Daniel Rotsztain to Geohipster: “The pandemic made us all urban geographers”

Daniel Rotsztain is the Urban Geographer, an artist, writer and cartographer whose work examines our relationship to the places we inhabit. The author and illustrator of All the Libraries Toronto and A Colourful History Toronto, Daniel’s work has also been featured in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and a regular column on CBC Radio’s Here and Now. As a frequent patron of libraries, malls, and strip malls throughout the Greater Toronto Area, Daniel’s projects seek to understand and support the diverse settings of the city’s public life through walking tours, residencies, and landscape interventions. He is a project manager at ERA Architects and is the co-lead of plazaPOPS, a community-lead approach to transforming strip mall parking lots into comfortable, safe, and accessible gathering places in Toronto’s inner suburbs.

Daniel was interviewed for Geohipster by Natasha Pirani

Q. Hi Daniel, please tell us about yourself as The Urban Geographer, an artist, writer, and cartographer, and, I daresay…geohipster?

Thank you for welcoming me into the geohipster fold. I come by my designation as a geographer naturally – my sense of space and place is so deeply embedded it’s instinctual. Wherever I am, I am creating an internal map and maintaining orientation. And it has been a lifelong sixth sense. I recall being 4 or 5 years old, in the back seat of my parents’ mini-van on some roadtrip through the midwest. My parents were hopelessly lost, but I knew exactly where we were and kept trying to chime in to offer directions. But they wouldn’t listen to me, even though I was right, understandably because I was 5!

Q. I appreciated hearing you mention in a talk that your “expertise depends on admitting when you don’t know something”. What do you mean by that?

I’m tired of the cult of the expert. No one knows everything – it’s just not possible – and admitting you don’t welcomes others to contribute their perspectives and insights, toward a greater understanding and truth. It also is more productive to admit you don’t know something than to pretend you do. I liken it to welcoming failure. Failing – and not knowing – is taboo, for some reason, but it shouldn’t be. You learn from failing as you learn from asking questions when you don’t know something. My expertise depends more on my curiosity than if I pretend to know everything.

Q. You’ve expressed that art is a way to communicate the world emotionally to scale, and that maps can be windows into emotional geographies. How does this perspective guide your mapmaking and use of art and cartography for city-building and civic engagement campaigns?

The way we experience the world is hardly objective, and you can use logic and argument to manipulate facts to prove any point. Through my art, mapmaking, and campaigns, I often intentionally and explicitly exaggerate, emphasize, and distort to make a point, because that’s the power of art. I often say, “I’m an artist, not a scientist”, because art gives you greater latitude to go outside of “objectivity” to explore things in a way we actually experience them. I often think of Michel Gondry’s film “Is the Man Who is Tall Happy”, where he describes seeing the full moon versus taking a photo of it. The full moon is never as big in your photo as it seems when you look at it hovering huge in the night sky. When we look at the moon, it is meaningful to us, and we exaggerate its objective scale. The same goes for maps. “All maps lie” as the saying goes, since the cartographer has to select and simplify in order to make a map effective and communicable. A 1:1 scale map would make no sense, it would be an abstraction, and so distortion becomes necessary for communication. I apply the same logic to my city-building and civic engagement campaigns.

Q. I recently came across this quote in a MapLab interview: “both maps and novels are partial, in that they rely on readers to fill in details. You can’t have a map that describes everything or a novel that is the same as consciousness, so how do you productively draw or articulate something that allows that filling in to happen?”
For you, as a writer, what are your thoughts on parallels between your writing and cartography?

I love this quote and these ideas! In terms of my cartography, I often make maps knowing that the first thing everyone does when they look at a map is try and place themselves in it – the unspoken “you are here” that all maps contain. I apply a similar approach to writing, as most of my writing takes a spatial lens. The power of geography is that it’s something we all experience. Despite the lack of objectivity and all multitude of viewpoints we have, we have a shared geography: landmarks, streets, iconic buildings, beloved parks. A shared geography becomes that unspoken “you are here”, an affirmation of being alive. I think I mostly write for people who already know a place, so that my geographic writing is a foundation for readers to fill in their pre-existing associations with those places. However, I’d like to think that my writing is also accessible to people who aren’t familiar with the places I write about, the same kind of satisfaction that comes from poring over a map of a place you’ve never been.

Q. And do maps influence our relationships with places by allowing “that filling in to happen”, or contrariwise (just learned that word, had to use it)?

