I was walking along a small street near our home the other day, and I noticed that the sidewalks on one side of the street had more ice and snow than on the other. My brain slowly noodled on that and it dawned on me that it was because the south side of an east-west street often gets more shade than the north side. Turning a corner, I realized the same is generally true of the west side of north-south streets.
So putting that together with the knowledge that Toronto generally follows a grid-based street pattern, it occurred to me that little clues like this help me navigate even in unfamiliar places. If I plunk myself down in a random Toronto neighbourhood in January, I can figure out which way is roughly north/south or east/west just by looking at the patterns of snow and ice.
That got me thinking about other clues that help me navigate. For example, in Toronto the general practice is that addresses on the north side of east/west streets and on the west side of north/south streets will be evenly numbered, and the other side oddly numbered. Just walking down a street and looking at the house numbers tells me that if the odd numbers are on my right, I must be going either east or south.
As well, Toronto uses Yonge Street as the major east/west dividing line for many streets, so for example you have Eglinton Avenue West and Eglinton Avenue East. The street numbers reset at Yonge as well, so you can have 100 Eglinton East and 100 Eglinton West. That means that the bigger the number, the farther east or west of Yonge I must be. Similarly, Toronto street numbers often start at the south end of a north/south street, so if they are getting bigger I must be walking north.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are many other navigational clues I use in wandering around Toronto. For example, Lake Ontario forms the southern boundary of the city and is the lowest point in the city relative to mean sea level. So, if I am climbing as I go along a street, I am probably going roughly north. This also means that the many creeks and streams in the city, and their ravines, generally run mostly north/south, so if I just follow the water downstream, I am likely to be partially or mostly going south, and eventually I will come to the lake.
Of course, knowing which way is north or south or east or west means having an internal compass in my head, and not everyone does. So what other clues are there? There are landmarks, of course – in Toronto, the most obvious one is the CN Tower. If I can see it, I know that the downtown core is in that direction. The same is true of the headquarters of the major banks – these skyscrapers are all clustered in the downtown core and I can often make out the skyline from many streets.
Then there are landmarks like the subway and the street car lines – these often indicate which street I’m on. And there are other transit clues, like the buses which display route names that often contain the street they follow (like the good old #6 Bay or the #7 Bathurst buses). The city has also spent the past couple of decades putting up neighbourhood street signs, so just looking at those often tells me roughly where I am.
Beyond landmarks, there are other physical clues. For instance, since I know that the prevailing wind direction in Toronto is from the west, the direction of smoke and steam from chimneys can help me figure out east and west. On sunny days, of course, I can also check the direction of my shadow based on the time of day – if it’s more or less in front of me and it’s early morning, then I must be going west. And if I don’t know the time of day, the length of my shadow is a clue too – the shorter the shadow, the closer to noon it must be since that’s when the sun is closest to directly over head.
The more I thought about it as I walked, the more I realized that living here and walking around, I’ve built up a complex navigational rule book in my head. I don’t need a compass, or a map, or a GPS phone app. I’m comfortable wandering and using that mental rulebook to figure out where I am.
All of that also explains why, in wandering around a new city, I’m usually at least a bit disoriented at first. Because I don’t yet have that mental rule book, I have to fumble and feel my way around. I think it’s that sense of not knowing where you are that at partially explains why you are nervous when you visit a new place.
I’ve found that trying to apply my internal Toronto rule book to a new place can also lead to mistakes. For example, early on after we moved to London I would often get lost, in part because the street pattern doesn’t follow a nice neat cardinal grid like most North American cities, so I’d get myself oriented, for example heading east, only to realize that the street curved and before I knew it I’d be heading north or south, and along the way the street name would change.
On the other hand, getting myself lost is part of the fun of exploring a new city, along with slowly building that mental navigational map as I figure out the clues. It’s like solving a puzzle, and that brings a sense of accomplishment.
All of this realization came, as I say, from noticing that there was less snow and ice on one side of a street than the other. I like that, about life in general. By paying attention to the little details, you can both learn new things and you can come to appreciate that you actually know a lot about something that perhaps you had realized. It’s why I like to go for walks.
What else have I been missing by ignoring the details? I think I need a walk to think about it.