Jane's Walk Honors Urban Activist, Connects Neighbors

May 01, 2014

(Courtesy of janejacobswalk.org)
Jane Jacobs was a writer and urban theorist who advocated for mixed-use neighborhoods and pedestrian walkability. Her legacy inspired the Jane's Walk project.

There’s a growing movement in neighborhoods across the United States, where people get to know their neighborhood and each other just by walking. They’re guided tours called Jane’s Walks, led by and for locals.

A Jane’s Walk embraces the ideas of urban theorist and writer Jane Jacobs, who was born on May 4, 1916. Walks across the country will celebrate her birthday this weekend, including one in Phoenix.

Jacobs’ work focused on New York City and Toronto, but her ideas spread globally. A city’s walkability was crucial for her. In 1962 she posed the question, "Suppose we actually let the sidewalks do the job they can do best?"

She felt walkable neighborhoods were threatened by large-scale urban planning in the 1950s and 60s. Jacobs protested expressways and big development. And she championed the character and charm of small neighborhoods.

Timothy Mennel is a senior editor at University of Chicago Press and co-editor of the book Reconsidering Jane Jacobs. He said Jacobs believed the best experts on any neighborhood were the people who lived there.

"She really catalyzed this idea that you didn’t have to be an expert and that the experts might be wrong, and that your own local knowledge has much more value than people used to realize," Mennel said.

To stick to that mantra, Jane’s Walks can be organized by anyone, any time, with the help of the charity that started them in Toronto. Anyone who wants to be a walk leader registers on janeswalk.org.  Then they get copies of materials that can be adapted to their area, plus a guide on how to organize it from start to finish.

Will Novak led a Jane’s Walk in Phoenix last year.

"I like Phoenix history and I like telling people about it," Novak said. "A lot of times people think Phoenix has no history which is silly."

Novak led his walk along Adams Street in downtown Phoenix. It was half history lesson, half discussion on the future. Novak said at the time, there were talks of turning the street into a pedestrian-only walkway. He said it might sound cool, but it almost always doesn't work out.

Novak said Jane’s Walks often turn into conversations about what residents would like to see in their neighborhoods. They talk about what works and what doesn’t work.  And Timothy Mennel said that’s the point; not to make every neighborhood a Jane Jacobs neighborhood, but to make it the best neighborhood for the residents.

"The idea that we can love these places and observe these places and find ways to keep them healthy and make them better is something that has universal appeal," Mennel said.

In Phoenix, there have also been walks around the warehouse district, in Mesa and in Sunnyslope. Novak is leading the walk Saturday night at Central and Fillmore. And Sunday is the first Jane’s Ride in Phoenix, a bike ride starting at Civic Space Park downtown.