Urbanism
September 15, 2018

Urbanist Abroad: Bligh’s Backpacking — Amsterdam & Rotterdam

A big thank you to James and Errin Bligh for sharing insights and images from their August travels across Europe.

This final post contains quite a few videos, many of which focus on public spaces. But the big takeaway for our urbanist duo was on bicycles, and the fact that even the country considered the international paragon for urban cycling can be an intimidating place for an important segment of the population— the uninitiated.

“A combined 3 days in Amsterdam and Rotterdam served as our last stop on the tour, and our first attempt at cycling abroad.

Unsurprisingly, the central historical (and tourist packed) neighbourhoods with tiny shared streets were treacherous for cycling, while nearby the relatively quiet new developments outside of the four main canals served for a scenic and relaxing bike ride.

Errin, a new cyclist, shares her thoughts on what additional facilities would have made cycling in Amsterdam more accessible to newbies:

A passing bike lane and a slow bike lane

Physical separation from both cars and pedestrians

Adjustable rental bikes (default size can be too big)

Accessible source of helmets”

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If, by now, you’ve noticed that contributor James Bligh’s Instagram travelogues are a bit — how shall we say — architecturally nerdist, it’s on purpose. Also, it’s a Price Tags thing.

Beyond a romantic holiday through European capitals, this trip has been the urbanist equivalent of a fan tour of American baseball stadia, but with the benefit of a willing and supportive spouse (Errin — she’s been starring in many of the videos). James has been hitting some architectural must-sees, and we hope you’ve learned a thing or two.

This Finland bit should be no different. Here we get a quick taste of the Finnish Modernist approach to building design practices by architectural auteurs. In this case, one in particular:

“We were only briefly in Helsinki — most of our visit in Finland was spent traveling to several far-flung buildings designed by legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

Our short time in the capital left me with an impression of a city that had grit, diversity, history, and the familiar pervasiveness of global capitalism. Bordered by former occupiers Russia and Sweden, we wondered, ‘What will the future of Helsinki look like?’

I present an un-Finnished list of urban findings to consider…”

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James and Errin continue their European tour, in the most populous and economically powerful of the Nordic cities, and one which is also apparently not exempt from participating in the global discussion on housing and public space.

While not as alarming as Oslo’s exhibit on the housing crisis, Stockholm is running a similar gallery. Focused on improving the urban character of their city and found at ArkDes, the exhibit is titled Public Luxury.

A quote from the exhibit reads:

“The title Public Luxury sounds like a contradiction, but recognizes that everything in the public realm exists for more than merely functional reasons. Every kerbstone, bench, bollard, station sign, public toilet and street is part of the character and identity of a place.

All the works in Public Luxury, many of which were made for the exhibition, share the ambition to tell a story about public life today. Architects and designers may not be able to change society, but nothing reveals how society is changing as clearly as architecture and design.”

I start with selections from the exhibit.

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In this latest edition of Urbanist Abroad, we cut straight to contributor James Bligh’s editorial coverage from Oslo — it’s topical, it’s timely and, unlike most Instagram diaries, it’s got data. Enjoy….

Oslo is going through an affordability crisis, so much so that their National Museum of Architecture is running an exhibit on the subject. Within the museum I felt like I was reliving my visit of last year’s “The Vienna Model” exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver, which decried the same subject at home.

Unlike Vancouver’s version of the exhibit, Oslo’s included what the curators considered bad examples of recent housing projects constructed within their own city, inclusive of the name of the responsible developer and the architect! What follows is a transcript taken from the exhibit’s opening panel. Does this sound familiar?

“The exhibition also looks alternative projects and models for residential developments in other cities, including Vienna and Copenhagen. Like Oslo, both Vienna and Copenhagen have experienced rapid growth in recent years. Vienna has retained the social housing profile it developed during the “Rotes Vienna” period (1918-34), when 65,000 municipal residential units were built to overcome the housing shortage after World War I. Most of those apartments were in large, imposing estates that included a range of communal facilities, such as the Karl Marx-Hof (1927-30). Even today, around 60% of Vienna’s residents live in subsidized or municipal housing.”

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Price Tags contributor James Bligh checks in from Copenhagen, a city of almost identical population and area to Vancouver.

Yet, while we scrap over bicycle politics — yes, it’s still a thing, don’t pretend otherwise — 62% of Copenhageners cycle to work and school. It’s not controversial, and perhaps it never was; likely due in part to the “Finger Plan“, a 70-year-old rail-oriented transit strategy that has influenced the movement of people and goods in central Copenhagen for generations.

Much like present day transit and housing strategies that, for better or worse, tend to suck up all the oxygen in places like Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Vancouver, it’s a fair assumption the Finger Plan influenced much of the post-war urban development in Copenhagen, resulting in a city that is now so pleasing for people movement. And thus, why it could easily top Vancouver’s claim to “Greenest City” credentials —Copenhagen aims to be carbon-neutral by 2025, the same year 75% of trips in the city will be expected to be made on foot, by bike, or by using public transit.

