Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Spacing Magazine’s Matthew Blackett on writing about and comparing Canada's cities.
Spacing Magazine is becoming the go-to source for understanding and documenting the developments and challenges in Canada’s cities. Founded in 2003, Spacing was originally a print magazine published three times a year and focused on public space issues in Toronto, but has since expanded into a series of blogs covering cities like Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver. The print edition is moving into a quarterly publication schedule, with every other issue covering urbanism at a national level. Spacing’s latest national issue is out now. Matthew Blackett, the magazine’s co-founder, publisher and creative director, talked with The Atlantic Cities about Spacing and its role in the changing conversation about Canadian cities.
Why start a magazine specifically about urban issues in Toronto?
It actually arose out of a campaign that a few of us had been working on. The city had tried to ban postering in the city, so you couldn’t put them up on lampposts or anything like that. We just thought it was extremely contradictory because they were building street infrastructure, primarily garbage bins, with ads on them. So they were saying what was cluttering the streets and making them ugly were posters from people who were putting up things like “I’m having a garage sale,” “I walk dogs, I’ll walk your dog,” “Come see my rock band,” yet McDonald’s and Sprite and Coke ads on garbage bins were seen as hunky dory. So that was the genesis, that was the thing that got us involved in city hall, and that was the subject of our first issue.
Spacing has since broadened its focus to look beyond Toronto with a series of blogs covering cities across the country. Why did you want to zoom out?
In 2007 we were approached by some transplanted Torontonians that were living in Montreal, and they said they wanted a Spacing for Montreal. They wanted to do a magazine, but I advised them that we couldn’t do that. It was hard enough just doing three issues a year about Toronto, let alone about a bi-lingual city. So we started a blog, Spacing Montreal, in the spring of 2007. People really liked how we were covering city issues. A little less now than before, but our M.O. was about public space. We try to deal with everything that deals with public space or public property in that sense. The reason we’re going into places like Montreal is because we felt that even thought the cities are different, at the heart of it, the issues were rather similar, whether it was congestion in the downtown or not enough bike infrastructure or poor transit service or a waterfront that needs to be developed. They’re all nuanced at each city once you get down to it, but at the same time there were all these linkages of similar challenges that each city was facing.
Writing about cities in Canada would seem a niche topic, but Canada's cities are growing. That must give you more to cover, right?
Yeah, there’s lots. 80 percent of our population lives in a city or the suburbs of a city, so as much as we’re a country of mountains, and wide flat lands of breezing prairies and stuff like that, we’re mostly an urban nation. Our government is not reflective of that in any real way, but we certainly are as a population. We have 20 cities above 200,000 population, and 30 above 100,000. There are three types of urbanism in Canada: there’s a Toronto or eastern urbanism, there’s a prairie urbanism, which is basically Winnipeg west to Calgary and Edmonton, and then there’s Vancouver. The eastern urbanism, it’s the grid, it’s just older, there’s a lot more history, there’s a wider variety of architecture. It’s brick, it’s a little less soft. Prairie urbanism, the cities are designed to deal with the weather a lot more so than any other Canadian cities. They’re very windy places, they’ve situated a lot of their buildings so that they get as much light in the winter as possible. And Vancouver, it’s kind of a confined urbanism. You’ve got the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. Dealing with that real ruggedness of the Canadian landscape meeting urbanity happens nowhere else in Canada like it does in Vancouver.
Is there a distinct Canadian urbanism that’s different from, say, cities in the U.S.?
I think our best comparison of Canadian cities has to be to American cities. They were built at a similar time and ethos, but what we’ve found in Canadian cities for the most part is that there’s been very little white flight or downtown rot. In American cities, until recently, the downtowns had been desolate. They were there for business and then you’d drive home to the suburbs. I think you’ve had a lot more social challenges than we’ve had, and thus it’s produced a different urban environment. You’ll find that in a lot of Canadian cities there’s a real recognition about moving more people into downtowns. Calgary’s done a really good job of it, Edmonton’s doing a decent job, Winnipeg’s got a whole strategy of getting people back, like retirees, by providing more culture. So the downtown rot just never happened in the same way that it happened in American cities, and so revitalizing them didn’t take nearly as much to do. The energy and investment didn’t have to be nearly as high as what happened in New York or Pittsburgh or Portland.
When you think about covering cities, how much value is there in comparing Canadian cities to cities in the U.S. or other countries? Does it make more sense to look beyond your borders, or to focus more on comparing Canadian cities with each other?
It’s a bit of both. As Canadians, we’re sometimes a little snooty about America. We think that we do things better sometimes, and that’s just our little inferiority complex. We’ve been probably much better at building social cohesion in our cities. Even though you think we’re a more tax-happy country than you guys are, you’ve figured out how to diversify your revenue better than us, so we’re often looking for those good examples. And the place where Canadians tend to look is Northern Europe, which has a similar climate and slightly similar political outlook on the world. So we kind of mix both examples into our cities.
What role do you think Spacing can play in Canadian cities?
Our goal is when people think of urbanism in Canada, I want them to think of Spacing. One thing that I like to really focus on is trying not to be politicized about it, though all these things tend to get politicized in one way or another. We’re trying to advocate for a healthy, sustainable, vibrant city. We want our cities to succeed, and those things are apolitical, for the most part. I never understand how riding a bike or taking transit is a left-of-center type of issue. What I’m hoping is that we can help demystify a lot of how cities are run, what effect urbanism has on the city and how important it is that urban issues get dealt with, and to be that pragmatic leading voice. When you get down to the municipal level, ideology kind of goes out the window, and pragmatism and just generally good ideas are the things that should be carrying a city.