A vacant lot turned local food market in downtown Toronto

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The King-Spadina area in downtown Toronto where I work is intensifying at such an incredible rate that one’s head is left spinning. There are three huge towers going up on the corner near my office building and that’s only the tip of the skyscraperberg.

But then there’s this little itty bitty spot on King Street that hasn’t been developed—yet. Instead of letting the lot just sit there, the developer, TAS, has partnered with local food organizations to turn the spot into a fresh fruit and vegetable market. [Full disclosure, I worked at TAS in the summer of 2013].

So instead of an empty lot with an ugly fence up around it, passersby are treated to planter boxes, benches made from boards, a nice mural, and—the best part—local vegetables and fresh fruit.

Stepping off the crowded sidewalks onto the wood chip covered ground is like stepping out of the city and into one of those cute roadside fruit stands along rural highways.

When we talk about the need to expand public spaces in our dense downtowns, we need to think about how we can temporarily activate those vacant lots waiting to be developed or those awkwardly shaped parcels that don’t serve a purpose right now. This is such a great, creative example of not only activating and beautifying an otherwise ugly blank spot, but giving local farmers a boost. Plus the strawberries are damn delicious.

Working with developers to incentivize this kind of activity while their development application is pending, or while they’re considering what to do with the land, would be a great thing.

The many personalities of Vancouver’s traffic circles

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One of the things I miss dearly about Vancouver from my perch in Toronto are the traffic circles. It feels weird to even type that—like someone saying they miss an on ramp—but honestly, these traffic circles are wonderful. Yes, some look a bit mangy, but they are all unique in their own tiny, wonderful, circular way.

Many are tended by volunteers from the neighbourhood who work with the City through the Green Streets program to water and take care of the plants. This provides spaces for those that may not have their own yard to do a bit of gardening. But the really great thing is that these residents get to add their own flare, so each traffic circle has a different personality.

Sometimes that personality even extends beyond the usual flowers and plants into other more spontaneous uses like when a resident near the 10th Avenue bikeway transformed a nearby traffic circle into a tiny meeting spot called, awesomely, Gather Round. I’m not sure if this is still happening, but if you’re in Vancouver be sure to stop in for tea if you can.

Makes me wonder what else you can do in a traffic circle? Maybe a little reading group with circular benches and a mini library? A small bike repair station with an air pump? A bar to cozy up in at night for a beer or two? A boy can dream.

The traffic circles also help visually break up long street views, making neighbourhoods feel cozier and greener—no more big grey intersections. And they’re great for cyclists because you don’t have any of those pesky stop signs to ignor—er, stop fully at.

More mini-traffic circles, I say! And more residents getting the chance to put their own unique (green) thumb print on their city.

Soothing the city-addled mind in Algonquin Park

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I love urban parks (duh), especially the tiny ones where a sliver of green and light and air can grow between whatever crack in the dense, urban fabric it can find. But sometimes a huge, expansive natural setting with not a bench or dog or building in sight is just what the doctor ordered.

Over Labour Day weekend, I had the chance to get the hell out of dodge with nothing but my trusty partner, a canoe, dehydrated food, and a tent for five days in Ontario’s magical Algonquin Park, just a few hours drive north of Toronto.

By now many of us parkites have already heard about or read the studies that show how restorative green spaces are to the body and mind. Even just a walk in the park at lunch can help clear the mind.

But if a walk in the park helps blow out the cobwebs, five days canoeing and portaging across multiple lakes deep in the woods is like taking a machete to them.

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What was strange for me was that it took a few days for my mind to shed itself of the city. For the first two days, I found my eye catching sight of what I would think was a person or a car or a garbage can, only to turn to find a tree stump or a scraggly bush. It was like my brain, so used to the city, was going through hallucinatory withdrawals. The city-addled mind plays tricks.

Eventually, all of that washed away—helped, no doubt, by a night so unbelievably clear and free of the light that leaks from our skyscrapers and street lamps that the sky looked like an explosion.

All that being said, it’s nice to come home to a toilet that flushes.