cities

Sound and the City

A few years ago, and by a few I mean a few, my sister sent me an audio postcard from London where she was living at the time. It had recordings of different spots around the city. I really loved the concept of it. Little snippets of these places and spaces. Capturing the experience of what it was like to be there.

I've always felt that need to capture experiences. To share them. To document them. That's part of why I spent a big chunk of the last 24 hours going through old blog posts and moving them here. It's tedious but I feel a need to do it. Because then it's all here. Every post. Every lousy post. And a couple of good ones.

That way I can look back at where I've been and in a way see a bit of how I got to here.

I can see the work, the evolution and think about who i was and what I was doing.

When I look back on my life and all the things I've done I have words and images to document them and to place me back into that moment. I think that's pretty cool.

After receiving the audio postcard I came up with the idea of doing my own audio postcards. I came up with a project called Sound and the City that never went anywhere. I did some audio recordings and a basic design but that was pre-podcast and I didn't do much with it.

Nowadays I spend most of my time listening to podcasts. They are my main form of entertainment, a way to feel connected, to learn, to be challenged. I am who I am and I'm doing what I'm doing in large part because of podcasts.

I think about starting a podcast. A lot.

It started with me being annoyed that a couple of my favourite podcasts don't interview landscape architects and urban designers. Who else would you want to interview? If I had a podcast it'd be all built environment all the time. Then I was like I guess I'm the person who should start that podcast.

It's a thought and if it sticks around long enough then maybe it'll go somewhere.

I'm looking for a producer and composer if anyone is interested.

I'm also trying to think of a name.

Wild Thing: Conversations about the built and natural environment comes to mind. I think it would confuse people and be too associated with other things. Usually the name comes and then there's a project.

Maybe when I think of a name and wrap up that book I'm editing and settle into school and have a better handle on my health problems and all 500 other ideas I have I'll do it.

And maybe if I do do it I'll include little snippets of sound from spots around this city, audio postcards of sorts.

I love this place but this place doesn't love me

The day before I moved back to Vancouver Jessica Barrett's why I left Vancouver piece appeared in the Tyee. One of my good friends intentionally didn't send it to me because he was worried it would upset me. I saw it on Twitter and my Father told me about it. I read it and began to question my plans for the future yet again.

I'd wanted to come back to Vancouver ever since I'd left for school in Scotland. I remembered cheaper West End apartments and my affordable but dodgy place in East Van. Finding housing was one of the big things stopping me from coming back. I was worried about getting scammed or not being able to find something.

I got lucky. A friend of a friend who I had talked to at a wedding over the summer knew someone looking for a tenant. I emailed and arrived in Vancouver with a place to live that I could almost afford. It's way more than the thirty per cent of my income that I'm supposed to be paying for housing but not so much that I can't make it each month. It'll do.

I go between being grateful for having this housing and being angry that I pay so much to live in it. I am sick of roommates. I am sick of taking what I can get. I am sick of not mattering in a system designed to screw me over.

I don't want much. I want to be comfortable. I want to pick out my own sofa and have a space where I feel comfortable and happy. I don't want to sleep in later so that I don't have to make small talk over breakfast — I have a general don't speak to me in the morning policy. I feel worn out and drained by the prospect that it will never get better than this.

The plan was to move to Vancouver and stay here, build a life in this city that I love and am drawn back to. Now I look at it as though I get four years here — I'm applying to study landscape architecture at UBC — and then I need to work out my next move. I think about moving to Halifax or Montreal. I think about how nice it would be to live somewhere where people don't have to struggle so hard to survive.

When I left Scotland I was excited to return back to Canada. It's easy being here. People understand what I say, they get my references. I can work here and I get healthcare here. It's not as good as the healthcare in Scotland but I can get it. Justin Trudeau has been elected. It was the period between Brexit and him breaking all of his promises. Things looked good.

When I leave I end up wanting to come home. When I'm home I want to leave.

