Jane Jacobs at the White Horse Tavern in 1961 (Credit: Cervin Robinson)
“Jacobs was a woman of infinite humility, compassion, warmth and generosity of spirit. She reveled in challenging conversation with thoughtful people, listened carefully to citizen testimony at public hearings, never resisted the opportunity to stand up to power and wished only for people to continue the dialogue she started, not duplicate her words… Jacobs’s thought and writing comprise a resounding symphony of lessons and ideas; they compose a life’s work about economic, social and environmental justice.” - The Nation
Legendary urban thinker, writer and activist Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urbanist and activist whose writings championed a fresh, community-based approach to city building. She had no formal training as a planner, and yet her 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, introduced ground-breaking ideas about how cities function, evolve and fail that now seem like common sense to generations of architects, planners, politicians and activists.
Jacobs saw cities as ecosystems that had their own logic and dynamism which would change over time according to how they were used. With a keen eye for detail, she wrote eloquently about sidewalks, parks, retail design and self-organization. She promoted higher density in cities, short blocks, local economies and mixed uses. Jacobs helped derail the car-centred approach to urban planning in both New York and Toronto, invigorating neighbourhood activism by helping stop the expansion of expressways and roads. She lived in Greenwich Village for decades, then moved to Toronto in 1968 where she continued her work and writing on urbanism, economies and social issues until her death in April 2006.
A firm believer in the importance of local residents having input on how their neighbourhoods develop, Jacobs encouraged people to familiarize themselves with the places where they live, work and play with words like these:
“No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at … suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.”
-Downtown is for People, 1957.
Jacobs’ wrote incisively and beautifully on the importance of dense and vibrant city-scapes, famously uncovering the ‘sidewalk ballet’, that intricate dance between neighbours and passers-by that make a street enjoyable and friendly.
“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”
— Jane Jacobs, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’
Towers on the North Kipling Ravine, Toronto 2009 (Credit: Kevin Murray)
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
— Jane Jacobs, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’
Jane’s Walk Vision
Walkable neighbourhoods, urban literacy, cities planned for and by people.
Jane’s Walk celebrates the ideas and legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs by getting people out exploring their neighbourhoods and meeting their neighbours. Free walking tours held on the first weekend of May each year are led by locals who want to create a space for residents to talk about what matters to them in the places they live and work. Since its inception in Toronto in 2007, Jane’s Walk has expanded rapidly. In May of 2013, more than 600 walks were held in over 100 cities in 22 countries worldwide.
The main Jane’s Walk event takes place annually on the first weekend of May, to coincide with Jane Jacobs’ birthday. Jane’s Walks can be organized and offered any other time of the year by enthusiastic local people or organizations, although the first weekend in May is where we focus our organizational energies and resources.
Jane’s Walk honours the legacy and ideas of urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs who championed the interests of local residents and pedestrians over a car-centered approach to planning. Jane’s Walk often takes Jacobs’ ideas to communities unfamiliar with her ideas, in order to advance local engagement with contemporary urban planning practices. The walks helps knit people together into a strong and resourceful community, instilling belonging and encouraging civic leadership.
Thousands of people have taken part in a Jane’s Walk. Past walks have explored a wide range of urban landscapes, from social housing slated for redevelopment to areas with a rich architectural and cultural heritage, to teen hangouts and secret gardens. Walks are led by individuals and small groups. Some are focused around historical themes more than geographical areas, for instance, some strolls have been built around ideas like the urban forestry, gay and lesbian history, places of relevance to the homeless, the history of ‘skid row’, and urgent planning matters facing certain neighbourhood. The walks offer a more personal take on local culture and issues. They are not a tourist driven initiative but an insider tour of a neighbourhood that helps open up a friendly, engaged discussion amongst interested participants.
Jane’s Walk Principles
As always, people face a complex array of challenges and hazards in our social and built environments. The decline in physical health is a problem that is exacerbated by our reliance on mechanical modes of transportation that burden our environment and infrastructure. When it comes to making improvements to the livability and vibrancy of neighbourhoods, people are often isolated or unaware of others who may share their interests. Jane’s Walk helps bridge these gaps and encourages people to explore the sidewalks they use for the basic tasks of daily life – tasks like shopping, getting to school and work.
Jane’s Walk helps make cities and streets safe for all users. We encourage people to get out and walk not just for recreation, but for basic tasks of daily life, shopping, schools and work. Walking not only improves health, it increases social cohesion and connection.
Jane’s Walk helps pedestrians by providing a simple walkability tool kit, available on our website, which gives the basic tools for recognizing, discussing and improving local walking conditions.
Jane’s Walks are usually organized by a broad network of people and groups who share a common concern for making cities more livable but a spectrum of approaches and observations about the neighbourhood, the city, the past and future are welcomed. As with all community organizing, the wider the network, the lighter the organizational load for everyone. A key principle of Jane’s Walk is that it is self-organizing and self-selecting. Tour guides don’t have to be familiar with Jane Jacobs’ work to lead a tour, but we encourage people to find out more by reading her books or consulting our website for more links and primers on her ideas.
Jane’s Walk was inaugurated on May 5, 2007 in Toronto by a group of Jane Jacobs’ friends and colleagues who wanted to honour her ideas and legacy. They decided upon a simple, adaptable, and what would prove to be, an internationally successful concept – free neighbourhood walking tours led by local volunteers. Mary Rowe, Margie Zeidler, Chris Winter, Alan Broadbent and Ann Peters made the first Jane’s Walks happen that year with 27 tours. Attendance and buzz exceeded all expectations. CBC broadcaster Jane Farrow, one of the inaugural tour guides, quickly came on board to explore how Jane’s Walk could be shared with other cities. That fall, she organized the event in New York City, making sure to include a range of neighbourhoods outside the core and in the process showcased an exciting variety of perspectives on city-building and community organizing. It was clear that Jane’s Walk filled a need people had to talk about issues affecting their neighbourhoods, and as such, had unlimited potential in helping communities find their voice.
Since then, Jane’s Walk has been successfully exported and adapted to 90 cities in 20 countries. The event and its namesake, Jane Jacobs, mobilizes local residents to get out and share the stories of the urban spaces they know and love, to meet neighbours, to explore common cause in making improvements and celebrating their successes. Jane’s Walk has expanded beyond the confines of an annual event by researching urban and suburban walkability conditions in association with Paul Hess of the University of Toronto Geography Department. We are also engaged in consulting with planning firms and municipal stakeholders in how to make the city more walkable and welcome the input of local residents. Jane’s Walk has been adapted in schools and used both in classes and as an extra-curricular activity. The City of Toronto has made good use of our bank of neighbourhood tour guides, getting employees out on ‘discovery walks’ and getting to know how their policies have an impact on people and places.
Jane’s Walk is clearly hitting the mark with a wide variety of cities, towns and neighbourhoods, proving that people want and need opportunities to reach out and get to know the places they live and work, and find common cause in city building with the people with whom they share space.
The Jane’s Walk audience includes:
Jane’s Walk is a project of Tides Canada Initiatives Society (TCI). TCI is a registered Canadian charity dedicated to providing uncommon solutions for the common good by leading and supporting actions that foster a healthy environment and just Canadian society.