urbanism – landscape – ideas – theory – whimsy

Before Bay St Divided Yorkville

Goad Atlas fire insurance map showing the area between Yonge St and Queen's Park/Avenue Rd from near College St to Davenport Rd in 1913 - move over with mouse to see the same area in 1924 after Bay St was cut through

One of Toronto’s little historical secrets is the mystery of why Bay St does such a large jog at Queen St. History buffs may know the answer, but I only recently came upon it myself, and it answered many questions I’d long had about the strange disconnect in (of all places) Yorkville between Yonge St and the centre of what we now think of as Yorkville, the area west of Bay St.

The jog on Bay St creates one of Toronto’s most spectacular urban design moments, but it was far from deliberately planned that way – the placement of the tower of Old City Hall simply took advantage of a precondition in which Bay St ended at Queen St. What is today Bay St north of Queen St was originally a separate street running between Queen St and College St called Terauley St. Terauley St and the grid north of Queen St were originally laid out as part of a separate estate that did not line up with the grid south of Queen (even University Ave did not originally extend south of Queen St, whereas Yonge St was the exception as it was the original concession road).

North of College St there was a one block break, and then a series of streets with slightly different alignments (called St Vincent St, Chapel St and North St) continued the rough line of Terauley St north to Bloor St. North of Bloor St, no streets crossed through Yorkville along the Terauley St alignment. In the early 1920’s, the City decided to cut the Terauley alignment all the way through from Queen St to Davenport Rd and rename it as an extension of Bay St. The late date of Bay St’s creation north of Queen partly explains the lack of significant historical buildings along the street.

The effect in Yorkville has been more profound, as Bay St essentially split the old village in two. Originally, the centre of Yorkville was clearly along Yonge St (very few commercial buildings even existed at the time along Bloor St). Both the library and the fire hall were located close to Yonge St on Yorkville Ave. Since the 1920’s and the cutting through of Bay St, the fortunes of Yorkville west and east of Bay seem to have gone in different directions. While Yonge St has lost most of its connection to Yorkville and sense of it’s former individuality, Yorkville west of Bay was destined to become a centre for artists and alternative culture and finally a very unique boutique shopping district, maintaining a significant amount of its character and village feeling.

Analyzing Urban Form by Block Shape and Size

The block pattern of Paris in map form and arranged by shape and size

French artist Armelle Caron has created a series called “tout bien rangé” in which the block patterns of various cities have been disassembled, sorted by shape and size and rearranged as a new graphic representation of the city. While the result of the taxonomicalish classification and reorganization is not particularly useful from an urban design perspective (the city maps don’t seem to be at the same scale, for one), it’s certainly an interesting way to look at the city, and to think about blocks, block size and block shape, which are such an integral and enduring element of our cities’ urban forms. See all of the pieces on the artist’s site. (via Strange Maps)

For something similar see The Patterns of the Urban Fabric of Beijing’s Hutong.

The block pattern of New York (part of Manhattan and part of Brooklyn) in map form and arranged by shape and size


The block pattern of central Berlin in map form and arranged by shape and size

The Subway to Nowhere?

Vaughan north of highway 407 (source: google maps)

The Spadina subway extension to Vaughan is under construction and scheduled to be open for the end of 2015, but where exactly is this thing going? Sure it goes to York University (which I think most people would accept is a good idea), but there will be a full 2 more stations north of Steeles Ave into Vaughan, so what exactly is up there? See above… Oh dear… It looks like we’re extending a subway line that originally kind of went to nowhere, to another even more extreme nowhere, a vast sea of single-storey warehousing, manufacturing, big box stores and railway lands. But wait! Building a subway will result in massive development right? So this area is ripe for a total makeover, right? Oh wait a minute… here’s the famed subway-driven development along the Yonge St corridor north of highway 401 from Sheppard Ave to north of Finch at the same scale, the result of almost 40 years of development (see below).

Yonge St development corridor north of highway 401 at the same scale (source: google maps)

I guess the even more modest kind of development around the Sheppard Line wouldn’t have much of an effect either (see below).

