Since 2007 thousands of people meet each year on the first weekend of May to remember the urban thinker, activist and writer Jane Jacobs and to explore their neighbourhood by walking together. Starting in Toronto, the Jane’s walk phenomenon has now spread across North America and the whole world, with more than 600 walks in 85 cities in 19 countries this year.
Jane’s walks are led by volunteers and should encourage people to talk about their neighbourhood and its history, architecture, development and other (personal) issues. According to the urban planning legacy of Jane Jacobs, citizens themselves should become active in the design of their neighbourhood and should think about both details like the design of parks and the bigger picture of the urban development process. This is because the residents themselves usually know best about the challenges of their neighbourhoods and how to tackle them.
There were 26 walks in Vancouver this weekend – I visited one of them in my neighbourhood, Vancouver’s West End, which was called “Home: An Exploration of What Makes the West End Unique”. This walk primarily dealt with the current West End Community Plan and raised several important urban neighbourhood development questions related to it. It soon became clear that many of the most important and controversial topics that bother both residents and urban planners are not really different from the issues discussed in Vienna, Linz or Graz.
How can we develop our cities around people and not around cars? How can we achieve higher density and shorter distances in our cities? How can we put sustainability at the core of urban development? What makes a neighbourhood special and, for instance, how can preserve the diversity of people living together in the West End?
And one of the most urgent questions in the face of ongoing urbanization: How can we create affordable renting, especially in neighbourhoods like the West End which have see dramatic increases in rents? In particular, how can we avoid cases of renoviction (= renovation + eviction) where renters have to leave their apartments after renovation due to higher rents.
With the Downtown and its high-rise buildings around the corner, it was also discussed how a planned 22-floor high building would fit in its environment, especially in the light of the comparably small buildings and a planned greenway (street with reduced traffic) next to it. So, what type of change does a new building bring?
Some answers to these questions were shown during this Jane’s walk, such as pocket parks (small parks between two streets that encourage people to stay) or community gardens where people have reclaimed their backalleys. For instance, the community garden on the picture above didn’t cost the city anything as all material and labor was contributed by volunteers.
It became clear that answers to these important questions can be found when people talk with each other, for instance when talking a walk together. In this regard, Jane Jacobs’ words from 1957 are also true today: “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.”
Today, the Jane’s walks not only support this statement but also show how a vision (“walkable neighbourhoods, urban literacy, cities planned for and by people”) which puts people’s participation in the design and development of their neighbourhood at the centre of urban development can rapidly spread throughout the world. Perhaps also in your city next year?
P.S.: There’s also a great and elaborate blogpost on this Jane’s walk on the Spacing Vancouver blog!