I want to stay in Canada but there's also this voice telling me to go back to Northern Europe. I could move to Sweden or Norway or Amsterdam or Glasgow. I could move somewhere where I fit in better. For all the language and culture I always feel like the odd one out in Canada. I feel like my preferences and values are a much better fit in the Nordic countries than here. Things I took for granted as shared assumptions in Scotland I have to justify here. I feel like a crazy person for holding beliefs most Europeans don't think about.

All this moving has worn me out. I want to just live somewhere. I want a boring happy life. I want to buy some dishes and a couch and a table. I want to settle in. I want to do it here but I just don't feel like I can. Dying in the earthquake we're all woefully unprepared for aside Vancouver is a spectacular place to live. It's also one that doesn't seem to care whether or not people can in fact live in it, it's one that doesn't care about people living in poverty or people who are struggling.

Canada students loans offers $1500 a month. That's just about enough to cover rent near UBC in Vancouver (if you get lucky). Nothing for tuition or food or replacing things that wear out or God forbid having a life and being somewhat happy and not worrying about every last purchase you make during your youthful years.

Students inhabit this weird brand of poverty that for some reason Canadians don't consider to matter. We have no income and we have enormous expenses but yet we're not poor. We're just borrowing from the future, a future it is harder and harder to imagine having.

There are parts of Barrett's piece and her response that I take issue with. Some of her policy solutions are self-serving like her belief that if only landlords couldn't charge more for a dog that will totally damage their place then she'd be fine or that simply moving to another city solves the problem or that because we're a country of immigrants it would be wrong to stop people who will never live here from owning property here. Her solution of moving to Calgary and buying a property there simply gets her in the game before the same forces that made Vancouver and Toronto unmanageable hit. Once Calgary is unaffordable where do we run? She is not a policy wonk. She's just done.

My dad's response to my thoughts on Barrett's piece was that I am a macro policy type person and it can be cold and logical. That is true but it's also not. Policies aren't these cold and neutral things. They decide winners and losers. They decide whether or not people are homeless. They decide whether renters or rich foreign investors matter more. Those policies have huge impacts on our lives.

A great example of this was during Calgary's recent budget deliberations. Proposed cuts to transit began as a number. Then the Calgary Herald translated them into impacts.

"On Tuesday, the second day of budget deliberations, the public got its first glimpse at what bus routes will be affected if council approves a 46,800 service-hour reduction at Calgary Transit that’s estimated to affect 56,000 riders a week."

This paragraph tells us how many people's lives will be worse because of the proposed cuts.

"The proposed cuts to the 27 bus routes will affect riders in different ways, depending on the route — they include doubling wait times, changing mid-day frequency by five minutes, and cutting weekend and late-night service on some routes.

The affected routes are: 2, 7, 10, 15, 24, 25, 27, 28, 31, 34, 78, 83, 86, 89, 93, 105, 113, 114, 120, 134, 146, 174, 199, 300, 420, 453, and 456."

That might seem like a random list of numbers to you but two stand out to me: the 2 and 10. I take those buses. I know people who take those buses. Those cuts would mess up my life. I was thinking about taking the 10 to Market Mall to buy a new phone over the holidays. It's meaningful to me.

Policies are about choices. We decide who matters and who doesn't. Most of the time in Canada I feel like I don't matter. I can run away but that doesn't really solve the problem.

Mansplaining the City: An all male panel again and how housing markets hurt all of us

I came across an article this morning called "Mansplaining the City" on Twitter. I find it frustrating being a part of a field where dudes make a whole lot of the choices. I've been to events where every last person including the emcee was a dude. When this happens I always want to ask whether they've could've gone and found one female city hall employee or stakeholder to just read the names and bios of the dudes. That way at least one woman would be there.

When a friend of mine who works for a feminist organization asked me who I'd recommend for a female built environment panel I told her that I couldn't think of anyone in the city. I could probably come up with a better answer now but that moment was a bit sad.

