Discussion on “Mnemotechny in Toronto”

Ephemeral toponyms, streetscape illegibility, and gendering the territories of condo development

Part 5 of 6 in
Mnemotechny in Toronto.
Figure 9. One St. Thomas Street, built 2007–08, is an exceptional case where a new-build condo tower not only preserved a visible toponym as a permanent fixture, but also utilized a cut stone façade reminiscent of early 20th century American architectures, setting its presence apart from its glass box contemporaries. Its only drawback is that St. Thomas Street is not an arterial, and the condo’s permanent awning is only visible by those who find themselves wilfully on the hidden side-street. As a non-MCR condo, its “eye traffic” is further limited. [Idlewild]

Figure 9. One St. Thomas Street, built 2007–08, is an exceptional case where a new-build condo tower not only preserved a visible toponym as a permanent fixture, but also utilized a cut stone façade reminiscent of early 20th century American architectures, setting its presence apart from its glass box contemporaries. Its only drawback is that St. Thomas Street is not an arterial, and the condo’s permanent awning is only visible by those who find themselves wilfully on the hidden side-street. As a non-MCR condo, its “eye traffic” is further limited. [Idlewild]

This is fifth in a six-part series, posted from June 6th to 11th, on the relationships between temporary condo names and their impact on public space wayfinding and legibility. Catch up with the previous instalment.

When proposing new condo development, real estate developers risk developing the streetscape commons, counterintuitively so, into a diminished soft asset. This soft asset abuts their projects. Developers diminish this commons when they systematically demolish wayfinding markers from the public realm and replace them with nothing comparably permanent to facilitate a healthy mnemotechny, whether in its built form or in the absence of a publicly visible toponym. The stop-gap of displaying a development’s toponym temporarily is also self-serving to a developer’s private ends. This erasure of streetscape legibility disrupts a civic plurality of the commons. It impoverishes public space by reducing perceptions of safety as it develops a myth that the only “safe” spaces are either a heavily securitized domicile or a regulated space with implicit oversight by privatized interests. In turn, a diminished public space impoverishes the everyday citizenship of participating with the commons. This mythology of “safety”, as envisioned by turnkey marketing strategies for promoting new condo sales, targets women ironically — if not cynically — to buy into fortified private realms to seek refuge from a public realm disrupted by its growing inscrutability from such developments. It is ironic because it reveals a conservation of femininity to spheres of privatized domesticity which generations of womanism and feminism have striven to vacate since the 19th century.

Consequently, a diminished and compromised public space cheapens, if not caps the long-term exchange value of adjacent real estate along streetscapes where fewer denizens want to find themselves. This is also ironic owing to a premium of interest by investors to capitalize on the highest possible exchange value of land when a developer moves to produce new (vertical) space. By stripping away streetscape mnemonics and familiar morphologies with this new built form (that is, by declining to display permanent toponyms on condo exteriors or making their architectures impressively tough for all save architects to describe), developers become complicit in generating the illegibility of wayfinding environments. This impacts anyone who uses landmarks and recollections of novel establishments as guideposts to help situate themselves, to navigate urban spaces, and to assist others when giving wayfinding directions. Condo developers, by acting in isolation to their surroundings and to each other (even if all are technically in compliance with municipal zoning and plans), become liable for the faltering health of an increasingly indescribable and privatized public realm which their developments now occupy.

Omitting the “generators”

What this streetscape illegibility creates is a forbidding terrain for anyone who tries navigating it for any purpose. This alienation perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophecy that the street is a dangerous place in urgent need of fortress-like condo towers to safeguard its members from it. This prophecy strives not only to convince condo buyers that there are purchasable security regimes in the reclamation (revanchism) of re-developed urban areas, but it also spurns the city inside which these condos developments now occupy. Seen this way, the new-build condo tower is less a benign or benevolent agent of urban revitalization than it is a neoliberal colonization of the civic commons. Over time, this creates a street along which fewer people are willing to use as a medium for routine circulation, exploration, or interaction.

This development regime contravenes the very heart of Jane Jacobs’ critical examination on healthy urban DNA, which cites four generators of diversification: the need for aged buildings; small city blocks; concentration; and mixed primary uses. These last two in particular are what constitute a street as a substantively safer place. This is only a start. Integration of all four generators — a veritable quartet — not only affirms the complex ecosystem of the public realm, but it also also enriches a confidence in the streetscape for anyone who uses it. Superficial elements which make those mixed uses legible (lasting toponyms, distinctive architectural treatments, and/or smart uses of colour and visual communication) also communicate a diversity of streetscape attractions. This quartet is worth more than the sum of its parts.