Sheppard Ave development corridor north of highway 401 at the same scale (source: google maps)

So just how large is this sea of nothingness that we’ve sent a subway line to? Oh, that’s right, as large as the entire downtown core of Toronto (see below). Damn.

Downtown Toronto from the Union Station to Bloor at the same scale (source: google maps)

Beautiful Urban Moments – Part X


Beautiful flower murals on telephone utility boxes along the north side of Yorkville Ave, east of Hazelton Ave in front of Teatro Verde, Yorkville, Toronto

This is a great example of the creative potential of a simple solution to vastly improve the aesthetics of one of the typically ugly pieces of urban infrastructure, the telephone utility box. While land-line telephones may be on the way out, there’s still plenty of urban infrastructure that could similarly benefit from some creative attention. The mural is by Bruni Nielsen and is in Yorkville, Toronto along the north side of Yorkville Ave, east of Hazelton Ave in front of Teatro Verde.

Lujiazui and the “Pudong Miracle” – 20 Years of Transformation

Lujiazui financial district in Pudong seen in 1990 and in 2010 from across the Huangpu River over the Bund in the historic International Settlement area of central Shanghai

The Pudong New Area (浦东新区) in Shanghai was first masterplanned in 1990, at a time when most of Pudong (浦东, named for being east (东) of the Huangpu River (浦), as opposed to Puxi (浦西) west (西) of the river) was factories, warehouses, villages and farmland with typical 1980’s Chinese residential development taking place. At that time Pudong had only 2 road tunnels under the Huangpu River connecting it to the rest of Shanghai and Shanghai’s first metro line had not even started construction. Shanghai’s metro line 2 linking Pudong to central Shanghai would not open until 1999, but by then Pudong was already well on it’s way to representing a model of the dream of highly planned and modern rapid development that China was reaching for.

The Lujiazui (陆家嘴) area in particular had already started to become an icon of the city as Shanghai’s new financial centre, its visibility and image guaranteed by its position directly opposite Shanghai’s historic Bund where the hoards of tourists who came to see Shanghai’s history could also see the city’s future in the forest of towers across the river.

Fast forward to 2010, and Pudong is connected to the rest of Shanghai by four huge bridges and five road tunnels, and serviced by 6 metro lines. The whole thing is a stunning representation of the development of Shanghai (and China) over the last 20 years, years that have changed Shanghai forever.

On the other hand, from an urban design perspective, Pudong can be seen as part of a much larger failure of suburban planning and design in China and around the world. Even in Lujiazui, surrounded by office towers, the enormous roads, distance between buildings and lack of pedestrian scale make a clear (and no doubt intentional) break with the historic city in Puxi, and there is a complete lack of character as a result of what can clearly be recognized as a suburban planning philosophy (with “Chinese characteristics”). This has even produced a cultural split between people who prefer Pudong and people who prefer Puxi, with, in some people’s minds, Puxi representing the past and a lesser quality of life, and Pudong representing the future and the modern lifestyle expected by upwardly mobile people in China these days.

The urban design success of Lujiazui is largely scenic – it is meant to be seen from across the river as a symbol of Shanghai’s rise onto the world stage, and act as a platform to look back at the old city from the heights of the city’s current success. Lujiazui’s intended function as Asia’s preeminent financial centre should have produced one of the great modern urban districts, but the result is still best experienced from across the river while walking along the Bund, Shanghai’s 150 year old international financial centre and one of the great streets of the world.

The view from the famous Bund along the Huangpu River, showing Lujiazui and its towers

Source: Before/After image via Reddit

The Patterns of the Urban Fabric of Beijing’s Hutong

370 of the 1500 patterns of the urban fabric of Beijing's hutong from Instant Hutong's Community Catalogue 2007

Part of Instant Hutong’s Community Catalogue 2007, a catalog of hutong block patterns laid out as a “series of 1500 communities of courtyard houses cut out and isolated from the map of downtown Beijing”.

