Au Paris!

August 2, 2010

Paris is not a perfect city. It is expensive, still with the power to shock. Few adult males wear short pants even when temperatures nose up to 30-degrees C while many steadfastly sport scarves. Outside on busy street cafés, grown men unselfconsciously swap spit with their Yorkshire terriers. (Does one ‘french’ another in France or is that just a label we étranger use for something that may not come naturally to us?)

More disturbing, Paris’ fêted core, let’s say arrondisements 1 through 20, is encircled by a second city where the less affluent, the less, well, French, live, where unemployment and racism run rampant and on any given night after some sort of altercation between the residents and authorities will light up riotously under the glow of burning cars. It is a part of Paris not included in the travel brochures although it does grab its fair share of international news headlines. A dynamic Toronto would do well to heed, as the have and have-not gulf between the downtown and the older suburbs here simmers on low-to-medium boil during the current election campaign.

But this isn’t about how not to run or design a city. For all its grand and glorious architectural splendor, what works most about Paris is the very human scale on which it is built. It doesn’t simply overwhelm by over-awing although there are times when it most certainly can do that. No, Paris is Paris because it embraces you, pulling you into the rhythm of life on the street. Unlike New York or London where you seem to be contending with place, Paris allows you to be a part of it. In its justifiably renowned cafés. The galleries both large and small. Along the banks of the Seine which lie wide open with few barricades between it and those who stroll, sit, picnic or wait for sunset by the river.

Of course, there is some irony to this people friendly feature. Under the mid-19th century plan for a “new” Paris, the self-anointed Baron Haussmann razed the “old” Paris to make way for large, wide open spaces and boulevards at least in part for the ease of mobilizing forces to get in and out of the city to quell uprisings as well as inhibiting the ability of budding insurgents to protect themselves in cordoned off sections of Paris. Haussmann’s “new” Paris was to be the playground of the elite to flaunt and promenade their wealth and not for the fomenting of further revolutions.

Many sections of the city still display those traits but they tend to be the least interesting places with the Champs-Élysées springing immediately to mind. But there are neighbourhoods throughout Paris that aren’t about exclusion. With almost no single family dwellings within the core (especially after the violent elimination of royalty and the eventual petering out of emperor-ity), Paris possesses a vigorous communal vibe. Not only in the oft-mentioned and boundless number of cafés but in the plentiful amounts of public green space both large and small. In good weather, this is where people have their dinner parties. They congregate together even in their private moments, to read, to reflect, to drink wine and wallow in their amazingly livable aesthetic.

The Paris we visit today, like many other European cities, has the advantage of coalescing before the modern age truly kicked in. Space was limited not only because of size but because travel was no easy feat. People (certainly those not graced with money) stayed put unless dire circumstances forced them to move on, and cities were built up around their citizenry.

We here in the new world were blessed and cursed with the advantages of growing and prospering in a later age. With perceived unlimited space, our neighbourhoods consisted of houses not flats or apartments. Travel was made easy by the development and encouragement of private automobiles and the evolution of the car culture. Whole communities sprung up owing to that one single fact. The car scar is what we bear now. Our places, including much of Toronto, were designed for things, namely cars, not people.

We will never be Paris. Or London. Or Amsterdam. Or Copenhagen. We shouldn’t try to be. Much of what works in those places would never work here and vice versa. But there are elements we could try to adopt and adapt to our situation. The first of which is to realize the difference between people and individuals, and the best, most livable cities are home to citizens not stakeholders or taxpayers. Take away the Eiffel Tour, the Louvre, the Pantheon and Notre Dame and Paris would still be Paris.

parisienly submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Biking The Rossi Way

July 12, 2010

Last night I was thinking of Rocco Rossi.

Biking enthusiast, bike lane antagonist, earlier this year on the campaign hustings the mayoral candidate vowed to put an end to any further intrusions onto arterial roads by bike lanes. In fact, he suggested he might even tear up existing ones while he was at.

Now, don’t get Mr. Rossi wrong. It’s not that he hates bicycles or cyclists. He is an avid one himself, he assures us. They just shouldn’t be taking up space on our busy roads, making it difficult for the suburban drivers that Rossi’s desperately courting to zip into work in the morning and back home again at night. What he would take away with one hand, however, Rossi would give back with the other, vowing “to expedite building more bike lanes, but on quieter streets.”

Which is why he was on my mind in the early hours of this morning.

Hours after World Cup 2010 came to a merciful conclusion with a predictably dreary final game, I found myself zipping down an off road bike lane in a south south-east direction along the Bloor Go line, heading to Little Italy from Silverthorne. I’d only previously got a glimpse of the path a couple times when crossing over the tracks on Dundas Street West as it takes a northerly turn. Now I was on it, and loving it and thinking that, hey, if Rocco Rossi can build us a bunch of these, I will happily forgo street travel with all its inherent dangers and annoyances.

The bike lane is a particular slice of urban heaven. A smooth ride along an unpotholed path, it takes you past quiet little neighbourhood streets, converted factories, a couple derelict – or rather, transitional – sites, all wrapped up in wild, city appropriate landscaping (I know nothing of flora) and metal artwork placed throughout. It is well lit and as I rode, taking in the surroundings, I could just imagine doing this as the new electrified trains shoot past me on their way to destinations throughout the GTA. Oh wait, right. They’re not doing that.

