Urban Murals Update

In an earlier post, I spoke of the link between urban murals and authentic community expression (to read, click here ).  Since then, Vancouver has had its first ever public mural festival.  For more information on the festival generally, click here.  To see some of these gorgeous works of art, click here.  And watch for a new posting from me very soon.

Dreaming of Harvest Moon


Last week we had a full moon.  It was also the prelude to  another moon-related event: the harvest moon (the full moon closest to the September Equinox: September 16th in 2016).  The harvest moon in my part of the world is gorgeous and mysterious, often accompanied by fog in the early mornings and evenings.  Hearing the strains of Neil Young’s ode as I type, this post suggests beautiful weekend get-aways to three Pacific Northwest locations where Autumn moon encounters will be glorious.

1.  Cannon Beach, Oregon

To people who have travelled Highway 1 along  the Oregon Coast, Cannon Beach is the supermodel among those towns.  If you’ve never been before, know that the journey is as good as the destination and plan your time accordingly. But for those without the time to relish that narrow, windy and breathtaking stretch of road, Cannon Beach is less than 2 hours west of Portland.

The town does have its share of upscale restaurants and boutiques to lure the almighty tourist dollar.  Still, its main beach (complete with glimpses of its landmark Haystack Rock) is fully accessible to anyone who chooses to go there.  Two years ago we enjoyed a breathtaking Autumn sunset here with people from all walks of life, seated on  blankets, in deck chairs, or on logs strewn across the beach.  It felt like being at a community picnic.     (We opted to stay in a cheaper town nearby -Seaside- to cut costs.)

Consider making your own harvest moon tribute at this natural marvel, declared one of the world’s 100 most beautiful places in 2013 by National Geographic.

2.  Fort Langley, British Columbia

Fort Langley is an historic townsite that has undergone a lot of heritage-compatible redevelopment over the past decade. It was a key destination on Canada’s fur trade route, whose remnants  are visible at the Parks Canada site (click here: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/bc/langley/visit.aspx ).

I love that Fort Langley provides tranquil riverwalking opportunities,  and has been home to people and families from a range of age groups and incomes (although that is sadly changing with rising home prices).  The area is also surrounded by farms, and at the edge of Metro Vancouver.  There is no better place to see the harvest moon rise than from along the riverbank with your sweetie, or else driving along quiet country roads flanked by horse pastures.  Confession: we have family within a 20 minute drive of this area, and have been known to also take a chilly but temperate Christmas Day walk there, because it is lovely year-round.

As a bonus, while in Metro Vancouver take advantage of Chinese Moon Festival events.

3.  San Juan Island, Washington

Ah, San Juan.  I mentioned in an earlier post that I have a soft spot for small West Coast towns with a counterculture vibe.  San Juan definitely fits that bill.  Like many spots with a counter culture past, San Juan has also undergone some gentrification.  Roche Harbour definitely caters to a more upscale crowd. Still, a number of island locals have set up interesting farming businesses for themselves, from lavender farming, alpaca rearing to grape-growing and wine production.  That too has its yuppie side; but it’s hard to be elitist with a day job including fertilizing plants and brushing and shovelling manure for large, oderous (if cute) animals.

Spend the harvest moon at any of the island’s state parks or beaches.  I’m a big fan of a simple moonrise viewing approach: picnic baskets, blankets, and perhaps a folding chair or two.

The Harvest moon is a magical annual phenomenon worth celebrating.  This post has suggested three idyllic destinations for harvest moon encounters: Cannon Beach, Fort Langley, and San Juan Island.  Each will bring you closer to nature as you marvel at the moon’s simple, stark beauty.
Moon

Urban Sanctuary

Sanctuary

Authentic travel experiences enable one to be present in the moment, and can include time spent in urban sanctuaries.  Sanctuaries provide a time-out for us to reflect, undisturbed by the pressures of life and needs of others.  Read on for  five ways to find sanctuary -while travelling or at home.

