Tag Archives: urbanism

Toronto Cyclists: Fighting for Equality on Jarvis Street

An installation from the Good Bike Project, which reclaims and reimagines abandoned bicycles in the Toronto area. Photo credit: blogthegoodbike.tumblr.com

While many cities throughout North America are adding bike lanes to reduce congestion and encourage carbon neutral transit, at least one city is doing the very opposite. As the 9th greenest city in the US and Canada according to the Siemens’ Green Index, Toronto seems an unlikely candidate for reversion to more automobile lanes, but that’s precisely what the city council has voted to do. To those familiar with the local politics, however, the move may not come as a surprise. Tensions between motorists and cyclists have been strained in recent months, exacerbated by polarizing statements made by a handful of city councilors and the recently elected mayor, Rob Ford. But is such a deliberate move away from sustainable initiatives a cause for concern, or can it safely be dismissed as temporary political farce?

Upon closer examination, we find that sustainability does play a part in the rhetoric of the debate, even for bike lane opponents. A Toronto cyclist, who was particularly displeased with the removal of bike lanes from Jarvis Street, voiced his concerns to city officials in June of this year. In response, he received the following email from Mayor Rob Ford:

Toronto’s economy loses billions of dollars every year from gridlock and traffic congestion. We need to make the situation better – not worse. The Jarvis Street bike lanes experiment has been a failure. Ninety-four percent of commuters now face longer commutes on Jarvis Street. Over 15,000 commuters each day are suffering from longer travel times, for the sake of 600 additional cyclists.

The City should remove the bike lanes as soon as possible and improve travel times for thousands of daily commuters. City staff have been directed to develop a low-cost plan to do so. Bike lanes were never intended to be installed on Jarvis Street. The original Environmental Assessment recommended against installing bike lanes – but City Council amended the report to approve bike lanes anyway.

The mayor’s defense appears to be structured as follows: bike lanes have increased congestion rather than alleviated it, the vast majority of Toronto’s commuters are still motorists, and the lanes may prove incompatible with the recommendations of the environmental assessment. His first argument, while unsubstantiated in this email, does raise a few interesting questions about the growing pains a city faces upon embracing bike lanes. If indeed motorist congestion is worsened in the short-term, does that not serve to increase rather than decrease carbon emissions? To what extent is the inconvenience of increased travel time for motorists an intended consequence? Does this effectively act as a non-monetary tax on the mode of transport?

The mayor’s second point has less philosophical value and is almost indefensible. Simply catering to the majority of residents may prove more valuable politically, but it is neither ethically nor logically sound. It is, in fact, the reason we have a representative rather than direct democracy: the rights and interests of the minority must be protected. What makes this situation particularly absurd is that the act of cycling benefits the whole community, not just the minority, with cleaner air. Moreover, if the mayor is correct in suggesting that the Jarvis bicycle lanes are responsible for removing up to 600 cars from the road each day, I would consider that an extraordinary achievement—far from a failure.

The final argument regarding the recommendations of the environmental assessment could have held more weight, if only he had provided the details to support it. Curiously, he neglects to mention that the city intends to install bike lanes on a smaller parallel street, prior to their removal from the Jarvis thoroughfare. Such a move can be defended for a number of reasons, including the improved safety for cyclists. If the mayor’s claims regarding the environmental assessment are correct, then perhaps the commission determined the introduction of bike lanes on such a major thoroughfare to be counterproductive to the reduction of carbon emissions. Regrettably, the mayor makes no attempt to explain any of this, resorting only to divisive ideological rhetoric.

More so than the city council’s decision to remove the bike lanes, perhaps we should be more concerned at the absence of constructive dialogue between the parties involved. Rather than constructively engaging the cycling community in solving the city’s transportation woes, Mayor Ford seems to express only disdain for their “minority” interests. Rather than respecting the vital role of they play in reducing the city’s carbon footprint, cyclists are treated with hostility, and in some cases, suspicion. While it appears there may be some logic to the city council’s plans, perhaps benefitting cyclists and motorists alike, there is seemingly no attempt at communicating these shared values and ideals to the public. Indeed, the collapse of constructive dialogue will always prove more damaging to the sustainability movement than the removal of any single bike lane. Toronto’s greatest problem may not be transportation, but a deficit of political and social leadership for good.

