have a great reputation – many would characterize it as dirty, sketchy, and uninviting, which is unfortunate because a lot of the City’s heritage originates from those very blocks (many murals, statues, plaques and public spaces are dedicated to commemorate its history) and because the City has been making efforts such as with the GM Centre and City Hall renovations, and integrating UOIT campus extensions into the downtown fabric.

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It seemed so much easier to grow out than adapt inward, and that is exactly what Oshawa did, making it the fastest growing City in Canada for a few years in the early 2000s. This type of sprawling growth neglected its downtown, and before we knew it people were dealing drugs on the corner of Coffee Time (people called it ‘crack time’ – probably why it eventually moved out), and there was not much left to do there to attract people from all age groups.

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The GM centre was and is a big success, but that place attracts people for small periods at a time (events). Durham College and UOIT are trying to integrate their campus into the downtown, but it is very hidden and has not made a large impact. The point is, when people want to go out and do something in Oshawa, they are more than likely not going downtown. So the gigantic space that the former GM plant opened up for the City right on the DSA really gave Oshawa an amazing opportunity to create a place that would act as a catalyst for image improvement, appearance improvement, business improvement, activity improvement, and to give people a reason to come back to the core, the true heart of the City.

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This opportunity was quickly scooped up by a membership warehouse club that provides everything you could possibly need for the cheapest price and at the best value – Costco. David Tuley, Oshawa’s Downtown Development Officer explained to me that – from his perspective, the Costco site is on the fringe of downtown and will therefore have no negative impact on existing retail, and will also act as an ‘attraction’ by bringing more people into the core as opposed to pushing them out further. “In my personal opinion, box stores are a plague upon the earth, but until we have a new retail paradigm, this is our reality,” he wrote.

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I agree with Tuley for the most part, but what I disagree with is that a new retail paradigm is already underway. Many communities around the world have adopted a higher level of architectural treatment and regulations to ensure that the big box stores relate better to their surroundings. Many regulate signage, landscaping, permeability, and facade measurements/materials. Here are just a few examples of where big box developments have been implemented in more pedestrian- cyclist- and transit-oriented ways, while also adapting designs for a new environment:

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PROS & CONS LIST FOR IMPLEMENTING COSTCO ON FORMER NORTH GM SITE IN OSHAWA:

PROS:

  • WORK: Creates jobs.
  • ENVIRONMENT: Saves periphery lands from sprawling further (it’s a great thing to develop within the urban boundary instead of using up more untouched land in the suburbs).
  • Nearby communities will travel shorter distances to access the store, reducing their carbon footprint (statistics show that enough Costco, Ajax shoppers are coming from the Oshawa area).
  • BROWNFIELD REMEDIATION: This business can afford remediating the previously industrial land.
  • DOWNTOWN EXPOSURE RIPPLE: Increased customer traffic in the Downtown Shoulder Area (DSA) might bring surrounding businesses increased revenue (many people travelling to the subject site might be influenced to spend more time in the DSA or Core Area [DCA] if they are exposed to discover places they fancy).
  • CONVENIENCE: Product is all about quality AND quantity for attractive prices.
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CONS:

  • INVASIVE: The nature of this development does not suit the character of the DSA or DCA in any way, shape or form (following in the courthouse’s steps), forcing the Downtown Area (DA) to stoop further away from any chance of regaining a sense of place.
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  • UNFRIENDLY: The nature of this development will strip the DSA of its identity, forcing it to adapt into a car-oriented environment.
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  • EYE-SORE: Two-thirds of the site will comprise of parking, and one-third will comprise of the store itself, which is going to be +/- 146, 560 SF (almost the size of 3 football fields) of two-storey high light-beige stucco and cladding shaped into a big box with 1 huge entrance (to swallow and spit out the entire population of Durham and their fridge-sized carts).
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  • DETERS MULTIMODAL CONNECTIVITY: Not only is the general appeal of the building offensive to pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders, but its design is too – its entrance faces away from the street and directly into the chaos of the heart of the parking lot. Its backside ironically faces the DCA.
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  • UNFAIR: Just like Wal-Mart tends to ruin businesses and communities, Costco has a pretty good chance of doing the exact same thing, and may even do a better job at it – the store offers unbeatable prices, selection and quality.
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  • PLAYS BY ITS OWN RULES: This development completely and utterly contradicts the City’s Downtown Action Plan, and the City is therefore taking many Costco-sized steps away from potentially achieving any of it. As everyone knows, Costcos generally all look the same, and it’s because familiarity helps from a business perspective, at the expense of adapting to their surroundings.
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  • EXCLUDER: Costco only sells to members who pay a yearly fee to shop there, and it’s only worth it if the member shops there all the time. This excludes many people from wanting to shop there on occasion or who can’t afford the membership, dividing the social fabric of communities across its target zones.
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At the end of the day, most people would agree that Costco is extremely convenient, and that having easy access to one is a great idea. However, it is unfortunate that this greed outweighs the importance of place. If Costco could consider adapting different store designs for different types of environments (anything from suburban outskirts to downtown cores) that originate from a base design in order to have a more appropriate design out of respect for its surroundings and the City that houses it, then maybe the Costco in Oshawa could have more of a positive impact. As it is now, it’s simply not working.

WHY I CHOOSE URBAN OVER RURAL LIVING

I often get asked why I love living in downtown Toronto so much.

Sitting in bias, I always want to chuckle and respond with “why would you want to live anywhere else?” but as an urban planner and a generally understanding and open-minded human being, I try to respond with the least bias possible.

There is a general understanding that young people love to live in busy places but once they get older or get ready to settle down they will surely want to move to places described with the following adjectives: safer, quieter, cleaner, and more private.

I have three comments regarding the places described in this way:

1. Who said that these qualities are the official standard for a good quality of life?

When looking for a place to live, everyone has different wishes, wants, and standards. If we were to make a list of all the requirements that people have across the globe, we would end up with thousands of requirements. It may be true that it is more sensible for a single 20 year old to live in a smaller apartment, and for a family of 5 to live in a more spacious home, but this does not explain location.

2. Who said that urban environments don’t retain these qualities?

Urban environments do in fact retain qualities that most people mistakenly assume they cannot possibly have. It is possible to raise a family in a downtown neighborhood defined as safe, quiet, clean, and yes, will give you your privacy.

3. Is everyone’s life so similar that every person will ‘grow out’ of urban living?

Not every person will fit a standard life path. Many will border the status quo, and some will never come near it. It is unreasonable to expect that everyone will ‘get over’ downtown living and finally ‘mature’ into suburban family life.

 

I would have to say that my favorite things about living in an urban environment are…

 

Being completely alone in a sea of strangers and feeling like I am part of something greater, with the thrill of the off chance that I might bump into someone I know…

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Feeling safe – eyes on the street folks…

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Never having nothing to do, even if you have no one to hang out with…

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 Being able to retreat into privacy and quiet when I need it…

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Taking public transit – just like the suited lawyer from the business district, the mom with her stroller, the kids going home from school, and the guy talking to himself…

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Wanting to walk for pleasure and discovering new things…

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yorkvilleThe old and the new presents a story – that we are all part of now, and that we can shape for the future…

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Public spaces and the spaces in between, as shortcuts, destinations, and resting points with a view…

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And lastly… a statement that would be very difficult to illustrate in a few images… being surrounded by as many different people from me as possible – race, culture, opinions… this keeps everyone in check. This reminds everyone that the world does not revolve around themselves. This makes people more aware and less ignorant. 

 

To me, urban living is healthy, happy living. It provides me with my current needs, and I can only imagine how proud I’ll be when I start a family here one day.

COUNTDOWN – WHO ARE THE SIGNALS TALKING TO ANYWAY?