1 Places of worship

In some respects, these may be obvious; but for a novel experience, consider also looking to a sanctuary from another tradition.   Sometimes this can be more powerful, where you gain sanctity without becoming enmeshed in any personal baggage you might have with your own tradition.  Just ensure that your use of the sanctuary is respectful and aligns with the norms of that space.  My own tradition is as a liberal Christian; and to date I have had meaningful experiences in churches, synagogues, and Buddhist temples.  One of my favourite churches ever was Santa Maria in Trastevere (Rome).

2. Graveyards

In addition to being interesting historic sites, graveyards often have beautiful qualities which add to their sense of sanctuary.  The photo below shows a gorgeous Prague cemetery where leafy plants are encouraged to grow over many of the grave sites.  I found it particularly moving to be there late on a July afternoon, where the greenery cooled down the temperature by several degrees on what was otherwise a very hot day.  All the lush vegetation suggested that life and death are intimately intertwined.

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Prague cemetery.  Author photo, July 2015

3. Natural spaces

Nature has cleansing and healing power for many of us. An earlier posting explained why, giving tips on different ways to experience the benefits of something called forest bathing (to read, click here). Beaches and rivers can also be a source of sanctuary.  The key is to find a landscape that resonates with you, and to carve out time to be in it.

4. Musical performances

Look for opportunities to hear live music that you will enjoy, and let yourself be transported into stillness. Many cities make these easy to find, from Time Out listings, to more local entertainment magazines (New York’s The Village Voice, Seattle’s The Stranger, Vancouver’s Georgia Straight). A future post will also discuss how to access classical music while travelling.

5. Look to Time, Rather Than Place

I have been a morning person my entire life. It never ceases to amaze me how few people actually revel in the stillness of an early morning walk through a part of town that, just a few hours later, is bustling. The light on summer mornings is especially captivating. Consider getting up earlier than usual at least one day on your holiday to get a fresh perspective on your destination- and carve out a small sanctuary for yourself. Alternately, sometimes late at night you can also enjoy a certain stillness. The key is to look for it at a time outside the typical hours of human activity.

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The calm of morning light.  Author photo, July 2016

These are just a few examples of ways to find sanctuary and stillness while travelling. Sanctuary is a highly individual concept, and can have powerful benefits for us as human beings. Please feel free to comment with some of your ideas for finding sanctuary while on the road or at home – I really would love to hear from you.

The Urban Imaginary and Authenticity


Featured image courtesy of The Matrix Makeup Dept.

The urban imaginary and authenticity.  Wow- sounds like that came from a textbook.  But we confront these two ideas every day when we travel, and also at home.  The urban imaginary is about the unseen aspects of a city- literally how people imagine or perceive a city and their own interactions with it.  If you’ve seen the film “The Matrix”, you know how extreme the difference between the real and the imagined can be. This post appreciates that distinction; and it considers how travel might (or might not) engage in healthy ways with the urban imaginary of cities.

Some  differences between the real and imagined aspects of a city may be subtle.  A city may be considered “friendly” or “aloof ” in the urban imaginary.  How different is  this from reality?  It may be hard to verify.  But where differences between the real and imaginary are more tangible, they may  lead to action.  For example, if locals think of their city as very modern, they will view everything through the lens of modernity.  Anything that is not modern and high tech is seen as an exception -or something to be eventually “fixed”.  People in (and travelling to) Copenhagen might view that city as eco-friendly, and bike-friendly.  And so eco-friendliness and bike-friendliness become part of the urban imaginary of Copenhagen.  In the latter instance, fixing aspects of reality that don’t mesh with the urban imaginary can produce many positive benefits for locals, such as added cycling trails, or new buildings with energy-efficient features.  Sometimes the urban imaginary  is simple, at other times it is multi-layered.

The idea of the urban imaginary has fascinated many scholars and philosophers.  For urban planning scholar Edward Soja  “The city exists as a series of doubles; it has official and hidden cultures.  It is a real place and a site of imagination.  Its elaborate [set of physical attributes] … is paralleled by a complex of attitudes, habits, customs, expectancies, and hopes that reside in us as urban subjects” (Postmetropolis, 2000:324).  In short, these attitudes, habits and hopes are part of the urban imaginary -and of  authentic urban life.