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Urban Acupuncture: Revivifying Our Cities Through Targeted Renewal

Can the localized healing concepts of acupuncture be applied to urban revitalization? Photo credit: odt.co.nz

Cities throughout the world, irrespective of their age, location, and economic vitality, are faced with a number of essential problems which are arguably endemic to the very concept of urbanization. From the provision of clean water and sanitation, to the availability of cost-effective and efficient transportation, many of these problems correlate rather predictably with population density. Some problems, however, prove far more abstract in both their causes and effects, as is the case with urban decay. Perhaps even more elusive is a reliable solution to such problems that is economically, ethically, and environmentally sound. A handful of progressive urban renewalists, however, have developed an adaptable framework which they believe may finally provide the answer.

While it is not immediately clear who first coined the term urban acupuncture, there does seem to be a broad consensus on its basic tenets. First, proponents argue that urban revitalization must begin at the hyperlocal level. Borrowing from the concepts of acupuncture, they advocate a targeted (small-scale) approach to “healing” the (large-scale) malady of urban decay. They argue that large-scale revitalization projects are not only less effective, but they are increasingly less feasible, as municipal budgets tighten. Moreover, such projects fail to meaningfully involve their surrounding communities in their planning and development, effectively discouraging long-term local stewardship. Above all, however, proponents suggest that cities must be treated as living organisms, requiring solutions as dynamic as life itself.

Gordon Matta-Clark (June 22, 1943 – August 27, 1978)
Highly influential in the contemporary discourse of urban acupuncture, Matta-Clark was an American artist with an architecture background who transformed abandoned buildings into site-specific art installations. He is credited with developing a system for identifying pockets of disrepair in the built environment—the first step in the framework of urban acupuncture.

Jaime Lerner (born December 17, 1937)
Rather uniquely among architects and urban planners, Lerner was also an accomplished politician. As mayor of Curitiba, the largest and wealthiest city in southern Brazil, Lerner instituted a number of social reforms resulting in improved public health and a more vibrant economy. His efforts were heavily inspired by the concepts of urban acupuncture, as he described in 2007:

I believe that some medicinal “magic” can and should be applied to cities, as many are sick and some nearly terminal. As with the medicine needed in the interaction between doctor and patient, in urban planning it is also necessary to make the city react; to poke an area in such a way that it is able to help heal, improve, and create positive chain reactions. It is indispensable in revitalizing interventions to make the organism work in a different way.

Marco Casagrande (born May 7, 1971)
A prominent Finnish architect, environmental artist, and social theorist, Casagrande is perhaps the first to systematize the concepts of urban acupuncture. Indeed, the core principles of UA are integral to his theory and practice, and his resultant work can be seen in the built environments of Taipei and Montreal. In an interview with Laurits Elkjær in 2010, Casagrande described urban acupuncture as:

[a] cross-over architectural manipulation of the collective sensuous intellect of a city. City is viewed as multi-dimensional sensitive energy-organism, a living environment. Urban acupuncture aims into a touch with this nature.

While his definition may be abstract, the results of his work are very real, garnering considerable attention from the architecture community.

Nicholas de Monchaux (born March 14, 1973)
Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UC Berkeley, de Monchaux is a prominent advocate for urban acupuncture in the United States. His “Local Code” project is not only technologically remarkable, but it provides an evocative glimpse into the potential of the UA framework. The following video proposes a UA revitalization effort for San Francisco:

While it’s easy to receive concepts like urban acupuncture with skepticism, one can scarcely reject the logic of its goals and methodology. The sheer breadth of support for the principles of UA are also reassuring, indicating a coordinated effort to seek new solutions to the problem of urban decay. Although urban revitalization is inherently a gradual process, we will perhaps see an increasing number of UA projects coming to fruition in the next few years. Hopefully, these efforts will prove not only aesthetically pleasing, but serve to categorically improve the health of urban communities.