The article blends these traditional concerns about how male dominated the built environment field is with questions about gentrification. I appreciate the comments on the need for some dudettes in the industry. I feel less comfortable with some of the comments about gentrification. The author has her own perspective but she is also dismissive of groups I think are doing good work and the role for middle class individuals caught in a crazy housing market. Walker calls out lots of people and waxes nostalgic for the neighbourhoods of yore. Some of these concerns are valid but I also think they lack nuance.

Gentrification is complicated. It is also not inherently a good or a bad process. It is a process characterized by changes in class. That can be from super duper poor to less poor. It can also be a process that makes even the worst neighbourhoods unaffordable for people with lots of money. A lot of it depends on other factors and how this process unfolds. As Walker notes it originally described an influx of intellectuals, students and artists. This group, which I am a part of, are often initial gentrifiers. They are drawn to places with cheap rents. As the neighbourhood improves the initial wave of gentrifiers are pushed out, too poor to enjoy the changes they have brought about and seeking the next spot where they can afford to pay rent.

While on the one hand I am a gentrifier I also live in poverty. I will likely spend my entire twenties either in poverty or as a student. I am white, my family is upper middle class and I am well-educated — probably over educated. I have more choices than many but I struggle to figure out how to pay rent. I struggle to see where I can go in my city. I have a friend who charges more for a one bedroom condo in a nice inner city neighbourhood that I love and want to be a part of than I earn in a month. There were moments when I lived in Vancouver when I'd buy groceries on my credit card unsure whether or not I'd have enough money to pay for them.

We are all a part of cities that are increasingly unaffordable. We live in a world where even tech workers struggle to afford housing. This is a sign that something is very wrong. Housing in any major Canadian city is a nightmare no matter what class you belong to. The issues of gentrification are tied up in market forces and development processes that treat housing like a bank and an investment rather than a basic necessity. New attitudes towards housing and different ways of building cities are as important as preserving character.

Managing change is one of the most important parts of planning and urban design. You want to keep what is good while still allowing communities to change. You need to find a way to ensure that nice communities are varied and accessible to all, not just people who earn enough to rent my friend's condo. You also want to find ways to have run down neighbourhoods become better. The biggest problem I see in places like Vancouver and Calgary is the market forces that have overrun our cities turning them into places we can no longer afford to live combined with zoning bylaws that prevent the construction of a diverse range of housing.

We are all coming up with our own responses to cities and how they should change. Groups like the YIMBY movement in San Francisco want wealthy homeowners to allow the construction of more housing. They may come from some privilege but I look around me and I see the same problem. We build mostly one thing, it's low density, unsustainable and really unaffordable. Maybe if we built something else we'd have more affordable housing? Maybe if we relied less on the market to provide housing and more on our government like they do in large parts of Europe then gentrification wouldn't be putting such a squeeze on people and housing wouldn't be so unaffordable? 

The best sentences I read this week: A whimsical high-waisted silence

“Kitschy as he is, he is one of my most cherished objects, a constant, visible reminder of things I learned from and loved about my dad: whimsy, patience, discernment, a willingness to try something new. He taught me to trust silence and my own instincts.”

Off the Wall: Reflections on the Old Year

“High-waisted trousers in all manner of substantial, tweedy fabrics.”

Don’t Dress Like a Man Who Is Dating His Mobile Device: Addressing Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ and His High-Waisted Vision for Men’s Pants

“People related to the desire to do something creative, and to the myriad ways in which the world will try to stop you before you even begin.”

‘Girls’ Is More Implausible Than Ever in Season 3 — So Why Are We Still Pretending It’s Realistic?

“Some of America’s most productive cities for medium- and low-income families—Boston, Honolulu, San Jose, New York—are also the most expensive. This is often due to (or at least, exacerbated by) exclusionary zoning and housing regulations that limit the number of available units, which drives up the price of housing, ensuring that low-income families can’t afford to live there. The sad irony is that density is a good predictor of upward mobility, but sunbelt cities with affordable housing often sprawl deep into the exurbs, where families aren’t anywhere near the best jobs. The very thing that makes those cities attractive places to get to also makes them bad places to get ahead.”