But all this is just background. One of the main attractions for James and his travel parter Errin is the Copenhagen reputation for also being one of the greatest “design cities” in the world, with a quality (and cost) of living to match.

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If you recall from earlier in the month, PT contributor James Bligh and wife Errin were on a glorious tour of Europe. We pick up with them again, this time in Germany, where they found themselves asking, “Is Berlin the Toronto of Germany?”

Speaking with Germans and Austrians prior to landing, they heard some familiar refrains: “Berliners are smug”, “It’s dirty there”, and, “Why visit Berlin when you could go somewhere more picturesque and relaxed, like Munich?” As the days progressed, James and Errin heard more parallels between Berlin and Toronto:

  • Berlin has “hard” drinking water. Some Vancouverites would find Berlin’s repugnant-yet-potable water a reminder of Ontario, though James admits to having been spoiled by Vancouver tap water, arguably one of the region’s greatest assets.
  • Berlin has cold winters and hot muggy summers, which seem to map cleanly over Toronto’s two seasons, winter and construction. In fact, James and Errin missed a lot of Berlin due to summer construction: the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Pergamon, the Berlin Palace, the AEG Turbine Factory, and an otherwise conveniently-located rapid transit station.
  • It’s hard to meet a “true” Berliner, born and raised in the city; only 1 in 4 Berliners were born in the city, and about half of Toronto’s population was born outside of the country. Homegrown Berliners are known as “unicorns”.

With that in mind, we move to the photo tour of Berlin, and more of these “centre of the universe” -style parallels.

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Manhattan today is, surprisingly, only the third most populous of the five boroughs, after Brooklyn and Queens.

It’s also not the only borough with ‘must-see’ attractions; in fact, a lot of what New Yorkers may take for granted falls into the category of ‘must-see’ (at least, for us rubes).

Similarly, some of the natural, historical, out-of-the-way wonders in Metro Vancouver are the target of not nearly enough weekday, out-of-town visitors — think Lighthouse Park, Buntzen Lake, Fort Langley, or Centennial Beach. Perhaps thats because we don’t take the time to distract them from Canada Place, Gastown and Granville Island long enough to say, “Go see this other thing — it’s worth the trip.”

Such is the value of a little prior knowledge, a good map, and of course, an extended public transit network.

And so, on one of his last days of vacation, we follow Gordon Price on his journey out of ‘The City’. You can also follow along on Instagram.

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While it must have been tempting to never leave Fire island, returning to the city isn’t exactly painful when it’s New York City.

Editor-in-Chief Gordon Price has now had a few days on the island formerly known as New Amsterdam, which will mark 400 years as a colonial settlement in 2024. It was purchased from the indigenous locals by the Dutch for 60 guilders; in today’s dollars, that’s about the cost of three nights in a 1-bedroom Airbnb near Central Park.

There’s so much to explore in Manhattan, but despite the obvious charms of this island nation, exploring is not always the same as seeing, or understanding. Background reading for historical context helps, as does an eye for detail, and always, the spark of a discussion from someone who’s been there before and knows where to look (and what it all means).

Enjoy this little tour of Gordon’s first few days, and be sure to check out the rest of the posts on the PT Instagram feed.

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Not a city and barely a village, with just 600 houses and a wooden boardwalk as its main transportation artery, The Pines is one of the more unique human settlements in America.

It is, perhaps, the main attraction on Fire Island, the slim land barrier separating Long Island from the Atlantic Ocean; known as America’s first gay and lesbian town — “Chelsea with sand” — The Pines is just 55 miles from mid-town Manhattan, yet a world away from the concrete, the hustle, and most of the expectations that come with city life.

Summer at The Pines expands the population from just a few hundred full-time residents to a few thousand sun-loving, sand-strolling, party-seeking guests.

PT Editor-in-Chief Gordon Price spent a few days there, and as usual, passes along some of the cultural, architectural and historical nuggets behind this very special place.

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According to intrepid PT correspondent James Bligh, three days in Vienna is not enough time to digest “the complex layers of history that have been developing here since at least as far back as the first century.”

In that time the site was a Roman outpost that connected (what is now) Great Britain to Syria. What follows is an outsider’s reading of the city from only so much exposure…

Within the urban form of Vienna there appears a story of small victories for a working class that lived under a 400 year old monarchist dynasty until 1918 and then the shadow cast in its following absence. Here are a few examples of the city’s built fabric responding in favour of the public good, from the most recent (and Enlightened) 200 years.

Those examples, via James’ photographs and commentary from Vienna, follow below; you can see the full set on the Price Tags Instagram feed.

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