Via Ministry of Type, image sourced from Instant Hutong’s portfolio on the Behance Network

Deconstructing the Shanghai Expo – Part III: The Size

Google Maps satellite imagery of Venice (move over with mouse to compare to outline of Shanghai's Expo at same scale, rotated to best fit and reducing distance across Huangpu River)

Just how big was Shanghai’s Expo? A constant refrain from anyone visiting was how tiring the whole thing was as a result of how much walking was required (of course the heat didn’t help). Officially the Expo was 528 hectares (or just over 5 square kilometres), but how big is that? A neat comparison is with another contained place around which you mostly have to walk, Venice. The main central islands of Venice (above) are about 540 hectares (not including the port facilities at left), almost the same size as the Expo site! The Expo outline used above (traced from Google Earth) turned out smaller than the official site size (c. 400 hectares instead) but the sizes still seem comparable.

Google Maps satellite imagery of the Shanghai Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to outline of Venice's main islands at same scale, rotated to best fit)

More shocking than the size itself, is the comparison of how much city fabric of Venice’s type can fit in the same area of the Expo site, revealing just how massive the Expo buildings were (are).

Detail of Main Axis and China Pavilion area - Google Maps satellite imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to Venice's urban fabric at the same scale)

More detail of Main Axis and China Pavilion area - Google Maps satellite imagery of the Expo site early in 2010 (move over with mouse to compare to Venice's urban fabric at the same scale)

If you haven’t seen them, don’t forget to check out Part I of Deconstructing the Expo: By The Numbers , and Part II: The Effacement

Image 01Image 01Image 01Image 01

Progress of Demolition of Kashgar

Google Earth mapping of demolition of Kashgar by Stefan Geens (ogleearth.com), click for larger version

Last year warnings were raised around the world about the impending demolition of most of the ancient old quarter of Kashgar, a key city along the fabled Silk Road caravan route between west and east, located in China’s Xinjiang province (aka Uyghur Autonomous Region) near the westernmost border of China. Before demolition started, the city was considered “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia.” The government plans to demolish 85% of the old town, replacing the old buildings and fabric with modern housing and development “in local style”, ostensibly to improve the local economy and living standards of residents, and ensuring housing can withstand an earthquake, though whether those are just convenient excuses is subject to a lot of discussion that I’d rather not get into. Stefan Geen (of “neogeo” website ogleearth.com) made a trip to Kashgar in late July 2010 and thoroughly documented the extent of demolition as of August 1, 2010 in Google Earth and on his website, and extensively photographed what remains and the people he met there, all mapped and located in his KMZ file for Google Earth (which you should check out for full interactivity). Above is his map of what has been demolished, and what was in the process of being demolished while he was there, as well as showing the small area that will be preserved for your typical Chinese tourist trap.

While the overall effect so far from the air perhaps doesn’t seem as shocking as the demolition of Tianjin’s old town I wrote about earlier (without more uptodate airphotos, the destruction is not yet obvious, the base is the latest Google Earth has, from October 26, 2009), the damage to the cultural heritage and tourism prospects of Kashgar will certainly be far, far worse once demolition is completed. It is frankly shocking that Kashgar was not made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, something that would have certainly at least preserved the physical character of the old town, and is an incredibly popular route for Chinese heritage tourism spots these days (China has the 3rd highest number of World Heritage Sites in the world, and growing). Of course, the country itself has to nominate the place to become designated a World Heritage Site, which likely explains why Kashgar has never been designated. While being designated is not some kind of magical panacea of preservation (leading as it almost inevitably does to massive tourism and the changes of ownership, character and development that brings with it), the degree of preservation that does occur, whether through international or financial pressures from UNESCO, can be gauged by the fact that only 2 World Heritage sites have ever been delisted for destroying the character that led to designation.

In any case, I was hoping to make it to Kashgar to experience its unique ancient character before demolition, but not sure I’ll make it now (the disturbances in Xinjiang last year didn’t help). Actually, I just came back from Shangri-La (or at least, the self-named Shangri-La which is not the same thing at all, with a stop in Lijiang, another World Heritage Site), which ironically, despite the name, is a far cry from the unique, isolated kind of place that I imagine Kashgar is (or is that was?).

