“You can't opt out of geography”

Artist, urban geographer and walk leader Daniel Rotsztain examines how Toronto’s landscape, especially its river systems, shapes the lives of its inhabitants

Daniel Rotsztain, March 20, 2015

A geomancy map reading in progress. Photo by R.C. Stills.


Geomancy, Fortune Telling with Maps, is a practice I developed to invite consideration on how our lives are affected by Toronto’s landscape. It goes deep into place-based identity, inviting reflection on how topography, ecology, history, cardinal orientation, infrastructure and the grid affect our existence and well-being.  

For example: The Don River affects a lot of Torontonians, the same way the train tracks we pass over and under every day, the highways we travel along, the city’s waterfront, its buried rivers, and all its hills, valleys and hydro corridors do.

The Don is Toronto's central river. Its creeks and tributaries criss-cross most of the central city before reaching Toronto Bay, where its flow embraces the electrically charged density of downtown Toronto. It has been home to a distinctly exuberant kind of Toronto culture; the city’s oldest neighbourhoods have long perched at the edge of its wide valley. The Don has been the site of most of Toronto's industrial growth too, especially when we tried to straighten its meandering curves, channelizing it to become a working canal. Further upstream, the Don has been where utopian visions of the city like Don Mills and Thorncliffe Park have been dreamed up and realized. Today, it's again a major site of development, with the construction of the Pan Am Athletes Village and continued efforts to re-naturalize the river’s mouth.

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Image of Toronto's watershed system by Daniel Rotsztain

I think when people talk about Toronto, they're talking about the Don River. Yet many Torontonians have lived their entire lives along the Don without realizing it. The ways we commute, on bridges over the ravines that keep the geometry of the grid intact, or in subway tunnels deep below the surface of the city, make it easy to forget that the river even exists. But the worldview the inhabitants of central Toronto has been shaped by the wind, water, climate and electric spirit that is undeniably Don.

Compare this to the Humber—the river that flows through the west Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. Though arguably more important to the city's history (the site of the First Nation's route to Lakes Simcoe and Huron, and the first French forts), the Humber has resisted the same kind of industrial exploitation. Its energy is calmer, and reflects the culture and atmosphere of Etobicoke's bucolic inner suburbs.

Geomancy reminds us that you can't opt out of geography. The paths we trace with our feet in the city, the ways we get around, the watersheds we live in, affect our perspectives and world view. What parts of your city’s landscape affect you?


Daniel Rotsztain is a Toronto-based urban geographer. Check out his website and his Geomancy blog to learn more, and say hello on Twitter!

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