urbanism – landscape – ideas – theory – whimsy

Black Rock City


Black Rock City is the temporary city created each year to house the revelers at the 8 day Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

From Wikipedia’s article on the subject:

“Much of the layout and general city infrastructure is constructed by Department of Public Works (DPW) volunteers…

“The developed part of the city is currently arranged as series of concentric streets in an arc composing, since 1999, two-thirds of a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) diameter circle… with the Man Sculpture and his supporting complex at the very center (40°45’56.88″N, 119°13’39.59″W in 2007). Radial streets, sometimes called Avenues, extend from the Man to the outermost circle…

“The innermost street is named the Esplanade, and the remaining streets are given names to coincide with the overall theme of the burn, and ordered in ways such as alphabetical order or stem to stern, to make them easier to recall. The radial streets are usually given a clock designation (for example, “6:00, 6:15”), in which the Man is at the center of the clock face and 12:00 is in the middle of the third of the arc lacking streets….

“Center Camp is located along the midline of Black Rock City, facing the Man at the 6:00 position on the Esplanade, and serves as a central meeting place for the entire city.”

The City is located in a slightly different location each year, and the festival itself upholds a policy of “leave no trace”. The 2007 edition of Burning Man brought together 47,097 people in an otherwise empty and desolate landscape.

Oblique (not from straight above) photos below are by Brad Templeton – plan photos are from GoogleMaps/Earth.








A sense of scale, a sense of space, a sense of place?

Construction Hoarding on St. Thomas
Photo: St. Thomas St, Yorkville

A second construction hoarding was erected on St. Thomas St south of Bloor recently, across the street from an existing hoarding (which has since been taken down). For a short time, the two facing hoardings protecting the sidewalks appeared to resemble a street lined with arcades, in its small spatial scale not unlike many you will see in southeast asia, such as this one in Singapore.

Street with arcades, Singapore
Photo: Street/lane in Singapore

This small scale of space is a relatively infrequent occurrence in Toronto, especially as part of a public street. While we’re used to such small scales in our back alleys, those alleys are, with but few exceptions, the city’s backdoors – infrequently travelled and largely empty, with few uses facing on to them other than the occasional residence and dominated by garages or blank walls and service entries. They do not really form a part of the public face of the city or city life.

Photo: Laneway in the Junction

Photo: Kensington Market (photo by raptortheangel)

Somewhere approaching this scale of space that is part of the public face of the city is most famously exemplified by Kensington Market, where not only the buildings, produce and products are jostled up against the sidewalk, but the streets are narrow and bustling with people, and to add to the compression of space, filled with parked cars and delivery trucks and slowly crawling traffic. It all adds up to a very human (dare we say humane?) scale that somehow makes you feel comfortable, as though you’ve been enveloped in the city. In fact, Kensington moves beyond a sense of space, and somehow transcends that rather empty word, to have evolved a sense of place, one that is both undeniable and unique.

Photo: Wilkins Ave, off King St E, east of Parliament

There are a few other examples of small space in the city, but they tend to be rather hidden and brief moments – although that just makes them seem all the more jewel-like when you discover them.

Photo: Tree-lined street at Rice University, Houston

While small space is not the only way to attempt to foster sense of place, I think that there is some connection between this sense of scale, sense of space and sense of place. Similar effects of scale can even be created by the canopies of closely-spaced street trees, as at Rice University (above), but can also be misguided in implementation as in this accident of line-of-sight where Casa Loma’s tower is perfectly framed by the laneway between Walmer Rd and Spadina Rd south of Davenport, which doesn’t so much benefit the laneway itself, but creates some sense of drama and intrigue for all those people walking along MacPherson Ave towards George Brown College.

Photo: Looking towards Casa Loma up rear lane between Walmer Rd and Spadina Rd

Whether or not anyone agrees with me about the importance of small scale when it comes to sense of place, I think we can safely say that a key missing ingredient in the urbanities being created in suburban locales around Toronto (and the rest of north america) is the absence of small-scaled space. This absence has been compensated for in many different ways, but most notably (need I say, horrifically and ironically?) by the deliberately pedestrian scale of space of the “shopping street” inside the typical mall and, more recently, by the creation of “pedestrian-oriented” centres in suburban locales, usually surrounded by seas of parking and/or parking garages and huge arterial roads and/or expressways. These new “centres”, sometimes presumed to be the end of the mall (and often replacing them), are in reality the mall’s evolution into a more plausible (but still staged) “reality”, one that is once again based upon the smaller scale that has become nostalgically associated with our cities’ historic centres and main streets.

Whether this small scale can once again be more fully integrated into the urban environments we are building may depend on the level of commitment we as a society are willing to make to creating spaces and places planned and designed around people instead of cars. On this question the jury’s still out. Despite recent progress and a lot of talk to the contrary, the evidence on the ground does not convince.

