Just Opened

Posted by – September 15, 2010

Did you ever wonder if there was an easy way to find out when new places open up in your ‘hood? Wonder no more, for 5 Blocks Out can tell you about it with the “Just Opened” feature.

Here you can see an excerpt from my latest email newsletter, showing places that recently opened in some of the neighbourhoods I’m following:

And below is a partial view of the 5 Blocks Out web page for the West Queen West neighbourhood, showing places that recently opened nearby. Every neighbourhood displays a list like this, provided there’s something new to show.

So how does this work? It’s community-powered (read: we need your help to make this work well). When adding a new place to the site you simply select “recently opened” to let people know it’s a brand new destination that just opened. In the example below, I’m adding a shop called “Knife“:

I click “yes” to indicate the place recently opened, and then “Save Changes”. Done. Now 5 Blocks Out can start telling people about it.

You can also select “recently opened” for places that other people have added to the site, provided it hasn’t been too long since they did so. Do this by clicking the edit button next to the place address.

We’ve currently set this up to show “just opened” places for about 90 days. Sound about right? Let us know what you think.

How do you define Neighbourhoods?

Posted by – August 3, 2010

This is part 1 in a series of posts about designing around neighbourhoods. We describe the challenges we’ve encountered and the solutions we’ve come up with so far.

Neighbourhoods are central to the 5 Blocks Out user experience. They’re part of navigation, overall site structure, and our “following” feature that lets you subscribe to everything happening in a geographical area. We’ve hit many interesting design challenges along the way and we’d like to share a bit of that with you in this series.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Q: What is the list of Toronto’s neighbourhoods and where is each ‘hood located?

A: There isn’t an official answer to this question. Many older cities have put this debate to rest, but Toronto’s neighbourhoods are still a topic of discussion and occasional flux. That’s in part because Toronto is still changing fast: new ‘hoods like Junction Triangle pop up from time to time as people move in and demand recognition. It’s also because our municipal government has remained fairly quiet on the topic, although not entirely mute.*

When we first started researching Toronto’s neighbourhoods we went direct to the City, where we discovered a lovely hand-crafted neighbourhoods map that corresponded pretty well to how real Torontonians talk about their neighbourhoods. “Paydirt!”, we thought. Then we spoke with the city employee who originally put it together, and realized it wouldn’t work for us. The map was no longer being maintained because of the high volume of feedback and complaints it received. Furthermore, the City explicitly didn’t want to become the arbiter of neighbourhood boundaries. Sadly, the map appears to have been retired, as we can no longer find it on the city web site. A trip to the archives awaits.

What you’ll currently find on the City of Toronto website is a set of neighbourhood profiles and a list and map of neighbourhoods with demographic info. It’s a valuable resource, especially if you want to do statistical analysis, because it was created for that purpose using Statistics Canada census tracts. Unfortunately for us, census tracts don’t correspond to the way people commonly talk about neighbourhoods — “Hey, wanna meet at that new pub in CMA Tract 0039.00 tonight?”. Not practical as a starting point for 5 Blocks Out.

The Toronto Real Estate board and various real estate-related companies all have their own lists and maps, of course. These maps tend to correspond to MLS regions, which is nice if you’re a real estate salesperson, but again, not useful for 5 Blocks Out’s purposes.

Google recently added neighbourhood names to its Toronto map to make wayfinding easier… zoom in far enough and you’ll see them. Unfortunately Google doesn’t offer a corresponding list of these ‘hoods, at least none that we’re aware of.

The Toronto Star published a nice neighbourhoods map in March 2009 and improved it subsequently with feedback from readers. The Star map is also available in KML format for Google Earth. This is probably the closest thing to what we were looking for, but it didn’t exist when we began our design process. We’ll definitely pay attention as it evolves further.

Then there’s CoachHouse Books, which published our favourite Toronto maps e-vah in their visionary uTOpia. The book includes two beautiful city maps, a realistic map by Alfred Duggan and another, more fanciful and aspirational map by Marlena Zuber.** These arguably do the best job of helping one understand the cultural fabric of the city.

Last but not least, Wikipedia has a wealth of information on Toronto’s neighbourhoods. In the end we went with Wikipedia as our primary source of data for 5 Blocks Out, since it has not only a great list of neighbourhoods that match closely how everyday people talk about Toronto, but also a few hundred detailed articles, one for each neighbourhood, and a little bit of high-level history as well.