Developers enrich themselves when they embrace this quartet of generators and conserve the streetscape commons with a diversity of uses and appearances. They impoverish themselves when exercising an à la carte approach to those generators. A developer which factors only some of the quartet is not “getting some of it right”, but all of it wrong. Worse, forgoing parts of this quartet generates new problems. Dismissing some of these generators is what facilitated a sterilized Bay Street north of Queen to its Davenport terminus. Along this stretch, few people venture alone when they do not need to, especially after dark. Its emptiness leaves Bay bereft of a vitality it once enjoyed. Contrast this to adjacent Yonge Street or even College Street, both of which are animated by constant pedestrian presence, commercial variety, and visual legibility. Not surprisingly, both maintain a healthy pace of activity.

Sabotaging imageability and dictating the commons

To recognize architectural treatments and fixed signage as texts, it becomes easier to interpret a built environment’s readability and legibility (Bondi 1992, 158). The disorientation of illegibility feeds into the optics of fear paradox discussed earlier. Were condo developers to name their projects and, for a change, have that name inscribed permanently on the condo’s street-facing façade, that toponym may become a marker of (and a signifier for) an healthier urban culture. A culture cannot exist without communication. Hall argues that culture “is the link between human beings and the means they have of interacting with others” (1959, 183). If these aforementioned texts were “legible, truly visible, then fear and confusion might be replaced with delight in the richness and power” (Lynch 1960, 119–20) of having an urban lexicon which makes the streetscape readable and communicable. To inscribe permanent toponymies and/or unique architectural treatments (enough so that describing their appearances cannot be mistaken for other edifices) is to begin to remove those schisms of perceived fear between privatized fortresses and the spontaneity of the public realm — that is, to conserve all four generators of diversification much in the way that land conservation strives to protect the natural commons from depletion. On the other hand, a neoliberal colonization of the streetscape — and its disregard for the commons — is a reminder of Hardin’s portent for how private property concerns, if left to their own devices, will consign the commons to a tragic fate:

The owner of a factory on the bank of a stream — whose property extends to the middle of the stream — often has difficulty seeing why it is not his [sic] natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his [sic] door. The law, always behind the times, requires elaborate stitching and fitting to adapt it to this newly perceived aspect of the commons (1968, 1245).

The BIA is an exemplar of this erosion of the commons. It speaks to the private encroachment over a finite public good — the streetscape armature of sidewalks — by imposing a conditional environment designed to venerate an ad hoc notion of citizenship predicated tacitly on one’s means to consume the goods and services offered within that BIA catchment. This is a newer spin on an old yarn: to code the streetscape in a way which enforces the social strata of preferred denizens over under-desired denizens and tries to reify the fiction of an elusive, conflict-free public space (Ehrenfeucht and Loukaitou-Sideris 2007, 108). While the original intent[4] of BIAs was to require the pooling of resources from businesses along a public corridor; to help with the civic upkeep of streetscape commons (shared not only between themselves but also with the public); and to safeguard against losing consumers and revenue to shopping centres and malls springing up in postwar suburbs, this mandate has transmogrified into an encroachment over public corridors as BIAs strive to prescribe and regulate how the public may engage with those commons. In their ambition to distinguish themselves from shopping malls, big box centres, and each other, BIAs undermine their raison d’être the moment they attempt to mimic shopping mall corridors by imposing a regulated, prescribed order and uniformity over the public commons. This is ironic, because the public commons of sidewalks and streetscapes were exactly the attraction which shopping malls could not replicate — a point not lost on the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto when it experimented with the Yonge Street Mall during the early 1970s. Further, BIA-directed regulation over streetscapes and sidewalks contradicts the public realm’s key role as argued by Habermas: public space, free from either the state’s or market economy’s coercion, is a site of political discourse between anyone who inhabits it — where both “agreement and conflict” are permitted to happen (Ehrenfeucht and Loukaitou-Sideris 2007, 106; Ruppert 2006, 274). This plain understanding of public space necessarily disqualifies notions of “public” spacing in public-private properties (like shopping malls and Yonge-Dundas Square). It disqualifies “park” spaces inside private realms (like gated communities and rooftop gardens). It also disqualifies streetscapes and public commons vaunted as “public” so long as denizens within it are expected to consume what BIA members are peddling.

Gendering the marketability of fear

Condo developers, empowered with the means to shape the production of space, are disproportionately men (Fincher 2004, 331). Developers also gender the built form of private spaces and the territories of public streetscapes. Their complicity in the gendering of newly-produced space emerges from marketing paradoxes of fear and perpetuating the antediluvian myth that women, for their own welfare, must not only be discouraged from engaging with public spaces, but also shielded (i.e., removed) from those spaces as much as practicable. When emphasizing advanced, multi-stage security regimes for new condo buildings which lack permanent toponyms, “security” emerges as a convenient metonym for relief from an illegible public realm of the developers’ own creation — where indescribable unknowns of an inscrutable commons dominate over its describable knowns.