Following Soja’s understanding, to travel authentically  one would seek (through one’s travel choices) to  uncover various aspects of the urban imaginary that locals hold.  In an earlier post, I mentioned the value of reading local newspapers or blogs by local people to find out what they care about (click  here ).  In addition, one could uncover the urban imaginary by talking to local people about how they see their city- what they love about it as well as what they would change if they could.  The term “urban imaginary” probably won’t resonate with most, but good questions and a genuine interest can tease this out, and enhance understanding.

Not all aspects of the urban imaginary lead to authentic experiences, though.  One of the more famous takes on the urban imaginary comes from French scholar Jean Beaudrillard, who talked about the problematic blurring of the real and the imagined, and complained about the “Desert of the Real”.  This desert emerges when an idealized version of reality (captured in  various symbols representing that reality) are preferred to the more mundane versions of reality (warts and all).  For the record, The Matrix stole shamelessly from Beaudrillard.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it called our attention to an extreme that deserves reflection.  And let’s face it -probably more people have seen The Matrix than have read Beaudrillard.

An example in travel terms of a Desert of the Real might be a coffee shop that calls itself “Le petit café typique parisien” (the typical little Parisian coffee shop), which is laid out, and staffed with people who take great pains, to fit the stereotyped tourist version of a Parisian café, down to the haughty waiters.  This stereotype might have drawn upon aspects of the urban imaginary, but likely only its most superficial -and probably more from the tourist urban imaginary than the local urban imaginary.  Where a quarter or district has more “petits cafés typiques” than restaurants that have evolved in less self-conscious ways, one could argue that the entire district has become a Desert of the Real.

A similar situation exists in a Las Vegas Hotel that will go unnamed, designed around very superficial replicas of Italian urban landscapes, including canals and gondolas but flanked with luxury shopping opportunities (minus the inconveniences of the real where one would have to navigate in Italian, and confront pigeons, Vespas, plus crowded sidewalks). And it doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether or not chain stores are present or absent, unless they start to become a monoculture and to reinforce only the simulated understandings of the neighbourhood.

Desertification is not just about stereotyping- it is also about leaving out various aspects of reality (including people and stories whose presence detracts from the simulated version of reality).  Think of gentrifying neighbourhoods you’ve visited, where initially artists mix with lower income people, and then people of means start to buy homes in the area, drawn by the ability to identify with artistic and creative types but eventually pushing out the lower income people and even, often, the artists who initially helped attract them. Avoiding desertification is not always about blocking gentrification.  It is about remembering that, where people value authentic communities, they will make efforts to ensure there still remains room for those who might otherwise be excluded.  This could include social housing, housing cooperatives, and affordable rental units in new buildings within the district.  I have mentioned Vesterbro in Copenhagen in an earlier posting.  Vesterbro is a great example of a community that has remained authentic as it upgraded the built environment, by ensuring housing remained accessible to the neighbourhood’s original inhabitants.  In a similar vein,  I  love my local Starbucks, because it has been very accommodating of people who are best described as neighbourhood characters, and who don’t always purchase while hanging out there.  (But I still take care to support the nearest independent cafe too.)

So how else can you appreciate the local urban imaginary and avoid “Deserts of the Real”?  Here are some questions to ask yourself when planning your next trip:

  • Will my itinerary lead me to neighbourhoods where people from a mix of incomes and educational backgrounds are likely to be present? If not, consider adding in places where this presence exists.
  • In a heavily tourist-oriented precinct, what opportunities are there for me to connect with varied (perhaps even opposing), stories about, and perspectives on, this place and the artifacts that I am seeing?  Seek out these opportunities, and favour sites where they exist.
  • To what extent has this store/ restaurant had to change business practices just to cater to tourists, rather than locals? If the answer is “a lot”, consider a place where the answer is “partly, but not a lot”.

You might also want to check out a related post for further tips (click here).

Getting in touch with the urban imaginary of your next travel destination in a positive way will take some effort, and perhaps a bit of research.  It will be well worth it, though, and could lead to any number of pleasant discoveries- perhaps even a few surprises.

