Jane’s Walk shows the pull of a good idea.
Since 2007, cities across the world have been invited to dedicate the first weekend of May to a celebration of their neighbourhoods by offering free neighbourhood walking tours. This event, Jane’s Walk, is the brainchild of friends and colleagues of urbanist writer and activist Jane Jacobs who wanted to mark Jacobs’ passing and advance her legacy. Jacobs championed the interests of local residents and pedestrians over a car-centered approach to planning. Jacobs told us we could make great cities and to do so, we should get out and see what works.
The response to the idea of Jane’s Walk has been phenomenal. From its genesis in Toronto in 2007, 68 cities have now joined in, organizing over 420 neighbourhood walks on the first weekend of May 2010. Calgary started with 6 walks in 2008 and this year offered 20, welcoming over 350 people into conversations about city life and citizen action.
Why has this little idea caught on in such a big way? I see three main reasons.
The first is that walking tours are a hugely effective way to see what’s underway. “I’ve driven by so many times and never noticed that” may have been the most common refrain during the Jane’s Walk weekend. I said it myself in a small stately park in Ogden, a park that only came into being because residents pushed back against ill-conceived development. I said it again in Sunnyside, in a small community orchard started by neighbours. And again in Bridgeland-Riverside, where we compared the design of two buildings, one that was built to the sidewalk and welcomed pedestrians and another that didn’t, giving its frontage to parking lot and cars.
The second is that neighbourhood leaders have great stories to share. Volunteers with the Civic Affairs Committee of Varsity Community Association, for example, took us to some of the hot-spot redevelopment zones of their neighbourhood as it transitions from leafy lawned suburb into inner-city community. Their stories showed that residents can help make existing and new spaces great places to be when they involve themselves inch-by-inch in redevelopment plans.
The third is that people want to know the stories of our city. Knowing our stories helps us feel we belong and in highly mobile and expanding Calgary, this is no small feat. In one short weekend, the places, people and struggles of my city came alive to me in a new way. And I was inspired by the examples to think more about how I can be a better neighbour and a more active citizen.
Only one question remains. Who will come forward next year to share their neighbourhood stories?
I don’t know who they will be. But I know they will offer. It’s the pull of a good idea.