We derived over 170 ‘hoods from Wikipedia, and we put these all on the 5 Blocks Out Toronto neighbourhoods map, using descriptions in the neighbourhood-specific articles to take a best guess at a geographic center. (We haven’t dared define boundaries yet; more on that in part 2.) Wikipedia really is a great source for this kind of thing, especially if you want the “citizen’s view”.

One major learning for us was that defining a list of neighbourhoods in a city like Toronto is an editorial exercise: you need to set policies about which neighbourhoods will be included in your list, and you’ll often run into gray zones where the answer is unclear. For instance, “The Pocket” is a great little neighbourhood on Toronto’s east side, south of the Danforth, and people who live there definitely know it as such, but you won’t find it on the City of Toronto neighbourhood list. For 5 Blocks Out we generally err towards inclusivity and defer to the views of real people who live in the area. So The Pocket is in, as far as we’re concerned: voila.

Stay tuned for part 2: “What are the neighbourhood boundaries, and does it matter?”

* Unlike, say, New York, where the city government has an official list of neighbourhood names and a boundary map
** Marlena has published many more maps since then

symmington underpass made beautiful

Posted by – October 28, 2009

underpass art 1

Recently I walked along Bloor Street east of Symington and took in the paintings adorning this railway bridge underpass. The walls were painted by local artist Richard Mongiat as part of a project sponsored by the City of Toronto. The north wall portrays summer nature scenes and the south side shows winter scenes. I find this project really beautiful and the context particularly interesting. The industrial qualities of the concrete and rusty bridge provide a lovely contrast to these serene images.underpass art 2

West Toronto Rail Path

Posted by – October 15, 2009


If you haven’t checked out the West Toronto Rail Path, you should – it’s fantastic.  It’s a beautiful tree lined urban path that runs from Dundas and Lansdowne all the way up to Dupont Avenue. It’s great for a walk or an outing on the bike.  It also makes a wonderful north-south commute route for some lucky cyclists who ride to work.

Originally the path was going to connect with the waterfront, which would have made it even more useful for commuting.  Now that the polluting diesel trains are a ‘go’ there is apparently a shortage of land to finish this plan.  It would be a pity if it didn’t get to expand to its full potential; these types of paths tie the city together in a wonderful way and allow those of us on bikes to have a safe and relaxing trip from one neighbourhood to the next.

great walls of Toronto

Posted by – October 7, 2009


This is one of my favourite graffiti walls in Toronto. It is done by none other than Elicser.  I could spend days looking at all the intricate details and forming a storyline around these images.  You can see them live in the alley south of Queen Street West, West of Bathurst Street.

Check it out when you’re in the area.

Pictures of this City

Posted by – September 29, 2009


One of the many interesting people we met through the Roncesvalles street festival is Matt Greenwood, the local artist behind  Take picture don’t steal features a collection of photos taken randomly by people around the city that come across a disposable camera on their path. Attached to the camera is note that says ‘take picture don’t steal’. The result is a set of images that are a very honest depiction of people in their element. Matt describes: ” The main thing that comes across is how natural people are in the photos because they are often with their friends and loved ones. …Toronto is an interesting city for this project because of it’s diversity & distinct neighbourhoods. I like the idea of making a portrait of the city.”

Check out the website.  If you come across one of Matt’s cameras you’ll have the chance to contribute to his evolving portrait of the city.

See also my notes below from a mini-interview with Matt.

- – -
1) What motivated you to do this project?

I had an old disposable camera sitting around & wanted to do something cool with it.
I saw this youtube video last year –

and found it interesting how people react when faced with a camera, but no cameraman.
I also wanted to do something local about Toronto because it’s a small enough city that people can feel a strong connection with the different areas.

2) Are you from Toronto? If not, have you done this in your home town? How is Toronto different?

No, I’m from England but live here now. My brother still lives in the UK and agreed to put up a camera in a park in Birmingham.
Its hanging up there now..hopefully it survives!

I’ve got a few cameras out in various countries around the world through friends who are traveling/living abroad.
Today I dispatched a camera to NORTH BAY, Ontario. I have no idea what goes on there.

