In Jane’s shoes and through Jane’s eyes, #1

Feet on the street and eyes on the community. Two fundamentals of the work of urban thinker Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) resonate with me – the idea that an urban environment is best understood at ground level, and that observant citizens can make a difference.

Urban Thinker Jane Jacobs

Urban Thinker Jane Jacobs

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the late Jane Jacobs is still a presence on the urban scene. Three recent books extend and confront her legacy.

In Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, urban planners grapple with her legacy and the fact that in many ways she was anti-planning. She was certainly opposed to the big gestures of monolithic developments – whether those were government offices, overly planned parks, or commercial tracts.

Wrestling With Moses profiles Jacob’s confrontations with New York ‘master builder’ Robert Moses. And What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs offers 30 writers’ meditations on Jacobs’ ideas and perspectives. Jacobs’ work has also recently been featured in Planning magazine and in The Globe and Mail.
I think Jacobs would be most pleased, though, with the way others have taken up her legacy through “Jane’s Walks” – informal meanderings through varied urban environments, where people share ideas on what they experience. In May of 2011, hundreds of Jane’s Walks were held in 68 cities worldwide.
“Jane Jacobs is the foremost urban thinker of our time,” says Jane Farrow, executive director of Jane’s Walk. “She encouraged people to familiarize themselves with the places where they live, work and play – believing in the importance of local residents having input on how their neighbourhoods develop.”
As a consultant involved in a number of urban plans, I rediscovered ‘the wisdom of the walk’ in about 2000. Our consulting team was trying to convince local city officials that some major arteries through the downtown core needed ‘calming.’ Traffic calming, of course, is a widely recognized methodology for slightly slowing vehicle traffic in order to improve the pedestrian environment.
In meetings, people just weren’t getting it. So we took them on a walking tour. I remember clearly standing on the corner of a roaring five lane one-way thoroughfare that was supposedly also meant to have a downtown ambience and attract shoppers, diners and office workers. Our little group standing on the corner had to shout at one another to be heard and people looked in fear at the gauntlet of crossing that street.
After that experience, our steering committee suddenly saw the value of corner bulbs, parking lanes and other traffic calming measures. They are now in place.
Actually walking through areas where you are developing urban plans and community initiatives should not be a radical concept. Unfortunately, it is still not common practice.
That’s where Jane’s Walks come in. Local citizens are encouraged to self-organize walks in their community share the urban experience with others. Sitting in a favourite downtown coffee shop with my friend Steve Woolrich, who is an expert in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), we were chatting about the streets nearby. One of the reasons I like Steve is because he believes in walking urban streets and alleys to learn what is really going on.
So when the Jane’s Walk opportunity came up, we couldn’t resist and threw our names in as walk leaders in our home community. As expected, we learned a lot in the process. My posts in the coming days will revisit a few highlights from those walks.

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