They certainly do, and maybe too much. Smart phones and google maps have radically changed our relationship to space. There are so many ways to know a place – relationally, narratively, through personal landmarks and things that change seasonally, for example – but the dominance of google maps has elevated one kind of spatial literacy — the ability to get from point A to B as efficiently as possible – above all the others. And with that comes a kind of distortion, and a dismissal of more subjective forms of orienting ourselves. Looking at Toronto’s ravine system on a google map diminishes their power and the awe that they evoke; the region’s rivers become pithy blue lines that are barely visible. But standing in a Toronto ravine, by one of its rivers is a profound experience. With my maps and writing, I want to encourage other forms of understanding space, in ways that are “emotionally to scale” rather than objective.

Q. Early in the pandemic, your social distancing machine was a hilarious and pointed, yet round, way to demonstrate inadequacies in Toronto’s infrastructure to prevent the spread of the virus despite public health guidelines. That video also went viral, so I’m wondering: how do you define the success of a project? Do you seek to resonate broadly/deeply with urban peers and strangers, and/or endeavor to be heard by decision-makers and authorities?

At the outset of a project or campaign, I like to define was success means, and often do so pragmatically in terms of what audience I want to reach. (I often think that the key to happiness is setting attainable goals). By setting a pragmatic goal, it helps direct a campaign’s message, tone, which sharpens the focus of the campaign while allowing for the project to reach bigger audiences, including policy and decision makers. With the Social Distance Machine, which was created as a campaign with the Toronto Public Space Committee, my collaborator Bobby Gadda and I decided that if our video was posted on 6ixBuzz, a popular if not problematic social media platform, that would mean success. Selecting 6ixBuzz as our audience sharpened the tone and messaging of our approach. And it worked! But since we were so focused, the campaign had a cohesive tone and reached the ears of Toronto mayor John Tory, several city councillors, and many bureaucrats. I’d like to think that the campaign was part of the City’s endorsement of ActiveTO and slow streets.

Q. Despite the city’s obvious shortcomings, has the pandemic given you even more to appreciate about where you live? You appear to be a constantly curious observer with your Atlas Obscura-esque hyper-local, niche geographic knowledge of your surroundings and in-depth urban undertakings like All the Libraries.

I loved how the pandemic made us all urban geographers. During the depths of the first few lock-downs, my social media was full of people making the most of their restrictions on travel by getting to know their own immediate neighborhoods more deeply. And of course I did the same, going on a series of walks, and posting them as Instagram stories, where I would share info about the city and invite my followers to contribute. The pandemic confirmed my commitment to Toronto and to urban life. While the early pandemic motto “we’re all in this together” turned out to be hollow pretty fast, the level of engagement I witnessed and participated in, especially through the Encampment Support Network and Toronto Tiny Shelters, affirmed my belief in urbanity as a force of good, despite the official culture constantly undermining community efforts in favour of private property owners. The legacies of organizing from the pandemic will continue to shape Toronto for a long time. 

Q. What do you make of the fact that googling “idealistic urban geographer” leads only to your blog?!

Wow, that’s so sweet! I often call myself “naïve and optimistic”, which is a necessary counterbalance to my innate cynicism and pragmatism. Despite it all, I still believe in a brighter future.

Q. I am very intrigued by your geomancy practice! How do you give a reading, and if you told your own fortune, what would it be?

Geomancy is an ancient practice, a very old form of fortune telling. When I first heard of the term, I took a deep dive into its history, but it was totally confounding, and I couldn’t make any sense of how it was done! And so, I created my own approach. The fundamental concept is that our subconscious is affected by the geographies we inhabit, and so taking a macro view to analyze the geographic features forming the settings of our lives would give us insight into the thoughts and feelings that inform our daily decision making. So, for example, let’s say you take a subway to work everyday, but there’s a bus that follows the same route, but a bit slower. If, during a Geomancy session, you expressed a feeling of being stuck, I would suggest taking the bus, as it would lead to feelings of openness and expansive possibility, given its overground route. Other examples include the effects of living by the water, on hilltops, crossing train tracks, going into valleys – these all affect us, and Geomancy is an invitation to untangle that. Another name I have for it is “route therapy”.

My own fortune? I live on the edge of two watersheds. Despite most of my activities being in the Don watershed, which I describe as electric, productive, and urbane, I live in the Humber watershed, which is slower, stiller, more bucolic. My fortune is: be aware of this division in my life. My home is in the calmer watershed. Embrace that as a refuge. And when I’m ready to dive into the Don watershed, know that I can always come back to the Humber.

Q. Is there a there there?

Of course!

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