Pedestrian countdown signals are beginning to appear more and more throughout our cities. Research shows that this type of signal helps to create a safer pedestrian experience.

The City of Toronto states on their website that

“The City of Toronto’s Transportation Services Division has installed ‘countdown’ signals at more than 2,100 intersections in the city to assist pedestrians in crossing the street.

“The devices provide a numeric count down display that indicates the number of seconds remaining for a pedestrian to complete their crossing of a street. The countdown counts the length of time between the current ‘walk’ signal and the solid ‘don’t walk’ signal which gives more precise information to the pedestrian than the current system.”

Pedestrian signals and pedestrian countdown signals were created with the intention of targeting pedestrians with information. But let me play devil’s advocate and ask – what if these signals are targeting drivers as well? Drivers are not the intended recipient of this information, but it has become common for drivers to use the countdown signal as a ‘pre-warning’ for the yellow light, helping them to make more informed decisions regarding their navigation and speed. Drivers may be doing this consciously or semi-consciously, but either way – drivers are not intended to be directly affected by the countdown signal.

hurryoryouwontmakeitDevil’s advocate again here – what’s wrong with using this pre-warning for the intended pre-warning? Doesn’t the anticipation help the driver make more informed, and therefore safer decisions? This can hold some truth – for example, halting at a yellow light can be more dangerous than beginning to slow down naturally with a 10 second yellow light warning. But take a second and think about all of the times you’ve seen drivers abuse this information (similar to advance green arrows) – many drivers will use the countdown to make damn sure they get through the intersection no matter what. The second this happens, they are putting themselves first, and the second anyone on the road puts themselves first they are putting everyone else at risk (with shifts happening in modal split, awareness to ‘share the road’ is increasing, which means we must all be on the look out for each other, not simply ourselves).

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It has been brought to my attention that truck drivers and larger or heavier vehicles commonly take advantage of this signal and call it a ‘stale light’. This creates another grey area to be considered – does this mean that the roads travelled by trucks are not fit for larger or heavier vehicles? Does this mean that truckers need their own signal?

Aggressive driving is a risk factor, and my hypothesis is that this risk is increased when the pedestrian signal countdown targets the driver – the non-intended user. This raises the question – should the pedestrian signal have a different design, one that can target the intended user more successfully?

A Few Ideas…

ISOLATED PEDESTRIAN SIGNALS

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A new design, or an addition to the current design, in order to attempt to block off the view to the existing signal light except for straight-on.

LINE-OF-VISION SIGNALS

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Average ped height or low.

HIGHLIGHTED CROSSWALK

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We’ve seen the futuristic renderings of all kinds of ‘highlighted’ crosswalks.

ACCESSIBLE PEDESTRIAN SIGNALS 2.0

Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) were designed to convey information through the auditory sense for the visually impaired. APS 2.0 could build on adding more ways to receive information by transferring the countdown onto a screen near where the button is positioned.

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DRAWING THE LINE

It’s crazy how much you can learn and to what degree your perspective can shift to alter your opinion when you quite simply open your eyes.

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People tend to experience cities ‘the way they’re supposed to’. That is to say, the main streets. Activity follows official destination and purpose – retail, office, public space, nodes, entertainment and attractions. These places are the face of a city – the parts that people recognize and thrive off of.

But think of your good friends, and think about how you truly know them. I mean, really know them.

It is understood that when you get to know someone well, you learn about who they truly are on the inside. Perhaps, this might be called ‘the soul’.

I believe cities work in that same way. There are many different ways one can identify the true soul, heart, or spirit of a city, such as with culture, people, and values of a place. But one aspect, common in every city, has been known to be a realm of true expression, but also of disrespect and controversy. If you look just around the corner and under the ‘skin’ of a city, you will begin to notice and discover street art.

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Most people have a strong opinion about street art. They hate it with a passion, they adore it and follow it, or they feel relatively neutral towards it because they don’t really pay attention to it.