Toronto is an interesting city for this project because of it’s diversity & distinct neighbourhoods. I like the idea of making a portrait of the city.

3) Do you see any interesting trends in the photos?

The main thing that comes across is how natural people are in the photos because they are often with their friends and loved ones.
Plus the fact that it’s a cheap disposable camera helps. If they had to go into a booth with a digital HAL lens staring at them, people wouldn’t be nearly as candid. I tried to get the cheapest, crappiest looking cameras I could find.

I sometimes hang around in the background after I put up the camera just to see how people react to it. They seem to immediately get it & feel comfortable with the whole thing.

oh and another trend is people sticking their tongues out.

4) Have you ever had a camera not work out?

Well, a few stolen. More than i expected actually…at first i found it kind of interesting to think why someone would steal a disposable camera half full of pics of strangers & have to pay $10 to get it developed, but now it’s just annoying! I’d think I’ve had about 5 stolen so far. Bay st was the first casualty.

Thanks to Matt Greenwood for sharing this project with us.

5 Blocks Out Public Debut and Raffle Winners

Posted by – September 25, 2009

This past weekend 5 Blocks Out made it’s first public appearance at none other than… the Roncesvalles Polish  Street Festival.

5 Blocks Out debut at the Polish Festival

Good times on Roncesvalles Ave

(In case you were wondering, you don’t have to be Polish to participate. In fact, the Polish contingent may have been in the minority. Polish food and music, however, were there in abundance. Hooray!)

The event was a great success. We are inspired by all the wonderful people we met, both from Roncesvalles and many other parts of town. Thank you to all those who stopped by our booth to talk to us. We will be sending those of you that were interested an invitation to join 5 Blocks Out in the next few days.

We did a raffle, and we’d like to announce the winners here:

1st Prize — $100 to spend at any local Roncesvalles business or charity — goes to: Kalyna Bo

2nd Prize — a limited edition Roncesvalles T-shirt — goes to: Nicole Ysabet

3rd Prize — a subscription to Spacing Magazine — goes to: Anthony Mohamed

Congratulations to our winners!

And a big thank you to our volunteers!  We couldn’t have done it without you.

Hello, World!

Posted by – September 23, 2009

Welcome to the 5 Blocks Out blog!

If you’ve been following our writing over the past few years you’ll know we’re avid explorers of Toronto, its many unique neighbourhoods, and the lives of its citizens. That interest has spawned a new project and web site — 5 Blocks Out — which we’ll be writing about here.

We plan to blog about the vision behind 5 Blocks Out, ongoing feature additions and improvements, and stories on how people are using the site in everyday life. We’ll also include musings on interesting things we discover around the city. The majority of our time is now spent on 5 Blocks Out, so we’ll be writing more here and less on the Mukodu Blog.

So, what is 5 Blocks Out? It’s an online community that helps people share local knowledge about their neighbourhoods with other people across the city. It’s local knowledge created by the people, for the people.

Who built it? And why did we bother?  We’re two Roncesvalles locals who want to fill a void in connecting local people with local knowledge.  Upon moving back to Toronto after years living away we found it difficult to keep track of all the change that had gone on in different neighbourhoods, and all the activity going on across this bustling city. We also realized we were surrounded by heaps of interesting people, but with few ways to hear from them. If you’ve ever moved within a city, or between cities, you’ve undoubtedly experienced this exact same pain. Over time we dug up many useful local resources, mostly through well-informed friends who were in the know. But we kept thinking there had to be a better way to share information about what’s great nearby.

If you go to the site you’ll notice membership is currently by invitation only. We have a merry band of members helping us test and improve the site before we open it up broadly. If you’re interested in giving feedback and becoming part of the community using this somewhat raw form of the website we would love to have you on board. We’ll send you an invite if you go to and add your email address in the “Sign up” section with a comment on how you heard about us.

The first phase — the stuff that’s up and running now — helps people share knowledge about local places within Toronto. Beyond that we’re dreaming about many other types of neighbourhood resources and information. There’s a huge number of directions we could go in, so we would really appreciate help in prioritizing. What would be most interesting and helpful to you? We’re all ears! Comment on this blog post, email us at blog at, or send feedback on the site.

Till next time… toodle-loo.

Katrin Lepik and Oshoma Momoh
Roncesvalles, Toronto — September 23, 2009