Walk, Observe, Discuss

Jane Jacobs changed the way we look and think about cities. In her seminal book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, she helped us see the multiple and diverse elements that make up the fine-grained texture that is a real urban place. She empowered everyone to have confidence in their own judgment about what works and what doesn't work in their community. In fact, it was better, she said, if you were not a trained expert. Theories don't work; observation does. It is better to understand, she taught us, as the user, the observer, the resident, the local business person and, yes, the walker. Professionals best follow the wisdom of the local.

In the opening of Death and Life, she wrote: "The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see."

No better way exists to understand what Jane was saying than to get out and walk, observe, ponder and think or talk about what is seen. That is the idea behind Jane Jacobs Walks, more than 70(?) local, self-organized walks taking place all over the United State, from Anchorage to New York City and dozens of places in between.

But let me explain.

For several years before her death, during my visits with her in Toronto, I would talk to Jane about starting something that would build on her legacy. She was very cautious about anything done in her name. Jane encouraged innovative thinking and bold action, clearly her own original path. She also considered self-organized and decentralized efforts the most effective path to enduring change. Whatever we did was meant to empower all kinds of people to address the needs and challenges of their community.

In 2004, two years before her death, I brought my friend and colleague Stephen Goldsmith to meet Jane. Stephen is an artist-turned-urban-change-maker from Salt Lake City who needed an affordable place to live and work years ago and wound up transforming the warehouse district in Salt Lake into a mini-SoHo with hundreds of affordable live/work spaces and incubator space for other non-profit and commercial businesses. He then became the Planning Director of that challenged city during the 2002 Winter Olympics. Jane admired his work and saw it as a perfect example of how the local resident was the most effective and knowledgeable change-maker. Stephen, who soon become the University Professor for Campus Sustainability at the University of Utah, agreed to be the executive director of what Jane suggested be called The Center For the Living City.

We spent hours over several visits talking about things the Center could do, including establishing a Jacobs Fellowship Program, for which the Center would raise funds to support innovative ways to advance positive urban change. She loved that idea the most and that turned out to be one of the first things the Center did before she died in the Spring of 2006.

Right after Hurricane Katrina, the first Jacobs Fellow, sponsored by the Center and funded by Deutsche Bank, was a young architect in New Orleans whose task was to work with low-income residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the storm. This exactly fit Jane's principle not to do for a place but to enable people to do for themselves. Two additional Jacobs Fellows are currently in the works.

The Center also produced a book, published by New Village Press, titled What We See: Advancing the Ideas of Jane Jacobs, a collection of 30 pieces contributed by a diverse group of people influenced by Jane or who influenced her. Like her own work, this book covered the gamut of the ecology of cities, reflecting her principle that everything is connected. The urban fabric, she made clear, is made up of a vast assortment of interdependent threads that cannot and should not be looked at or dealt with independently.

With an assortment of place-based non-profit organizations working to engage citizens in improving their places, the Center collaborated on a conference titled Toward a Just Metropolis. This event held at UC Berkeley in collaboration with the NGO's Planner's Network and Architects, Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR),is collaborating with The Association for Community Design (ACD) on an upcoming conference in June 7-9 in Salt Lake City.

In a totally different direction, the Center collaborated on a program to encourage local, self-organized walks that would bring people together to observe, discuss, understand and, perhaps, change the world around them on a micro-scale. The Center's program was modeled after one started earlier in Toronto by the Center For City Ecology (CCE) that had formed with a similar mission to build on Jane's work. The Toronto program, called Jane's Walks and scheduled for the first weekend in May to celebrate Jane's birthday, eventually became independent of the CCE and today sponsors walks all over Canada and overseas.

The U.S.-focused Jane Jacobs Walks, on the other hand, expanded the walk idea to year-round and to include "rolls" by bike, wheelchair or public transit. (See JaneJacobsWalk.org).

It is fascinating to observe the evolution of Jane Jacobs Walks along exactly the kind of decentralized, spontaneous and self-organized way that Jane encouraged. Run by a very skillful graduate student under Stephen's supervision, Nate Currey, and worked on by a group of volunteer student interns, Jane Jacobs Walks has embraced the newest technology and was recently selected to be a Grantee for Non-Profits Program.

Jane is probably the most influential and quoted urban thinker of our time. Many claim to apply her principles and, in the process, actually reinterpret her thinking. Misinterpreting her thinking is most difficult when you are observing on the ground; that is where real urban life unfolds. So if you take a Jane Jacobs Walk or organize a Jane Jacobs Walk, you will be honoring Jane's legacy in the most honest and sincere way.