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Walking the city: Shawn Micallef's undergrads get lost and found

Citizenship and the Canadian City part of the UC One program for first-year students

Shawn Micallef with UC One students in UC quad (photo by Noreen Ahmed-Ullah)

Given a mission to explore an unfamiliar part of the city, U of T students had a question for their instructor, the writer and urban enthusiast Shawn Micallef.

“Will we get lost?” asks Leighes Persaud, 18.

“Yes, hopefully,” responds Micallef.

If you’re familiar with Micallef and his Twitter musings, you’re not surprised by that answer. Getting lost is precisely the point.

Micallef is Toronto’s modern-day flâneur. A figure popular in the literature of nineteenth century France, the flâneur was an urban explorer, an aimless yet observant wanderer leisurely meandering through the streets of Paris. Micallef’s career includes much writing about – or informed by – his GTA wanderings. Author of the 2010 book Stroll, he also writes a weekly column for the Toronto Star about his adventures, and is a senior editor and co-owner of the acclaimed city magazine Spacing.

For the lucky group that has him as their instructor this year for a course on Citizenship and the Canadian City, he’s unrolled his magic carpet  – taking students on strolls through the city and outlying parts of the Toronto region.  In the flâneur approach, getting lost is part of the exercise. 

“I want them to get lost a bit in the sense of getting out of their usual routine and orientation rather than truly being lost,” Micallef explains. “This way they’re forced to really look at the city landscape around them, which hopefully will reveal new connections and layers. When we’re in familiar surroundings, we sometimes assume we know all the details. But navigating it from an oblique angle can reveal those heretofore overlooked details.” 

Micallef’s class uses the city as their classroom. Field trips are the norm – not the exception. 

Students have gone to the Rosehill Reservoir and walked through the Vale of Avoca ravines with arborist Todd Irvine, learning about urban development and nature. (Photo at right by Shawn Micallef.)

They’ve visited a city councillor’s office at City Hall, taken a back-alley tour of Kensington Market and Queen Street West with graffiti artist Pascal Paquette, ventured into the downtown underground pathway around Dundas Square to talk about the boundaries between public and private space, and traveled to North York to learn about the suburban experience. 

But it’s not just about the field trips – guest speakers such as alumnus Graham Stewart, the main force behind the City of Toronto’s tower renewal program, have helped shine the light on new urban challenges to the class. Students have also explored the city’s growing gap between rich and poor and community concerns over affordable housing.  

Micallef’s class is part of the University of Toronto’s One programs, full-credit courses for first-year undergraduate students that offer community engagement, travel and interactive projects to help them explore their fields of interest while exercising intellectual independence, developing creative skills and being mentored by their profs. The university has invested significantly in the One programs and their range and diversity has increased. Students interested in studying arts, science and business can apply for One programs offered by Innis CollegeNew CollegeSt. Michael’s College, Trinity College, University College, Victoria College, Woodsworth College, The Munk School of Global Affairs and U of T’s Scarborough and Mississauga campuses. 

At University College, the One’s small-group classes examine topics through the lens of the city: health, sexual diversity, theatre and, in Micallef’s class, citizenship. 

“For all of these classes, we say the city is a classroom,” says John Marshall, vice-principal of University College. “The instructors are meant to be something other than talking heads in the classroom. The university is putting extra resources into these classes. We want students from the very beginning of their university career to integrate the outside world with what happens in the classroom.”

Micallef’s Citizenship and the Canadian City course delves into many of the topics he’s explored through his own writings – public space, community engagement, urban development. He teaches another One course at Innis that’s focused on blogging about the city. (Below, listen to Micallef in a new episode of The Cities Podcast with Brianna Goldberg.)


(Click the down-pointing arrow button in the player to download episode and transfer to your listening device. Transcript available here. Also available on iTunes)

The Windsor native first developed his love of cities  by looking across the lake at the Detroit skyline and watching that Midwest city decline. On the other hand, Toronto with its shiny, new skyscrapers and subways was “decidedly not falling apart,” he says.

When he moved to Toronto in 2000, he began walking around the city during lunch breaks.Those brief lunch walks turned into weekend excursions. Soon, he found other walkers and an array of writers who had their own theories on walking and exploring cities. 

One of those theories, the concept of psychogeography, is something Micallef has his students try out near the end of the term.

“It’s a silly, made-up word, a pseudoscience,” he tells his class. 

He explains that it’s a way of walking around cities developed by the Situationists, radical Marxists in late 1950s Paris. They would go on “smell walks” or use maps of London in Paris, intentionally trying to get lost so they could pay attention to the space and spaces they were passing through, and how those spaces made them feel.

In this class, Micallef sent his students out with algorithms to follow. For example, they might walk two blocks and turn left, then three blocks and turn right. Everyone started at different points off campus. Their assignment was to produce a psychogeographic map of their adventure. 

photo of students under umbrellas surveying graffiti(Above photo by Shawn Micallef)

Some students discovered the house of George Brown, founder of the Globe newspaper, predecessor of today’s Globe and Mail. The house is one of those historic landmarks people pass every day without knowing it’s there. The students found back alleys with colourful graffiti, strangely placed parking lots and an abandoned telephone booth. Two students came across a turquoise-coloured house that a helpful neighbour pointed out belongs to Olivia Chow.

On the last day of classes, Micallef and his students went over each of their maps, pointing out all sorts of noteworthy and whimsical sightings. 

“I really like that we had a lot of classes that were walking lectures,” said Kristin Rochon, 18, a Windsor native like Micallef who found the class helped her fall in love with Toronto. “It feels more intimate.”

Rochon is studying life sciences while classmate Marienka Bishop-Kovac, 19, is studying architecture. Neither knew of Micallef’s achievements when they signed up for the class.

“I knew about Spacing but didn’t know about (Micallef) – he’s so cool,” says Bishop-Kovac who grew up in Toronto. The class has helped her look beyond buildings to the people and communities around them.

“When you’ve lived in a city, you don’t explore it as much as when you go visit a city. Shawn’s class has given me a new perspective and love for Toronto.”

And that’s exactly Micallef’s goal:      

“My ideal view is that we can send out a small army each year of Torontonians or GTAins who will go out and be engaged,” he says. “This is like seeding their exploratory brains. I hope they get a connection to the place, and feel like the city is theirs. Later on, they can go back and explore it some more.”

Noreen Ahmed-Ullah writes about communities and cities for U of T News.