November is always a difficult month for me. At this point in the fall season the trees have lost most of their colourful leaves, the days are much shorter, and there is usually a pile of work to do as the end of the semester approaches. For all these reasons I was feel unmotivated and uninspired as I left Kingston for Toronto on the morning of November 3rd. I was set to present at ACSP’s (Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning) annual conference, and I would be staying in the city for a few days while I attended the conference. As my taxi pulled into the Kingston train station in the wee hours of the morning, the city was swept with fog. And I’m not talking about a little bit of morning fog, I’m talking about extremely thick cannot see ten steps in front of you fog. However, being an early riser, I had arrived at the train station 30 minutes before it even opened. I had no choice but to find a cold bench and sit in the dark fog and wait for my train—the environment felt eerie. The trip was off to an unusual start.
The fog followed me to Toronto. That first night, the city was blanketed in it. However, it did not stop me from exploring. Walking down Bay Street I was unable to see the tops of the skyscrapers, with a canopy of clouds above me it felt as though I was moving just beneath the surface.
I met up with my brother, a student at the University of Toronto studying biology. Over Chinese food we discussed schoolwork, tv shows, the impending future, and liminal spaces. During the summer he had worked in Europe and developed a fascination with abandoned buildings which transitioned into him developing an intense fascination with liminal spaces. He explained to me that liminal spaces are often “environments in transition”, they are places that are familiar and unfamiliar, everywhere and nowhere at the same time. He went on to give the example of an abandoned mall, an empty airport, or the highway at 4 am, as spaces where you would normally expect to see people, however, there is no one in sight.
My interest was piqued. The entire reason I was at ACSP was to present the conceptual framework I had been working on, demonstrating how play as an intervention can transform limiting environments into enabling ones. I had spent weeks thinking about what constituted a “positive” enabling environment or a “negative” limiting environment. I was always focusing on environments that were too much, or too little, I had never even given consideration to environments that were nothing at all.
I explained my morning waiting for the train, and sure enough my brother informed me that I indeed had experienced a liminal environment. He offered to take me on a tour of his favourite place in the world: U of T’s Robarts Library. A place, he explained, chock full of liminal spaces. Walking around what could only be described as a brutalist mega-library I was comforted and disturbed by the wealth of books and the lack of people (granted it was reading week). My brother was right, Robarts was a full of liminal spaces. I thanked my brother for the tour and set off back to the hotel, still surrounded by a thick cloak of fog.
Friday: I was up early and excited to attend the sessions of the day and hear about the interesting projects from planning academics from across the world. I was especially excited for a session examining macroeconomic urban dynamics. One of the presentations in this session that stood out to me involved a study that was exploring U.S. hinterlands and how they had been disconnected from major metropolitan cities. Once again, I was confronted with images of liminal spaces. The presenter described U.S. cities caught between “what was” (in many cases industrial manufacturing hubs), “what is” (empty buildings and crumbling infrastructure), and “what’s next” (depends on who you ask).
There was a clear theme developing from this trip. After being in crowded meeting rooms all day, I decided I needed some air and went for a walk. I was surprised, for being Canada’s largest city—Toronto felt empty. Sure, I saw people on the street and in stores, but it was always concentrated in specific locations. One street would be bustling with activity, and on the next street over there would be no one at all. While I was astounded by the city’s beauty and architecture, I couldn’t help but to feel a bit lonely.
Saturday: The final day of the conference and the day that I was presenting. I woke up excited to share the conceptual framework that I had worked so hard on these past few months. Going through piece by piece I explained how an individual’s core components: their social and physical environment, and individual competencies, interact with one another to create a limiting or enabling environment. I then went on to explain how play as an intervention can promote positive interaction of the core components towards a n enabling environment. All-in-all the presentation went well, and while I had explained that environments existed on a spectrum, and that no environment was perfectly enabling or perfectly limiting, I was usure as to where one would begin to place a liminal environment on this spectrum. However, my mind was tired, and instead of entertaining this thought any further I decided to reward myself at the end of the conference by going to watch a movie. I looked up a theatre within walking distance and set out. Little did I know, I was about to discover the most liminal space in the city. Once again, me being always early, I arrive to the theatre before anyone else. Walking through the doors I discover that this is indeed an underground theatre, and upon descending two very sinister staircases I arrive in the foyer of the theatre. Looking around I can observe that the décor has not been updated since the late 80s or early 90s, that I am in fact alone, and the only sound is that of the fluorescent lights above the popcorn machine. Something inside me tells me to run back up the stairs and on to the street, but before I can move, I am greeted by a friendly staff member who takes my ticket and directs me to my seat. While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, I was intrigued that just below the surface of the city laid this movie theatre that was a relic of the past. It was familiar and unfamiliar, everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.
Sunday: I had a big day planned for my final day in Toronto, I was going to go to Casa Loma, an early 20th century castle estate built in the midtown neighbourhood of the city. Originally built as a residence for financier Sir Henry Pellat, he lived in the residence for less than ten years before leaving it in 1923 due to financial difficulties. While the castle has served many uses since then it now operates as a museum. The multi-room estate is preserved in all its Victorian ornamentation, with some modern updates. However, underneath the estate runs an 800 m tunnel connecting the castle to it’s stables (that are the size of a small mansion) across the road. Despite all the whimsy of the castle what struck me most about my visit to Casa Loma was the empty horse stables still adorned with the names of beloved horses over a century old and long gone.
I collected my things and headed to Union Station. The fog had lifted, and the sun was shining. After experiencing a range of emotions and environments throughout my time in Toronto, I felt a renewed sense of curiosity, inspiration, and eagerness to explore. As I waited to board the train, I recounted my trip and was reminded of a poem by Sarah Kay on how cities like snakes shed their skin and I thought that perhaps in the midst of this continuous transition some places get lost, even in the biggest cities, forever liminal.