Walk This Way

TEXT Elsa Lam

Each May, thousands of people around the globe celebrate the birthday of grassroots urbanist Jane Jacobs by doing something she often did: they go for a walk with their neighbours. The volunteer-led community strolls take place under the banner of Toronto-based organization Jane’s Walk, and are free and open to the public.

Unlike generic tours, Jane’s Walks attract residents by focusing on local issues–from the location of the best bakeries to successful social housing strategies. The association’s executive director, Jane Farrow, led a queer-history tour of Toronto’s Yonge Street on the inaugural walk date of May 5, 2007. “It was seeing the reaction of people, telling their stories of what it was like being in a queer bar in the ’60s that electrified everyone,” she recalls. “They mapped their experience on to the city. They felt, ‘my anecdote is now part of urban lore and queer history.’ People need to feel that more–they need to feel some ownership of and engagement with the city.” In 2008, Farrow quit her job as a CBC broadcaster to work full-time for Jane’s Walk.

The model of self-organized tours led by local guides has proved successful not only in urban centres like downtown Toronto and Manhattan, but also in automobile-centric suburbs and midwestern American cities that aren’t traditionally thought of as walkable. In Calgary and Phoenix, walks have been organized around transit issues. A planned walk in Etobicoke looks at how the South Asian, Caribbean, and African diasporas have shaped suburban Albion Road. 

Other walks–like a tour of the oft-maligned Simon Fraser University campus in suburban Vancouver–examine urban conditions with a critical eye, encouraging participants to discuss their experiences. This echoes the approach of Jane Jacobs, who championed mixed-use neighbourhoods not as a trained urbanist, but as an active observer and engaged citizen. “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,” she wrote in a 1957 essay, “Downtown is for People.” 

Jacobs saw walking as a means of exploration, but also believed that walkability was a characteristic of successful neighbourhoods. As Farrow explains, “If it’s a better place to walk, it’s a better place to live, because walking is totally connected to a socially cohesive neighbourhood, people connected, watching out for each other.”

The growth of Jane’s Walks testifies to the strength of the concept. In its first year, 38 tours were held in Toronto and New York. Now, it numbers some 450 walks, held in 68 cities around the world–including places as far-flung as Tel Aviv, Malaysia, Slovenia, Zambia and Mexico. While its impact is hard to measure, getting people out, walking, looking at their surroundings, and talking with each other is the basis of any effective urban change. Jane’s Walks are opportunities not only to discuss history, but to make it–from the ground up, a single step at a time. CA

Elsa Lam is a writer and researcher based in Toronto. She holds a PhD in architectural history and theory from Columbia University.