A plea for more seating

Improvised Seating

With summer fast approaching, we’ll be seeing more and more people out on the streets, hanging out, talking, eating their lunches and generally enjoying being outside – as Canadians tend to do when fine weather brings us out of winter’s clutches. But where are they doing all these things? Surely we’re not all standing around on street corners, loitering in front of doorways or squatted on the pavement?

No, it’s this time of year when finding a plum bench or seat in a nice location at lunch time is something like trolling the streets looking for a parking space. But is the culprit just too many people in a concentrated area all out at the same time, or is it really that we have a sadly deficient amount of seating in public areas in Toronto? And I don’t just mean benches – seating walls, stairs, ledges, chairs, window wells – people will sit on almost any horizontal surface within reach (as the couple in the photo above show in such intimate fashion).

It certainly seems as though in many of the most bustling parts of the city there are hardly any places to sit along streets or at intersections where all the action is happening. I hope that we can improve on the current situation in future, and sincerely hope that the current transformation of Toronto’s waterfront will provide ample (nay, over-ample!) seating of every kind and for every occasion.

Photo: Couple seated in a wall along Balmuto Ave opposite the Manulife Centre

MVVA wins Lower Don Lands competition

The TWRC announced yesterday that the Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (MVVA)/Behnisch Architects/Greenberg Consultants/Great Eastern Ecology team won the Lower Donlands Design Competition. More information on the team’s entry can be found at the TWRC site.




The full team included:

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (MVVA), New York & Massachusetts, USA
Limno Tech Inc., Michigan, USA
Applied Ecological Services Inc., Wisconsin, USA
Great Eastern Ecology, New York, USA
Greenberg Consultants Inc., Ontario, CANADA
Behnisch Architects, Los Angeles, CA, USA & Stuttgart, DEU
Transsolar Energietechnik, New York, USA & Stuttgart, DEU
RFR Engineering, Paris, FR
Totten Sims Hubicki and Associates (TSH), Ontario, CANADA

Congratulations (and commiserations) should also go to the other teams for very fine submissions, particularly the Weiss/Manfredi DTAH scheme which I’m sure was a very close second.

A plea for subtle signage

Just back from Houston, a city which, despite its problems, has some fine moments and some beautifully detailed parks and streetscapes. This stepped edge of a pond in Hermann Park simply uses subtle carved words to ask people not to enter the water. In case you think people should be allowed in the water, there was an area for that too!

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Too often, it’s easy to forget how signs (particularly restrictive ones) can clutter and dominate public places. While there’s plenty of place for sign clutter on heterogenous and chaotic streetscapes, their intrusion into more passive and contemplative spaces can seem offensive and misplaced.

Hermann Park, re-masterplanned with design projects ongoing by landscape architects Hanna/Olin (now Olin Partnership) and SWA Group (including Keiji Asakura, now of Houston-based Asakura Robinson) and funded by a non-profit group, is a stand-out example of quality urban park refurbishment that practices restraint and holds the line against the commercialisation of public space.

Designs released for Lower Don Lands


The designs for the Lower Don Lands from the 4 shortlisted teams in the “Innovative Design Competition for the Lower Don Lands” being run by the TWRC were released today in conjunction with an exhibition (including lovely models) at BCE Place. The Exhibition Launch and Public Forum is on Monday April 16 from 6-9 pm at the Allan Lambert Galleria in BCE Place (181 Bay Street). PDF’s of the full display panels are available from the TWRC website.


STOSS INC./Brown + Storey Architects/ZAS Architects





STOSS INC., Boston, MA
Brookner Studio
Nina-Marie Lister
Applied Ecological Systems
Pine + Swallow Associates
Nitsch Engineering, Inc.
Moffatt + Nichol
Kidd Consulting
Consult Econ, Inc.
The Map Office


MVVA/Behnisch Architects/Greenberg Cnsltnts/Great Eastern Ecology





Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. (MVVA), New York & Massachusetts, USA
Limno Tech Inc., Michigan, USA
Applied Ecological Services Inc., Wisconsin, USA
Great Eastern Ecology, New York, USA
Greenberg Consultants Inc., Ontario, CANADA
Behnisch Architects, Los Angeles, CA, USA & Stuttgart, DEU
Transsolar Energietechnik, New York, USA & Stuttgart, DEU
RFR Engineering, Paris, FR
Totten Sims Hubicki and Associates (TSH), Ontario, CANADA


Weiss/Manfredi & du Toit Allsopp Hillier





Weiss/Manfredi, New York, NY
du Toit Allsopp Hillier (DTAH), Toronto, CANADA
McCormick Rankin Corporation
Golder Associates Ltd.
Biohabitats, Inc.