That bummer thought aside, there’s little question that from a biking standpoint, this would be the way to get around town. I’m told the city’s ultimately going to take the lane along the tracks all the way down to Strachan Ave. not far from the lakefront trail. Again, you go, girl. I am right there with you. The more you can keep my interaction with cars to an absolute minimum, the more I’m on board.

This is exactly what I’m thinking as I pull up and off the trail and back onto the road for a left turn onto College Street. So how’s this all going to work under Rocco Rossi’s War on Arterial Bike Lanes®™© scheme? Clearly we can’t have off road bike lanes everywhere in the city. That would necessitate questions of expropriation and people apparently get a little touchy over that kind of talk. Does that mean if, for example, my quickest route home was along College Street, Mr. Rossi would have me detour off onto side streets and in all likelihood adding to the time it would take me to get home? If so, why me on a bicycle and not those in their cars? Because this is his biggest argument against bike lanes on arterial roads, isn’t it? The inconvenience it causes to those driving cars.

It certainly can’t be a safety issue as there would be no evidence to back such an argument up. In fact, while Rossi competes with Rob Ford, George Smitherman and Sarah Thomson to see who can be the biggest urban planning Luddite, much of the rest of the civilized world is going in the completely opposite direction. Many places are experimenting with seriously mixed use roadways, de-curbed level surfaces devoid of much signage where motorized vehicles, bikes and pedestrians share streets equally. The onus is on the biggest, fastest, most lethal mode of transport to adjust its behaviour accordingly, operating under the premise of expecting the unexpected. From this, emerge more livable streetscapes.

Instead, candidate Rossi wants to relegate bikes to the periphery, making any necessary foray onto the main roads that much more dangerous. Drivers get used to not having to deal with bikes. Drivers become inattentive. Cyclists are in greater danger.

But the lack of Big Idea, forward thinking is simply a matter of fact during this election race. And the candidates wonder why they can’t light a fire under the electorate. Rather than attempt to bridge the car-bike (suburban-urban) divide, they endeavour to exploit it for political gain. So that we are offered only a fleeting look at how things could be (riding the briefest of stretches down a well designed bike lane) while having to make due with a steady diet of the grimmest, dullest, perfunctory realities.

submitted by Urban Sophisticat


The Laddies Of Shanghai

May 13, 2010

The pre(mis)conceptions about China started to peel away almost immediately. At least for the China as represented by the city of Shanghai just kicking into Expo 2010 gear.

Maybe it was the 8 minute 30 kilometre train ride in from the airport aboard the Maglev train topping out at a speed of 430 km/hr. Or the shiny new subway system that was extensive, easy to use and costing 60 cents to cross the city. (Quaint might be the word a polite Shanghai native would use in referring to the TTC.) The Bladerunner skyline of Pudong peeking out from the drizzly mist across the Huangpu River toward the Bund suggests that we’ve crossed more than the international dateline on the 14 hour flight here. It’s very possible that we’ve rocketed through some sort of wormhole, jumping decades not mere hours.

We’re certainly not the first to say that modern China is riddled with paradoxes but it bears repeating. In a place still operating under authoritarian rule, most people we encounter are open, startlingly friendly, quick to laugh and very eager to try out their English with you. In typical North American fashion, we’ve come equipped with not so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in the native language while most folks under the age of 50 or so here can provide quite complicated directions in English. If these people would just stop learning our language maybe we’d be forced to learn theirs. There is a vibrant, challenging visual arts scene that is quietly questioning the country’s direction while attracting international attention and big bucks.

The museum that now houses the site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is located in a fairly swanky neighbourhood. So a stone’s throw from where you can learn about the rise of Mao blowing ‘the horns of enlightenment thinking’ and the birth of his New China is a Porsche dealership and Tiffany & Co. An impossible juxtaposition to process at first but less so as you dig further into the history.

It seems that in his fervent but well earned anti-capitalist viewpoint, Mao was something of an anomaly here in China. On other side of him, this is and was a mercantile country. Trade and commerce, both forced and self-propelled is a strong part of the history here. We should not be surprised or sniff at the supposed contradiction of this communist country now being a global economic superpower. Mao seems to have simultaneously helped and hindered China’s progress toward economic dominance and it appears to be a sly insider joke that the Chairman’s likeness appears on the Chinese currency.

What is most obvious at initial glance here in Shanghai is the boundless optimism that permeates the place. Yes, we are seeing the prettiest of faces put on for outsiders as China welcomes the world for the second time in as many years. Yes, there is a certain rah-rah boosterism reminiscent of the 50s sloganeering when you walk through places like the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. But the vision they are projecting is on a grand scale. They are attempting to develop a true, living, breathing, sustainable megalopolis in the face of very daunting prospects. Even if they fall short, this is going to be a city like few others anywhere in the world.

Compared to this, we in Toronto, in Canada, in North America, are simply standing still, waiting for the future to happen. Here in Shanghai, they are taking the future by the throat and slapping it into shape. This may be the biggest paradox of all. In a country rife with the heavy, heavy burden of a long, choppy past, they have eagerly seized the future while we, mere adolescents, having encountered a few bumps and bruises recently, refuse to face up to it, choosing instead to shrink in immobilizing fear.

shamefully submitted by Urban Sophisticat