Why Americans Stopped Moving to the Richest States

“The sinking is fastest in the Chesapeake Bay region. Whole island communities that contained hundreds of residents in the 19th century have already disappeared. Holland Island, where the population peaked at nearly 400 people around 1910, had stores, a school, a baseball team and scores of homes. But as the water rose and the island eroded, the community had to be abandoned.”

The Flood Next Time

Why I don’t miss driving

It’s been almost a month since I’ve driven a car and it’s been quite nice. I don’t miss it, not even a little.

I grew up in a place where you have to own a car to have any quality of life — or to avoid the inconvenience of making the decision not to own one, or worse not being able to afford one. The nearest grocery store to my house was a forty-five minute walk, each way. Or a ten minute bus ride, on a bus that came about once every twenty minutes. Everybody in my neighourhood had to drive to the grocery store if they wanted to pick up some milk.

Now I live a two minute walk from two different grocery stores, a metro station, and a shopping centre that meets almost all consumer needs I may have. The metro is excellent, coming once every four minutes during peak hours and every six minutes during non-peak hours, and then every twenty minutes after mid-night — yes this town has night transit and it is amazing. In Calgary the bars would thin out as last train approached — the time when you could leave and catch the last train of the night. It didn’t make any sense that there was no transit after midnight, especially on weekends. Even just the c-train would have been something.

Then there are every forty-five minute buses, that sometimes don’t come. Or the once every hour bus that you miss when it’s minus thirty and snowing. Or the bus that comes halfway between when the previous bus was supposed to leave and the next bus was supposed to arrive. You are never quite sure whether it is late, or early, or just off. There is a reason everyone owns a car. The problem is that when transit sucks no one takes it, so no one will invest in it and it continues to suck. Thus everyone continues to drive everywhere.

Driving never came very naturally to me. It is stressful and a lot of responsibility. I was always far more inclined to be the passenger if the opportunity presented itself.

Traffic jams were the worst. There is nothing like the feeling of sitting in stop and go traffic knowing that it is going to take an hour and a half to do a drive that normally takes ten minutes. You could be doing almost anything with that time, instead you have your foot pressed on the break, and your eyes locked on the car in front of you scanning for any movement whatsoever. This time feels like it is a total waste. You are not moving forward, and you are not doing anything productive. Instead, the stress builds, and builds. Every time I am in one of these jams I can feel my life getting shorter and shorter.

Then there is parking. A nemesis that bests me most of the time. I am bad at parking. I cannot pull nicely into a tight spot between two cars and then have it so that passengers on both sides of the vehicle can open their doors. I am bad at pulling out as well. I usually feel totally blind just waiting to hit something. Then there are those moments when you are unable to find a parking spot all together and drive around endlessly searching for one. Then it is so so expensive. It always feels like you are throwing money away.

Parking tickets are the cherry on top of this nightmare. In my experience they are mostly arbitrary, and for infractions you didn’t even know it was possible to commit until you read the ticket. You are punished for being a mm too far or too near, or for the shear inability to read signs — an enigma machine is the only sure fire way to decipher Calgary’s parking signs. They are often numerous and confusing. They say contradictory things. Snow lane signs and handicapped signs look very similar. There are a lot of times listed, and a lot of does and don’ts.

I have not parked for a month. I have not walked back to my car fingers crossed I didn’t commit a surprise parking infraction, and I feel so much more content because of it.

Walking, taking transit, and biking are far better solutions. You get a lot more exercise, or time to read. You don’t have to worry about getting back to your car, or about having one beer — although this may not apply cycling.

There is one thing I do miss about driving: blasting music with the windows rolled down. I think it is something I can live without.

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