Category Archives: Geography

Developing a Personal Point of View

I stop for a latte and drink in the view. The café, six tables and a banquette against the plate glass wall, offers a window onto the Byward Market and the Gatineau hills. Wind pushes the clouds across the city in an ephemeral drama of light and shadow. A commercial crane, red and ten stories tall, anchors the scene.

I blink and the operator appears in the cab, a glass pod of levers and the nerve centre of his crimson behemoth. He takes his lunch – a bowl of noodles judging by his gestures – enjoying a mirror image of my view. The café is a democratic place to see and be seen.

Since the founding of Ottawa, and its designation as the nation’s capital, unimpeded views have been commonplace within the downtown core. With the easing of height restrictions, a trade-off for increased density and “highest and best use of land,” new buildings push the limits.

Before me, the once-180 degree view has been reduced by a third with the installation of a dozen-floor condo development. To its right, the crane, with its unrelenting appetite for height, will ensure that the middle third of this long view disappears within weeks or months. As years pass, fewer will enjoy what many have taken for granted: a big sky and a way to navigate the city by natural means. However, development offers its own perspective.

I scan the condo windows for signs of life but all is quiet. Moments later, a woman in a white robe and hijab moves into the frame, a truncated theatre of the body from the waist up. She bobs into view then disappears as she prepares for midday prayers. The hills tell me she is facing east although her precise direction will be predicated upon the position of the sun and the particulars of her geographic location. As a follower of Islam, she will enact this ritual as many as five times a day like clockwork: before dawn, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon and evening.

Aside from being a personal act of faith, ritual is a subset of placemaking and timekeeping like the secular sights, sounds and smells that populate our public and private lives. I know, for example, it’s 9:00am on Sunday because the church bells ring or that it’s 7:00am because my neighbour runs past my house every day at the same time. In a few hours people will return to these windows to prepare dinner, drink with their friends, or, like me, take in the sidewalk ballet. As onlookers, we reflexively perform the role of one another’s keepers with an arms-length connection to the overarching narrative of daily life.

Lunchtime is over and the crane is moved to action with its box step of ordered predictability: swing, lower, raise, repeat. I drink up and drive home, still taking in the view.

Developing a Personal Point of View

Developing a Personal Point of View

Developing a Personal Point of View

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What I See When I See Smiths Falls – Part 3

You can find Part 1 & Part 2 here.


After 17 years and nearly a thousand round trips, I could drive from Burritt’s Rapids to Smiths Falls with my eyes closed. But why would I want to?

I mark my good fortune by the totemic houses, gardens, people, signs, and nature that pass before my eyes, the spirits of memory and place that are the roadmap to my happiness.

The stone house and farm at Rosedale Road, trimmed in goldenrod and oxblood, a seasonal almanac of shifting signs (Strawberries! Beans! Pumpkins!)

An undulating field of horses radiant under summer sun.

A glimpse of the river – choppy or frozen or sparkling – clocking the passage of time.

The 50 km/h sign where I slam on my brakes.

The yard lovingly peopled by a crowd of seasonal decorations.

The NASA house, a multi-storied modernist in corrugated steel.

Shardon Manor with its phantom-people perched on barren stairs, watching, waiting.

Sprawling houses set on scissor-cut lawns.

Tree-sentries witnessing at old Rideau Regional.

The split-level’s stone arch and Gothic wooden gate.

A pair of cottages voluptuous with window boxes.

The two-toned shingled porch on a property brought back to life.

Candles in the windows of the mansion on the corner, casting off the winter darkness.

And suddenly here I am.

I pull into the driveway of my second home, climb its five wooden stairs and cross the threshold of the people who love me as plainly and deeply as I’ve ever been loved in my life.

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More Than Enough Refugee Blues to Go Around

Refugee Blues was published by writer and poet W.H. Auden in 1939, at the start of World War II.

It’s safe to say not much has changed and, perhaps, it never will if war and hatred continue to be our modus operandi. The million dollar question is this: Are we doomed as humans to this destructive cycle of scapegoatism and righteous indignation? Or is there truly a possibility – a probability – for something else?