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People who dislike street art are more likely to call it ‘vandalism‘ because it has affected them directly in a negative way. I believe that this is a very good point – it doesn’t really seem fair to go to work in the morning only to realize someone has tagged some sort of half-assed scribbly-looking thing on the window of your shop. It’s hurtful, inconvenient, disrespectful, and seems just plain useless, right? What makes people think they can just walk up to someone’s property and ruin it with an egotistic tag of their undecipherable sudo graffiti name? It’s a valid argument and has a lot to do with common courtesy.

I like to say that people who love street art have been blessed with enlightenment and understanding. Because when you open your eyes to the world of street art, peer just behind the curtain and look, you realize so many things. First of all, I think  you realize that the people who are ‘vandalizing‘ property in a tasteless way are ruining it for everyone. Every street artist is suddenly ignorantly thrown into one big basket, assuming they are all ‘bad people‘ that are capable of disrespect.

But here’s the truth; and I’ll tell you a story. One day I was randomly wandering the alleys parallel to Queen Street West in Downtown Toronto to look at the art and take pictures of the ones that I like. I was eventually  lucky enough to bump into a few graffiti artists working on a piece. I stopped to watch, and took in the glory of witnessing the focus, control and talent in action right before my eyes – it truly is beautiful and unlike anything else. One of the artists noticed me lingering for a while and introduced himself to me – “Hey, how’s it going, I’m Artchild.” Baffled, I tried to collect my thoughts so I could respond without sounding like  a 14-year-old meeting Justin Bieber. He seemed pleased to process that I definitely knew who he was – of course I did; he’s one of the most popular and accomplished graffiti artists in Toronto. So we got talking about graffiti culture, and he eventually said one thing that really stood out to me – “When you get really good at it and people know who you are, no one goes over your work.” Interesting – there is no ‘pro-graffiti’ legislature that says you can paint wherever you want but you can’t paint over talented work. Savvy street artists simply inately know about respect. When a piece stands the test of time, it’s because it’s worthy. When other artists don’t paint over a piece it’s like saying, “your work is great and it deserves to stay there.”

A throwie over AO1's Kensington wheatpaste.

A throwie over AO1’s Kensington wheatpaste.

Here’s a good example of where street art respect went without saying:

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Popular and anonymous artist Anser tagged another one of his widely recognizable all-one-line faces on the side of this Kensington Market shop. When Chou – another well-known artist – was commisioned to paint the otherwise vandalized wall, he started by covering all the eyesores and left Anser’s face peaking out through Chou’s classic bubbly background. In the screenshot above, taken from Chou’s Instagram feed, you can see that he left it there because he respects Anser’s work. Here is the final result:

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If you’re REALLY lucky store owners will respect your work too. In the following picture, another one of Anser’s unwarranted faces sits on a the side of a shop off Dundas West. Over time other taggers began hitting the wall next to Anser’s face. When the owner took out his paint bucket to re-paint the wall as he usually does, he painted over everything and left Anser’s face. He must have really liked it.

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I once asked Toronto artist JAH where he ‘draws the line’ and without a second thought he listed “people’s homes and places of worship.”

The theme of respect comes up a lot when I learn about and think about graffiti and street art. So this got me thinking a lot about street art history, legislature, and perception or education. If this form of expression is highly based on creating appealing art and valuing respect, why is it not tolerated, and why is it not more engrained in the status quo of our lives?