In addition to being the physical medium which holds together all spaces, a key function of the public realm is to facilitate participatory citizenship through social engagement. Any implication by condo developers that the presence of femininity within public spaces is at especial risk (or must appear within that realm conditionally) perpetuates a pernicious subtext, whether or not they recognize their own hand in that perpetuation. That is: women are still not fully realized citizens. It echoes the Industrial Revolution’s infantilization of femininity and women. During that time, all Canadian women were on par legally with children, while adult men (most of them white) enjoyed the endowment of citizenship’s rights and responsibilities: holding property, suffrage, wage labour, professional membership, and academic admissions (Sharpe and McMahon 2007, 18–9; 65). By extension, unchaperoned movement within spaces and sites of public assembly, whose amenities and services responded generally to that endowment, was confined to men and masculinity as they went about their everyday business of participatory citizenship. This even went as far as public washrooms, whose accommodation for women and femininity emerged only after department stores recognized the buying power of leisure-class white women and sought to keep them in their stores longer by providing a medium for women to relieve and refreshen themselves (Nava 1996, 71). Until then, facilities designated for women were understood tacitly as existing inside private domestic spaces, which significantly confined her range of movement and reach of presence in public realms.

The prevalence of women today moving into new condo units pre-equipped with complex security revives the spectre of gendered territories within the cityscape. A coded sexism emerges as masculine developers promote architectures of security to women as new-build condos (marketed as virtual citadels bereft of permanent toponyms) worsen the illegibility of public realms and render public spaces into terrains considered inhospitable for femininity. This echoes a precedent in Toronto’s chequered past of prohibiting women and femininity within public spaces as a matter of civic morality: in the 1950s and 1960s especially, “the law against causing a disturbance allowed the police to arrest and detain any woman out on the street at night” (Chenier 2004, 102). The woman who buys a securitized unit (and who drives a car) can now be sequestered entirely from the public realm. While this bifurcation of public/private spacing is only one baseline (or axis) for examining other critically discursive intersections — race, class, sexuality, age, linguistics, etc. — it nevertheless revives a paternalism over the constitution of spacing whose apex was a Victorian mainstay (Whitzman 2007, 2729). It is manifest as an essentialism of femininity as “weaker” and in need of a masculine “guardian” in public space (i.e, chaperone, security regime, pimp, etc.) if she cannot be removed from that “masculinized” (i.e., threatening, imposing, inscrutable) public space entirely. Such paternalism also avoids holding masculinized authorities accountable for the post-1970s period of neoliberal “antiregulation” (Peck and Tickell 2002, 396) of private spaces — i.e., “a man’s home is his castle” — or of the un(der)-informed, masculinized territoriality encoded into architectural plans for putatively “feminized” spaces of private and “pseudo-public” consumption (Day 2001, 120; Koskela 1997, 314).

So by reckoning how masculine developers — as “agents of [the] built environment” (Fincher 2004, 331) — shape and manufacture this anti-regulatory privatization of spacing, one may illustrate how their removal of mnemonic inscriptions (and forgoing bold, novel design elements in the built environment) get interpreted as ”threatening” by women who tend to favour landmarks for wayfinding. Complicit illegibility fosters a less-hospitable streetscape whose principal refuge becomes, remedially, the securitized condo unit and BIA-enforced “secure” corridors. Complicit illegibility also highlights seldom-interrogated paradoxes inherent to psychogeographic discourses. First, it reveals that the unstructured act of walking through the city to engender an experiential relationship with one’s surroundings — be it the psychogeographer, stroller, or flâneur — is treated as an implicitly masculinized preoccupation: its mostly masculine practitioners rarely challenge the absence of feminine counterparts, much less the absence of a gendered parity which should be a baseline. Second, the gendered optics of personal safety assures that this disparity will not likely abate with the proviso that public and private spheres shall remain gendered as they are now (Knowles 2009, 52; Sinclair, as quoted in Knowles 2009, 48).

In the end, as fuzzily and cheerily as ephemeral condo toponyms hope to infuse new developments into exemplars of betterment for the re-urbanized city, the ephemeral condo toponym is a mirage for long-term streetscape legibilities and a mirage for the promise of a vibrant, exciting part of town to live. The mirage is a selling feature by masculine developers tailored to women who are in the market to buy into a condo. Absent the mirage, what gets left behind is a barren, sterilized streetscape commons of diminished use value, tailored only for the very few who have the means to buy into that mirage and to inspect the commons from within a private realm. The loss of streetscape legibility becomes a tragedy of the commons.

Part six concludes “Mnemotechny in Toronto”.


A complete index of references for the “Mnemotechny in Toronto” series is included with part six.


[4] It’s magic!

This unpublished manuscript was drafted in 2012, and edited for six-part serialization in 2016. It was reviewed by Nik Luka at the School of Urban Planning at McGill University. Prepared originally for Luka’s reading course (URBP607), winter 2012, at McGill University.

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