Quebec City by Foot and by Bike

Love this thoughtful photoessay on cycling in Quebec City, I just had to share, even though it’s by someone else. Created by Preservation in Pink

Preservation in Pink

Being a tourist offers the luxury of time, assuming you’re not one to over schedule (younger me did such things – I’ve learned my lesson). Without too much of a schedule you’re free to wander, stop, stare at architecture, and take in the new sights and sounds, and hopefully local flavors (beer + gelato, anyone?). My favorite modes of transportation for city exploring are via bike and foot. Bikes cover greater distances so you can see more than when walking. It’s easier to navigate while on a bike than in a car, and you don’t have to worry about parking. You can get out of the tourist-centric areas and see more of the city. And, it’s good exercise (to work off that beer and gelato). Find a bike path or bike lane, and you’re set. Walking, of course, is best in crowded areas and really allows you to stroll hand…

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Purple Presence

 

Authentic travel is about being present, wherever you are. Recently I used the colour purple to help do this in my own neighbourhood, following it up side streets I usually ignored.  See where it led… and consider your own colour-based walk.

In an earlier blog giving  Five Tips for Travelling Like a Local (read it here ), I mentioned that I was a fan of Keri Smith’s The Wander Society (for her website, click here ).  She recommends  taking a walk where you look for one type of thing- perhaps a colour or shape, and then document it.  A few days ago, I decided to take a purple walk through my own neighbourhood in Vic West.  Spring would have been a better time for this (and I cheated by using two  Spring pictures, rather than recent ones).  Still, it definitely got me appreciating what was otherwise a routine landscape in a new way.

The results, for your viewing pleasure:

B-B-B-B-Birds- Part 1

What do birds have to do with authentic travel?  Writing this blog has crystallized my belief that authentic travel is just as much about the traveller’s state of mind as it is about the destination.  Authentic travel requires one’s full presence.  I know this is happening for me when I slow down enough to watch the animals in a place.  Think back on your own memories of a great trip, and you might recall how local animals added to the ambience.  From the fluttering of the pigeons in that stunning Venetian piazza to the street dogs in the sleepy Mexican town you backpacked through, to the feral cats who charmed you out of the last bite of fish from your sidewalk cafe meal in Greece, animals are a small but delightful part of daily life on great trips.  (They also tend to be less present or even absent from the more theme-park like travel experiences.)  Birds make for especially interesting slow-down-and-smell-the-roses experiences.

 

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Canuck the Crow. Shawn Bergman Photo. downloaded from website: https://www.thedodo.com/canuck-rescued-crow-canada-1822831628.html

Crows, magpies, ravens, and other corvids are integral to cities- annoying, captivating, and sometimes terrifying the odd person who gets too close to their nests in Spring. I loved watching Rome’s hooded crows on an extended visit. They reminded me of portly middle-aged men wearing vests (or waistcoats to the Brits). Of course, those same Roman crows weren’t quite so amusing when one of their number attacked some peace doves being released by Pope Francis (see a great article on why this happened here ).

Vancouver’s crows are moderately independent by day, but anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 of them congregate before twilight in a massive squadron to fly eastward to their sleeping place (to learn more click here ). Vancouver also has a celebrity crow named Canuck, who has become quite habituated to humans.  To learn more about his involvement with a crime scene, click  here.  To learn more about Canuck generally, click  here.  And in London, England there is a great affection for, and willingness to help, injured corvids, through the Crow Rescue team (click  here ) of London Wildlife Protection ( visit website here).

But it’s not just crows you will see on your urban travels.  In a number of North American cities, bald eagles are making a surprising comeback, in part because they have great scavenging skills, and have clued in that in some communities they can have it all: fishing and dump-raiding. To read more about this phenomenon (and see video footage, click  here).  They have been spotted in Vancouver (click here  ) as well as Boston (click here ).