Before I realized that I had an interest in street art, I was ignorant towards it. I made a lot of assumptions and didn’t really understand it. I saw the ‘ugly’ stuff (usually ‘practice’ work) and assumed that most of it was like that – absolutely incorrect. I also saw the general style of stereotypical ‘graffiti’ and assumed it was all the same, which is not necessarily in line with my personal taste in art in general, leading me to believe that I simply did not like graffiti. The day I decided to turn a corner and take the alley to look at the walls, I saw the same thing but in a new light. And I saw that it was alright. It can be alright. A few weeks later I cut another corner through an alley, and tried to soak in the graffiti that I saw, trying to come to terms with what I liked and disliked about it – I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. That was when I stumbled upon what has come to be one of my favorite pieces of all time:

anser

The first piece that truly moved me. It may not move you, because it may not be in line with what you like in art, which is fine. But it really hit me deep and I realized that I did in fact love street art – just not all of it. And in that realization, I also realized that you don’t need to like all of it to like street art. It’s like an art gallery – you walk through it in the same way you walk the alleys, and you observe. You’re probably going to like less than half of what you see, and only a few will truly smack you in the face with a big fat WOW.

I also bumped into popular graffiti artist Bacon in Kensington Market while he was working on this unique piece (can you read it?) :

bacon

There is no question when it comes to Artchild’s technical skill, because a lot of these guys have got it, and Artchild might as well be one of the best Toronto examples to show that off:

artchild

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There are all kinds of styles out there. From an artistic perspective, there surely is street art out there that anyone could appreciate or enjoy. Just take a look at all the different styles…

SPUD

SPUD

UBER5000

UBER5000

BOLEEP

BO LEEP

JARUS/MOTEL

JARUS

JARUS

JARUS

BACON

BACON

BACON

BACON

LIHILL

LI-HILL

SKAM

SKAM

JAH

JAH

EVOKE/LEXR

EVOKE & LEXR

ARTCHILD

ARTCHILD

KARE

KARE

OTHER

OTHER (TROY LOVEGATES)

ELICSR

ELICSR & CO

ELICSR/SOY

ELICSR & SOY

FIYABRUXA

FIYA (BRUXAS)

BIRDO

BIRDO

KWEST

KWEST

MEDIAH

MEDIAH

UNKNOWN

(unknown)

EGR/ELICSR

EGR & ELICSR

LOVEBOT

LOVEBOT THE ROBOT

RAREOLDIES/INCLBACON

HSA

LAYEREDMESSOVERTIME

LAYERS OVER TIME (AKA ” #DIRTYDOORPORN “)

So here comes the big question – what makes unwarranted (illegal) street art ‘okay’?

Most people would say that if anything is illegal then it’s a black and white matter. Illegal = shouldn’t happen. But what if I were to propose that, under certain circumstances, unwarranted street art is currently sitting in a grey area? If most people could agree that there are in fact certain times or ways that unwarranted graffiti can be enjoyed, doesn’t that mean that something about it is acceptable? Doesn’t that warrant some kind of upgrade into the legal side of things?

The City of Toronto has taken initiative by trying to find innovative ways to give street artists incentives to ‘sign up’ to do their work, as they recognize the importance and the beauty of street art. Many of the very accomplished artists do seek permission before starting a piece, especially if they want to create pieces that take a lot of time. But aside from these two ways, there is always a constant struggle for artists to add to their city’s sense of place, and the two main reasons are as follows:

1. Ignorant “artists” vandalising

2. Ignorant viewers dismissing

It’s ironic that streetart fosters so much ignorance and disrespect, when it is based in awareness and respect, isn’t it? So my conclusion is as follows: if the ignorance of the people could be uplifted in some way, and if the true goodness of streetart culture could be brought into the foreground (less taboo), then less vandalism would occur and less viewers would dismiss the activity as a whole.

But at the end of the day… talk to any street art or graffiti veteran and they’ll tell you – struggle or none – that the culture belongs behind the curtains. I guess knowing where to ‘draw the line’ will have to wait another day.

I want to hear your opinions and stories – sound off in the comments.

DOUBLE TAKE

So you’re an urban designer of some kind, and you just won a job to redevelop a site within a stunning city. It’s stunning because it holds centuries of heritage and is already a great place with many things to do. What do you add? How do you design something in a space for a city that is already great? Wouldn’t something new be almost offensive?  What do you do?

I’ve seen this happen a lot in Europe. But out of the successful ones, one element stands out the most – reflection.