Image 01

Mina Tent City, Mecca

Google Maps satellite photo of Mina Tent City, Saudi Arabia - Mecca is to the left (west)

What does a temporary tent city for 3 million people look like? A recent visit to Expo 2010 in Shanghai clued me in to what is probably the largest ephemeral urban design in the world, the Mina Tent City in Saudi Arabia, erected each year to house Hajj pilgrims visiting Mecca during the last month of the lunar Islamic calendar. The tent city is stunningly portrayed in a pavilion in the Urban Best Practices Area of Expo 2010, with huge wall size aerial photos and birdseye views that do far more justice to the scale of the tent city than what I can show online. The tent city is erected in a valley next to the village of Mina, east of Mecca itself. It is an extremely regimented design with infrastructure such as toilets and water supply designated for a reasonable number of tents in each cell. The tents are standardized and have been designed to be well ventilated and prevent fires that used to be common in the more chaotic pilgrim tent cities of the past. The planning, design, atmosphere and overall purpose are perhaps the diametrical opposite of Black Rock City (the temporary city created for the Burning Man Festival each year) that I posted about in 2007, although the size, population, and crazy logistics of transportation at Mina Tent City and for the Hajj in general is orders of magnitude greater than anything the Black Rock City needs to handle.

Google Maps satellite photo of Mina Tent City, Saudi Arabia - detail level 2

Google Maps satellite photo of Mina Tent City, Saudi Arabia - detail level 3

Google Maps satellite photo of Mina Tent City, Saudi Arabia - detail level 4

Google Maps satellite photo of Mina Tent City, Saudi Arabia - detail level 5

Here are some birdseye views of what Mina Tent City looks like:

Image: Daily Mail

Image: Zawaj.com

Image: Reuters/Daily Mail

Image: Panoramio (Dr.M.Nazir Awan)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Requiem for Wujiang Lu food street

Wujiang Rd Demolition

Wujiang Rd Demolition Before-After 1 (move over photo with your mouse to reveal After photo)

The remaining original portion of Wujiang Lu (吴江路) food street (east of Shimen Yi Lu 石门一路) is being demolished. The pedestrian food street has (or soon to be had) a very distinctive (dare I say delicious) curve to it which may be disappearing forever once demolition is completed. I previously reported on the contrast between the character of the food street and the earlier redevelopment of the portion west of Shimen Yi Lu and gave some history of the street itself. This post however is more about reflecting on yet another loss for Shanghai’s streetlife, so here are some before/after photo rollovers I’ve prepared (so we can kick it like it’s 1996) – first photos were taken around dinner time in October 2008 when it was absolutely crowded, rollover photos are from February 2010 in the midst of demolition.

Wujiang Rd Demolition

Wujiang Rd Demolition Before-After 2 (move over photo with your mouse to reveal After photo)

And another from further east:

Wujiang Rd Demolition

Wujiang Rd Demolition Before-After 3 (move over photo with your mouse to reveal After photo)

And another from nearer Shimen Yi Lu:

Wujiang Rd Demolition

Wujiang Rd Demolition Before-After 4 (move over photo with your mouse to reveal After photo)

Below you can access my Flickr set slideshow “Requiem for Wujiang Rd” that I made as an act of remembrance – you can see full size versions of these before-afters as well as other photos of Wujiang Lu before demolition began, and some video compilations at end.

Wujiang Lu (吴江路) Requiem

Below you can access my Flickr set slideshow of photos during demolition of Wujiang Rd and the small lane neighbourhoods to its north and south (the two videos below also appear at the end).

Wujiang Lu (吴江路) Demolition

I made a couple of videos walking through Wujiang Lu and the small lane district on its south side on February 24th 2010, (Flickr only allows 90 second videos so it’s split it into two parts). See below (note, videos have music).

In google earth you can see what will become of Wujiang Lu by comparing the fate of the lane neighbourhood to the south that was demolished sometime after November 2006 – see before/after mapping below (Wujiang Rd is the curving lane through the top part of the neighbourhood):

Google Earth Imagery of Wujiang Lu area in 2006 and 2009

Google Earth Imagery of Wujiang Lu area in 2006 and 2009 (move over image with your mouse to reveal After image)

I won’t comment too much about this because it makes me too angry and sad to see something that was so popular and fascinating wiped away for more bland corporate anywhere urbanism.

Image 01Image 02
Image 03Image 04Image 05