Turkey vultures may not sound like a bird conducive to pleasant travel, given that they eat carrion and their presence may signal something dead and decaying nearby.  But these birds are extremely useful in local ecosystems, by getting rid of waste; and their glide is breath-taking to watch. These birds are visible throughout much of North and South America (to learn more from the Audubon Field Guide, click  here ).  I had a lovely recent encounter (from a safe distance) with a rescued turkey vulture named Judge Dread at a raptor sanctuary near Duncan, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.  He was quite beautiful in flight and showed off his running skills (just because he felt like it).

Turkey vulture_Audubon field guide
Source: Audubon Field Guide, Downloaded from website (see text above for link) 

To see “Judgie” in action, along with other rescued owls, eagles, and some captivity-born raptors like falcons, visit The Raptors (for website click here).  I’m not normally a fan of keeping wild animals in captivity, but this centre does a marvellous job of allowing the birds to display natural behaviours.  These are working birds, with fulfilling lives, at a biologist-run facility.  The same centre supplies raptors to keep coastal airports  (including Vancouver’s) naturally free from songbirds that would jeopardize aviation safety.

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Owl at The Raptors, Duncan BC. Author photo, August, 2016

Watching the birds in any place you visit can be a marvellous way to feel centred and connect with an important aspect of real life in communities.  For added pleasure, and easy recognition, consider reading up in advance on the local birds you’re likely to encounter.  Also consider ways your own behaviours at home might impact your local bird community.  Regardless, making time and space to cast your eyes skyward will add depth, beauty, and connectedness to your visit.

Authentic Places that Feel Good

An earlier post noted how hard it is to agree on what is “authentic” and, by extension, what can make travel experiences authentic (or not).  Sometimes you just know it when you feel or encounter it. In addition to cultural authenticity (which we looked at previously  ), there is also an urban design aspect of the authentic.  Read on to see and learn more about design’s role in enabling authentic travel.

So what exactly is urban design?  This term refers to the way that the built (and formally shaped or landscaped) aspects of the city interact with human experiences of the city.  And even when design is not purely “authentic” in its strict sense, good urban design creates enough comfort that people believe at least some elements of a place are authentic.  In this post I discuss two basic urban design concepts behind places that tend to make people feel good, then speak to ways that designers have tried to sort out what is and is not authentic. There are many more concepts that can apply, so this is not the first or last word on urban design.

Urban Design 101 -the Ideas of Kevin Lynch

My city planning background has exposed me to several theories of designing livable cities.  (warning: planning geek alert).  Many people have heard about Jane Jacobs, whose theories focused more on scale and mixes of uses or activities. There are other classic design theorists from her era with a stronger sense of why people feel the way they do in certain places, including Kevin Lynch and Christopher Alexander.  This post focuses on Lynch’s ideas from his book The Image of the City, because they have shaped even the newer approaches and theories in use today.

Lynch Image of the City

Lynch was a wonderfully clear communicator who spoke to why certain designs make us feel better than others.  By showcasing what people were already doing, and how these techniques were impacting city dwellers and visitors, he helped new designers and city builders focus more on the good aspects of centuries of city-building traditions while also moving on and embracing new things.

Lynch clarified that five basic elements go into good urban design: nodes, (appropriate) edges, paths, districts, and landmarks.  I want to focus today on two of these concepts: nodes and edges.

Nodes

A node or focal point in design terms is a place that concentrates people and activity.  New York’s Times Square is a node, combining open space, lots of commercial activity, and many ways for people to access it.

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New York’s Times Square. Author photo, February 2012.

A node can also include a vital stretch of a retail street with lots of pedestrian activity (e.g. Oxford Street in London).  Sometimes nodes are popular open spaces, but usually these are popular for a reason -people are drawn to them because there is an activity they can do or watch together.  Even if people come to a place where they remain largely alone, a node typically makes even quasi-solitary activities feel vibrant because there are other people there, whose energy is palpable.   And sometimes the features that draw people may be temporary, as with the Picnurbia installation below that ran on Vancouver’s Robson Street in 2011, where the City temporarily closed two blocks of the popular shopping street and installed low-cost amenities that encouraged people to just hang out.

 

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Robson Street, Picnurbia Installation. Author photo, 2011.