Landscape Architect Michel Corajoud who designed the riverfront along the Garonne river in Bordeaux, France, said:

“We already have a beautiful place here. The best thing we can do is to simply double it.”

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And that is exactly what he did with the Miroir D’eau – the focal point of the entire riverfront site. His 2009 design became extremely successful and managed to draw many people back to the riverfront from which their City originated. At the Miroir D’eau you will find a long elevated base plane with a thin layer of water. Sometimes, small fountains embedded inside the pavement shoot water out of holes accross the platform, but when they don’t, people often walk accross it and play in it. Not only is this place a beautiful, unique, interesting and interactive nodal & destination point, but it also clearly reflects the historic buildings behind it (Place de la Bourse) into the water, doubling its beauty.

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2013 has brought a new site to the map – take a look at the Vieux Port Pavilion in Marseille, France. Architects Foster & Partners designed this reflective stainless steel canopy to reflect the city’s UNESCO World Heritage port. The overhead plane creates a public room, a defined space, and a sense of enclosure – all elements that entice pedestrians to divert their path in order to experience walking under it. If all else fails, the reflection, which creates an illusion of people walking upside-down on a nearly-invisible cieling, is sure to peak their curiosity.

“It’s quite literally a reflection of its surroundings – its lightweight steel structure is a minimal intervention and appears as a simple silver line on the horizon” – Spencer de Grey, head designer.

CR_Cloudgate

We have also seen examples of reflection in North America. Anish Kapoor designed the Cloud Gate sculpture, better known as the ‘bean’ in Chicago. This stunning piece is now a widely recognized landmark in the City, and visitors flock to visit it as a destination point. People take interest in its odd shape. The reflective stainless steel surface reflects and distorts the Chicago skyline and visitors experience a fun-house mirror effect when walking around and through it, observing their reflection. Chicago reflected, yet projected through a new lens.

“There is something about opening one’s heart to the possibilities that one doesn’t even truly or readily know are there.” – Anish Kapoor

CAIRNS BOTANIC PBH 018

Charles Wright Architects won the 2012 far north Queensland Awards Auilding of the Year with their mirror-clad Cairns Botanic Gardens Visitors Centre design. The building was designed to be invisible amongst the surrounding trees of the gardens in order to blend somewhat seamlessly with the beauty of the site’s natural state.

“We proposed a design which literally reflects the gardens as camouflage for the building.” – Charles Wright Architects

Reflection in urban design around the world has become a modern trend. Its impact is both aesthetically pleasing and respectful to existing settings.

THE UNDERPASS DILEMMA

“It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished” – William H. Whyte.

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It is not difficult to design a space that people will love, but it is difficult when the odds are against the designer. I’m talking about pedestrian underpasses – the most ironic design principle dead end.

The intended purpose of a pedestrian underpass aims at introducing a chance for pedestrians to continue their journey and create opportunity for mobility through environments containing blocked areas (highways, buildings, etc), but unfortunately these areas are often left neglected or are poorly designed, plaguing them with negative associations… unsafe, dark, dirty, uncertain, avoid – all percieved descriptors that most people would associate with pedestrian underpasses.

Underpasses strive to connect pedestrians from one side of a pedestrian obstacle to the other, however there are numerous factors that prevent these types of essential connections to fulfill their total potential, such as:

Rundown appearance
Lacking adequate lighting and surveillance
Lacking in pedestrian wayfinding
Decreased on-street vibrancy
Usefulness is not defined

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Most underpasses have potential and can be redeveloped into successful pedestrian underpasses by achieving the following:

 

PUTTING IT ON THE MAP

“You can’t rely on bringing people downtown, you have to put them there.” – Jane Jacobs

121294-manhattan-mapIdentity/Landmark: Make the underpass a landmark to help users understand a recognizable point of reference in a larger space to aid with orientation. A character and sense of place will be created. To emphazise the location and its usefulness, the underpass should be highlighted in some way on a network map.