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

Continue reading More Than Enough Refugee Blues to Go Around

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What I See When I See Smiths Falls – Part 2

This is the second in a series of visual love letters to Smiths Falls, one of my favourite towns in Eastern Ontario.

You can find the first installment here.

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Skating the Rideau Canal in Burritt’s Rapids

I love living in a place with distinct seasons. What I particularly love is that just when I start to really, really enjoy something – swimming in the river, gardening, snowshoeing, falling leaves – it’s gone. Skating on the Rideau Canal in Burritt’s Rapids is like that. And its fleeting and unpredictable nature makes me appreciate it that much more.

Skating the Rideau Canal in Burritt's Rapids
A panoramic of Burritt’s Rapids and its natural skating rink on the Rideau Canal

Continue reading Skating the Rideau Canal in Burritt’s Rapids

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What I See When I See Smiths Falls

This is the first in a series of visual love letters to Smiths Falls, one of my favourite towns.


I’m from Vancouver, and while there are great things about the westcoast, I have called rural Ottawa home for the past 20 years.

The single best thing I love about living in the east is the riches of small towns and villages, roads that lead everywhere, chalk-full of opportunities to stop, talk to people, poke around and discover. Smiths Falls, just 20 minutes from where we live, has been my second home since the birth of our first child, when my in-laws sold up in Sudbury and moved to be close to us. Continue reading What I See When I See Smiths Falls

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Walking the White Rock Pier

It’s curious how one can routinely walk the same path for so long, then alter a single element and watch the common unfold in an uncommon way.

This night (and day) I put aside my camera bag – a constant – and tucked my iPhone in my vest pocket. Without the weight, my body felt lighter and my step quicker. I was free to simply look, feel and shoot instead of forever adjusting, adjusting.

The place I’ve known since childhood transformed into dots and streaks and lines and colours, shadows and refracted light. Graininess replaced the sharp, movement the ever-steady, drifting into the abstract unknown. Continue reading Walking the White Rock Pier

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Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 3

Click here for Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 1

Click here for Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 2


Not Set in Stone: Memorials for the Future

The National Park Service (NPS), the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), and Van Alen Institute collaborated on Memorials for the Future, an international ideas competition that took place between March and September 2016. The goal of the competition was not to directly produce new monuments, but to reimagine how we think about, feel, and experience memorials. 

It called for designers, artists and social scientists to develop new ways to commemorate people and events that are more inclusive and flexible, reflect the country’s diversity in history, heritage and culture, and that enrich Washington’s landscape while responding to the limitations of traditional commemoration. 

The jury chose four finalist teams –  Climate ChronographAmerican WildThe IM(MIGRANT) and VOICEOVER – who offered distinct concepts and approaches.

Continue reading Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 3

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Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 2

Click here for Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 1


Having finally seen Washington, DC for myself this summer, it was great to connect with this presentation by Marcel Acosta, Executive Director of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the Federal Planning Agency for America’s Capital. In it he discusses how the city came to be shaped, and how it will continue to be shaped in the future.

Acosta and Beth White, NCPC Commissioner, were guests of the National Capital Commission (NCC) in Ottawa, presenting in September as part of the NCC’s Capital Urbanism Lab public lecture series. Continue reading Capital Building: A View from Washington – Part 2

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Would You Let This Man Sell Your House?

would you let this man sell your house

I’m guessing that someone somewhere at sometime told this fellow that he looks like Owen Wilson’s male model in Zoolander. It’s the only reasonable reason I can imagine he would slap his ‘Blue Steel’ face on gigantic posters around White Rock, B.C., to push his unique brand of real estate sales in Greater Vancouver’s steaming housing market.

In a market where the product is selling itself, regardless of price, condition, and, arguably, the agent at hand, this approach may not seem foolish or cheesy at all. Maybe it’s the new normal. Maybe I don’t know anything.

If I’m feeling charitable, this is brilliant satire and clever public art rather than one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. And the more I think about it, the more likely I am to ring him up and have him send me the entire set of posters. Autographed.

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