Atelier GIROT/Office of Landscape Morphology/ReK Productions






Atelier GIROT, Zurich, Switzerland
Office of Landscape Morphology, Paris, FRANCE
Jürgen Mayer H., Berlin, GERMANY
ReK productions
Arup, California, USA
Philip Ursprung
Applied Ecological Services

Favela Japonesa


A friend’s Portuguese cousin sent these awesome images to him and he duly forwarded them to me. The title really says it all: Favela Japonesa indeed! Of course, perhaps a more flexible usage of the concept is required than the english equivalents shantytown/slum – my mind’s drawing a blank, but in spanish, the word barrio, while carrying the same connotations (particularly in Venezuela), also simply means district or neighbourhood. Whatever the word should be, we like where this idea is headed… for something mildly related, don’t forget to check out the Personal Container Management post from November, and to see 50 selected projects utilizing shipping containers try fabprefab.com.

Addendum (May 2010): a commenter indicates that this is actually a Dutch student housing project at the University of Utrecht called Spacebox – 300 units have been built






PLANT wins Nathan Phillips Square competition

Plant Architect & Shore Tilbe Irwin were announced the winner of the Nathan Phillips Square competition. For more information on the competing schemes see the Spacing Wire post or the City of Toronto’s website.

The rest of the team members were:

  • Peter Lindsay Schaudt Landscape Architecture, Inc. (landscape design collaborator, Chicago)
  • Adrian Blackwell (urban design collaborator and art consultant, Toronto)
  • Blackwell Bowick Partnership Limited (structural engineering, Toronto)
  • Blanche Lemko van Ginkel (historical guidance, Toronto)
  • Crossey Engineering Ltd. (integrated mechanical and lighting systems design, Toronto)
  • Enermodal Engineering Limited (environmental and sustainability design and integration, Kitchener, Ontario)
  • Theatre Projects Consultants (theatre consultant, S. Norwalk, Connecticut)
  • Vermeulens Inc. (quantity surveying, Richmond Hill, Ontario)

Lower Don Vision – bricoleurbanism style


The TWRC recently put out a call to Torontonians for visions for the Lower Don Lands and the mouth of the Don River (see here), perhaps as a consolation for the closed, restrictive process they seem intent on following for their “Innovative Design Competition for Toronto’s Lower Don Lands” for which they released a shortlist on 2 February (see here).

Maybe they thought that the Innovative Design Competition for the Central Waterfront (see here) was so successful, they figured they’d just do the same thing over again. At least it’s clear that they’re intent on moving forward with winning schemes into implementation, which is not always the case.

But starting off with an RFP process is hardly a way to get the maximum number of people involved. While they say that they’re “seeking input from the world’s most talented and creative design and engineering professionals in developing bold new concepts for the Lower Don Lands area”, it hardly seems likely that the world’s most talented and creative people have been boiled down to the 5 shortlisted teams. The proposals themselves are never released publicly, only the finalists’ entries are, so at best we get 5 concepts to publicly review and have to rely on the wisdom of the shortlisting process to have chosen teams that might produce the most innovative design responses.

While the process obviously can work (quite a bit of attention was generated with the Central Waterfront competition), it does have drawbacks – the winning team for the Central Waterfront (West8/DTAH) was a clear winner since most people were less than impressed by the other teams’ submissions. The fact that the Nathan Phillips Square competition (see here) is being run in the same way, makes it clear that a wide spectrum of ideas is not what public agencies in Toronto are really after.

Which leaves some designers and Torontonians (either those not shortlisted, or ineligible to compete by virtue of not being on a team with all the requirements demanded by the RFP) shit out of luck. Cue the “Submit Your Vision for Toronto’s Lower Don Lands”. However, being limited to a single double-sided letter sized page is certainly unusual for most designers, so it’s obvious that they really are looking for the ideas of the average Torontonian.

And as for design students, who traditionally are keen submitters to competitions (if only because their studios are often based on a current competition), whatever ideas they may have come up with, they’d better fit on that double-sided page too.

So, even if only to get the ball rolling and get some ideas out in public (where’s the TWRC going to hide all the visions submitted by Joe Public?), bricoleurbanism.org is proud to here present our vision for the Lower Don Lands. Click on the images to view the full drawings.


Mapping Our Urbanism Part III – Water Mains


In the Toronto Star last weekend was a special 2-page spread on the sorry state of Toronto’s water mains with emphasis on who’s to pay for upgrades (see story online here). However, the maps included give a fascinating glimpse into the history of Toronto’s development seen through the age of the water mains. Divided into four periods, 1859-1900, 1901-1940, 1941-1960, and 1961-2000, these maps are indispensable for anyone interested in the history of urban infrastructure. To see a little more detail, follow these links (maps 1+2, maps 3+4) – if you prefer a much more detailed PDF version of the maps is available from the Star’s site here (PDF).


Crossposted to the Spacing Wire