 

3245080767_e4717e2d4a_zNavigation: The underpass should clearly navigate users through it as opposed to around it etc. as it is a thoroughfare, not a long-term destination.

 

 

capital_cast_iron_bollard_with_cycle_plinthSigns: By incorporating a sign of the overall pedestrian system near the underpass, the navigator will be able to place the entire space within his or her view and consequently be able to deduce where they are, what is in their immediate vicinity, what destinations are available, how to get there, and how long it will take them (ped shed). The underpass as a decision point will help foster it as a landmark and as a safe and reliable passageway.

 

Full_02-anacostia-underpassSightlines: A first time user may have uncertain expectations as to the underpasses extent and purpose – to avoid this uncertainty, the sightline through the underpass should be clear in order to give the user enough information about what is ahead and to encourage them to move or continue further.

 

full_melbourne-pedestrian-underpass[1]Connectivity: An underpass will only be used if it is connected to a network, therefore it should be connected to some sort of pedestrian system. It is also important for users to be aware of that through marketing, signage, and clarity on-site.

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MAKING IT SAFE

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.” – William H. Whyte

CPTEDCrime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED): CPTED is a great framework for making an underpass approachable and safe, especially because CPTED believes that crime and loss are by-products of human functions that are not working properly. The three overlapping CPTED design strategies are:

file_7312Natural Surveillance: an underpass should be designed in such a way as to facilitate observation by increasing visual permeability and sightlines in order to see what is ahead and around the site. Visual permeability will increase the potential for ‘eyes on the street’. Since sightlines cannot be achieved from all perspectives through an underpass, wayfinding techniques can be used to reassure the user. Encouraging visitors to progressively and passively use the site is also an effective form of natural surveillance.

moodwall2Natural Access Control: an underpass should be designed in such a way as to direct normal access to observable areas and prevent access to unobservable areas. The path should have a clear sense of direction, and wayfinding techniques can create a sense of anticipation for what is coming next to keep movement flowing.

 

untitledTerritorial Reinforcement: an underpass should be designed in such a way as to enhance the feeling of legitimate ownership by implementing symbolic or psychological barriers such as bollards and signs, and to minimize the creation of ambiguous spaces, such as gaps and corners.

Mechanical Forms of Surveillance & Access Control: Such as uniform white lighting should also be applied.

GIVING IT AN IDENTITY

“We will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them we neglect the nation.” – JFK

4-52846-450015_30cardiniaweb1Image: An underpass should be designed in such a way as to enhance and maintain its physical appearance to encourage users of the area to respect their surroundings. The more dilapidated an area, the more vulnerable it is to further abuse.

 

shared_tunnelApproach: The entrance and exit of the space should be clearly defined and anticipated using branded signs that tie in with the rest of the trail or the City’s branding, to make it official and trustworthy.


Maintenance
: The underpass should be maintained in the following ways – infrastructure maintenance, standard cleaning, and responsive cleaning (graffiti).

Addressing Graffiti: Graffiti can be prevented through design in two ways:

takomaart

Dimensions & Distractions: for underpasses, a line of street furniture or greenery is not recommended. Instead, 2D or 3D (relief or installation) designs on any of the four facades (walls, ground and cieling) are recommended.

 

 

Lighting: often times underpasses are short with an opening in the middle, which is great for lighting. However, with no additional luminaire fixtures the longer underpasses and the night scene for any sized underpass can become quite dreary. Additionally, weak or unpleasant colored lighting (yellow) can be unattractive as well. A well-lit (white) and brightly-colored (white) underpass can put it in a perceived ‘spotlight’ and discourage tagging and even crime due to a fear of being seen and caught. This technique obviously plays a huge role with personal safety as well.

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At the end of the day, underpasses may be an awkward problem to solve, but what’s life without a challenge, right? An enjoyable, useful and safe pedestrian underpass is possible.

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