Friday, April 2, 2010

Thoughts on a Suburban Walkabout

Last night I raced a streetcar on foot and won. In its defense, though, it was a race through the Entertainment District on the first day of a long weekend, and the first warm day of the year at that. After it had sat at the Spadina intersection for four or five traffic light cycles because the cars kept inching past it into the crammed lanes beyond, refusing to allow it an opportunity to continue, I decided to take my destiny into my own hands and walk. On reaching Bathurst Street, where the Entertainment District and Fashion District traffic thankfully peters out, I waited a few minutes and boarded the same streetcar I had left behind at Spadina. It might've been easier to just stay on the streetcar - but I didn't have a seat and didn't feel like standing around. At least the way I did it, I got a walk out of it.

Past Bathurst the streetcar really moved, as they are wont to do, and it gave me a chance to reflect. I can't imagine myself as having done that when I was younger, but what I've come to realize is the sheer weight of the habits that are formed in early childhood and just endure. My current project to photograph every streetcar operated by the Toronto Transit Commission shouldn't come as a surprise, I think, from someone who always dashed to the train set for free play in kindergarten. But I never just walked when I was a kid, the way I do now. My question is simple - why? My potential answer - environment.

To put it simply, I have to wonder if the difference between urban and suburban development is prominent in how those exploratory urges are expressed.

I grew up in Barrie which, although outside the Greater Toronto Area, is a sprawling city with quick links to Toronto thanks to Highway 400 passing through it. Today, it's surrounded by vast tracts of residential subdivisions scattered over what was good agricultural land ten years ago, but even in the 1990s it wasn't exactly a model of New Urbanism. Neighborhoods tended to bleed together, the only real difference being in the design of the houses that lined the streets. Whenever I ended up going downtown on my own without taking Barrie Transit, I would take my bike - at least it was faster.

I think that suburbs are designed in such a way that walking from place to place is subconsciously discouraged - not that this was an intentional introduction by the people who built them, but a result of optimizing them for automobile journeys. When I walked along Sheppard Avenue East a few weeks ago, I felt like I'd covered a lot of ground by the time I reached Kennedy - ultimately, it ended up being only 3.5 kilometers. I'd recently done a wandering walk from my apartment to Yonge and Dundas, weaving and wandering through dense downtown neighborhoods, hardly feeling tired at all.

It's the scale, I think, that discourages. In dense areas like downtown Toronto, the cityscape around you is always changing, and things are tight-packed and clustered together. Sometimes the suburbs, by contrast, feel like they've been built for giants - buildings are far back from the road and widely separated from each other, there aren't nearly as many people on the sidewalks, and the cityscape seems unchanging - just the same houses or apartment blocks between the major intersections, and the same shopping plazas with gas stations and convenience stores at those intersections. In a dense community, exploration is rewarded almost immediately, which can distract from the length of the journey - but in more sparsely-built suburbs, the journey is harder to ignore.

At least, that's a possibility. I'd be interested in hearing how off-base you think I am.

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