26 November 2006

Toronto: Virtual City

Virtual City is a new entry in the mapping sweepstakes. It is in effect a mash-up of the Google street map with Virtual City’s own enormous database of street-level photographs of both sides of a given street. Its initial offering is Toronto, and according to Ivor Tossell’s review in The Globe and Mail, it will soon encompass Montreal.

Virtual City goes to great lengths to acquire and match streetscape photos with the maps. The website explains that its vehicles are equipped with high-definition cameras along with “GIS-grade GPS, accelerometers to sense increases and decreases in acceleration, and gyro meters to sense directional changes, [which] all tie into the vehicles’ computer bus to sense each full rotation of the wheels, while custom software compares these readings 10 times per second to create extremely accurate location data.”

You begin by typing in a complete street address. It will also accept an intersection (‘king st east and parliament st’) which is convenient when you don’t have an exact address, or a bare postal code which is the briefest input allowed. Or you can use the arrows and zoom buttons on the Google map to navigate, while using the Virtual City ‘viewer’ button to specify your desired viewpoint. (You can also click on a button and search for a business by name, but this is plainly a work in progress.) You can toggle ‘highlight mapped streets’ which adds a red line to streets for which there are photographs.

Virtual City then provides a strip of four thumbnail photos of each side of the street; the one with the specific street number sought is highlighted. You can click on a thumbnail and an enlarged version appears to the right of the strip (downloaded, that photo is about 25KBs); clicking on it brings up a detailed, full-screen image. Most of the ones I downloaded were about 300KBs; some were as large as 500KBs. Easily zoomed to read store signs, or to see what the guy sitting by the window at Tim’s is having with his coffee!

The linear footage in a photo varies with the setback of the buildings and the width of the street, but most seem to cover about 10-20m. Vertically, for domestic structures and most shopfronts, a photo usually captures about the first two floors, so almost all buildings are truncated.

At this point, coverage is quite complete for arterial roads and streets with shops, although particularly south of Bloor St., many residential streets are included as well, and more are to come. Most of the pictures seem to have been taken last winter (leafless trees and snow on the ground), but some (Adelaide St.) have shrubbery in full leaf. The absence of green (and bundled-up pedestrians) makes things look rather dreary, but on the other hand, it makes the features of buildings more visible. I imagine that most photos were taken on Sundays when there was less traffic to contend with. Even so, the challenge of obtaining long series of streetscapes unobstructed by buses, streetcars, and large trucks should not be underestimated. The largest vehicle I spotted was an armoured car. All in all, the photo series are a considerable achievement.

Virtual City’s primary audience is people who want to call up a picture of a destination so that they will recognize it more easily when they see it. I could have used it a few weeks ago before I set out for the excellent Austrian patisserie, Kaffeehaus Konditor, at 1856 Queen St East, far from my usual haunts. I think it would also provide house hunters with a means of first checking out the ‘hood around a property of interest. Beyond these uses, the wealth of imagery may well fuel the imagination of urban sociologists and planners. What does it offer to the historian?

I decided to see what it would provide to someone interested in the earliest surviving buildings of Toronto. The city was founded as York in 1793 when Lt Gov John Graves Simcoe arrived with a group of settlers and the re-commissioned Queen Rangers, the regiment he had capably led in the American Revolution. There are only a handful of buildings that remain from the period before the city became incorporated as Toronto in 1834, and virtually all have been subsequently expanded or altered. I’ve put the photos I found up on Flickr under the general tag ‘Toronto Early History'.

Toronto’s original ten-block town site was to the east of the present city centre. The Bank of Upper Canada (256 Adelaide Street East) is the oldest surviving building within the original precinct which was bounded by Front, Berkeley, Adelaide, and George streets. The Bank moved here in 1827, and the building is a fine example of restrained elegance; the attractive portico was added in 1844. Virtual City’s two photos of the bank illustrate both its vertical and horizontal ranges -- and how greenery can obscure our view.