Nodes often feel more authentic when the activity in question is one that also appeals to locals and /or the nodes have a strong connection to something that has played an important role in the history of a place.  So even though people today might complain about all of the chain stores now populating Times Square, it retains a strong link with key events in New York’s history (e.g. Vietnam War protests), and remains close to a vital theatre district that continues to draw people.  But it isn’t just the use of the square that makes this and other nodes attractive. A landmark like a statue, public art, clock tower, or large old tree (and another design element in its own right), can create a focal point for a node in a way that is both socially and aesthetically appealing.  The photo below, of Trafalgar Square in London, shows how a statue and adjacent fountain create a natural clustering point in a much larger open space.

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London’s Trafalgar Square. Author photo, June 2011.

Nodes may also be defined by edges, which help make people feel secure in them.  In the next section, I explain how edges work.

Edges

So yes, edges matter—but why? Lynch valued their role in helping define a space, by giving it a clear end and beginning.  Edges, when done well, make us comfortable, by reducing a sense of being visually overwhelmed.  The walls of buildings can help define a street edge, for example.  The photo below shows how this can work:

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London, Notting Hill. Author photo, June 2011.

Yet if the height of a given building is too high, without variation or interruption; or the horizontal wall effect also lacks these things, the building (which might have provided a sense of comfortable enclosure) will overwhelm rather than comfort.

As with many things in life, good edges are about getting the balance right.  For this reason, skilled designers of taller buildings might step them back, or further away from the street after a few stories -to improve the building’s positive effect on the street edge.   A long line of buildings of similar height might be broken up visually through periodic colour /stylistic changes.  Here is an example of this technique applied in Vancouver, and a feature of the design approach that quickly became known as “Vancouverism”:

Vancouverism_illustration

Sometimes it helps to think of an edge as a type of picture frame.  And in that respect, other edges (besides building walls) can be more suggestive than literal.  For example, we’ve all seen pergolas that help define a garden without completely closing off access.

Also, edges can be enhanced or animated through uses that add people doing social /socially-approved things.  A good example of this might be a European square or space that is already defined by building walls, and then enhanced by people sitting at cafe tables right next to those edges.  They make plazas and squares which might otherwise seem a bit too large feel like a more comfortable size, without a permanent size reduction.   When Jane Jacobs described her ideal urban village, the mix of street-oriented retail uses catering to people from a range of backgrounds (florist, produce-seller, coffee shop) ideally achieved a similar type of animation.

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Sidewalk cafes in Stockholm. Author photo, June 2011

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Some of these principles are being applied in less organic ways, such as in new shopping mall developments.   I have conflicting feelings about this.  These applications truly are an improvement on the traditional shopping mall approach to design, plus chain stores have to make a living too.  And in the mid-day sun, the example below would have more people.  But is it authentic?  Here again, the answer might relate to balance…

pk_royal1_Chain store edges

Edges don’t just have to work in high density settings.  Even in a lower density historic suburb, edges can clearly distinguish between public and private property without completely shutting people out.  Nan Ellin referred to this as porosity, where flows of people are filtered (See her book Integral Urbanism).  The photo below shows a fenced yard (perhaps to discourage deer, who are notorious garden-eaters), with a clearly open entry point that is welcoming to humans who want to visit, but might be more intimidating to an animal that could feel enclosed by the narrowness of the entry portal.

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Vic West home. Author photo, July 2016.

So how does good urban design enhance authenticity?  On one hand, it does this by increasing human comfort at an intuitive level, and helping people to feel good in a space and to appreciate sharing the space with others.  Good design will be an important reason that congregating in a space or on a street will feel natural, in addition to the mix of activities that will also draw people.   Nodes (including landmarks) and edges are two of several elements that author Kevin Lynch argued make us feel good in the cities where we spend time.  Even so, as authors like Sharon Zukin argue, if good design is accompanied by other events and practices which exclude, the end result is a place that starts to feel hollow and contrived.  In a future column I’ll focus on her ideas.  For now, the next time you find yourself hanging out in a new city, consider reflecting on how its nodes and edges enhance or detract from your sense of comfort there.