Just a few doors to the east is the building known as ‘Toronto’s First Post Office’ (260 Adelaide Street East), which operated out of the first floor of the home of the postmaster. Built in red brick in 1833, it echoes the designs of British terrace houses. It now is both an operating post office and a postal history museum

Three short blocks away to the SW is the area which was designated early for a market. In 1845, the city constructed a multi-purpose building which was at once City Hall, police station and market. In 1899, after the new superb ‘new’ City Hall was built at Bay and Queen streets, the façade and council chamber of the old city hall were incorporated into a new market building which still flourishes as St. Lawrence Market.

On the same block as the bank and post office was a third notable building, the home of Chief Justice William Campbell, built in 1822. To save it from destruction, it was moved in 1972 to a prime site on the NW corner of Queen St. West and University Ave. Campbell House is a superb example of symmetrical Georgian neo-classicism.

On the NE corner of the same intersection lies Osgoode Hall, begun in 1829 to provide court facilities for the emergent city. Osgoode Hall is set back more than 30m from the street, so in this case the Virtual City photos capture the full height its Palladian façade. The photo chosen captures the sharp-angled wrought-iron gates erected mid-century to keep cattle out of the grounds. They’re equally effective today against bicycles, but they are accommodated by entrances along the sides.

Showing another variable, the photos of Campbell House and Osgoode Hall are quite dark, but still serviceable. By the time the vehicle had moved one block further east to take photos of the Old City Hall, designed by Edward J. Lennox and opened in 1899, they are so dark as to obscure not only details but the very nature of the building.

A few blocks west of Campbell House and slightly to the north is The Grange, the oldest part of which was built in 1817. In 1910, it was donated to become the kernel of what emerged as the Art Gallery of Ontario. The Grange is now hidden behind construction hoardings as the AGO undergoes the renovations designed by Frank Gehry. John St. leads up to the park which formed the south lawn of The Grange, but Virtual City’s cameras did not stray northwards. However, as the cameras proceeded along Berkeley St. which forms the western boundary, we are afforded an oblique glimpse of a fine building whose front elevation and fenestration is remarkably similar to Campbell House.

Fort York, established by Gov Simcoe in 1793 to guard the western approach to the harbour, burned by the Americans in 1813, and rebuilt immediately afterwards, contains some of Toronto's oldest extant buildings. Since it lies at the end of a road which leads only to it, there is little reason for Virtual City to have photographed it. There are however several good shots of the fort and its blockhouses from the Bathurst St viaduct, just east of it. This provides another instance where one can obtain indirectly what may not be available directly.

Just west of Fort York lie the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. It contains Toronto’s oldest structure, the pioneer cabin of John Scadding, a member of Simcoe’s party. Built in 1794, it was moved to its present site in 1879. Virtual City hasn’t yet scoped out the interior streets of Exhibition Place, and so we must rely on other sources. Which perhaps permits mentioning an even more virtual site adjacent to the cabin, the footprint of Fort Rouille which the French maintained here in the 1750s, antedating English settlement by almost half a century.

It requires a detour from our itinerary, but there is one other building worth including. The Tollkeeper's Cottage, at the NW corner of Bathurst St. and Davenport Road, is believed to date in part from the late-1820s, and is the only known remaining example of vertical plank construction in the Toronto area. In an era when government provided few services, privately funded and operated toll roads constituted a definite improvement in urban communication. This toll booth was one of five on the route across the northern edge of Toronto from the Don to the Humber river, and the only one to survive.

Virtual City is not intended to give us pristine photos ready for the architecture magazines. Its virtues are its inclusiveness, and the way in which it constantly reminds us that buildings of historical significance are embedded in the grit of the everyday urban fabric.

Assessing it for its intended audience, I think it would help if there were a brief general orientation to Toronto, one that would explain that Yonge St. divides the streets that cross it into east and west, and that street numbers are normally even on the north and west sides of the street.

For those of us interested in its potential utility as a research instrument, it would very much help if more metadata were made available with the photos, particularly the date taken, and the geospatial references.

So you can now be a digital stroller through Toronto, and soon a flâneur through Montreal. It’s a new embodiment of the old Bell Yellow Pages slogan, “let your fingers do the walking.”

Virtual City has made an impressive launch, and I will look forward with interest to its continued evolution.



Blogger tim said...

Great article. You should take a look at another virtual city for Toronto ... http://www.streets.to .. can hail a taxi cab and each building gets rendered to beautiful detail!

11:40 a.m.  
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