Jane’s Walks

Seeing our neighbourhoods through the eyes of Jane Jacobs

By Harry Sanders

In 1992 I became one of the history enthusiasts who led walking tours through the city’s older neighbourhoods every summer during Historic Calgary Week. I was invited to do the same for a new springtime event, Jane’s Walk, in 2010.

In the beginning, I simply repeated the historic tour I was already doing in my South Calgary neighbourhood, better known as Marda Loop. But my curious and informed participants wouldn’t have it. They listened politely to historical esoterica about the inner-city district and its pre-First World War origins, and then they offered their own observations about contemporary planning issues. My participants showed me that Jane’s Walks are not about the past, but the present livability of our neighbourhoods and how to improve it. Though it’s interesting that William Aberhart was the first principal of old King Edward School, it’s more relevant that the school is soon to become the cSpace arts incubator.

Jane’s Walk started in Toronto, the city where Jane Jacobs lived since 1968 and where she died in 2006. Jacobs was a Pennsylvania-born author and thinker about cities and city life. She was also a community activist, and her protests landed her in jail. But she saved her adopted neighbourhoods of Greenwich Village in New York and the Annex in Toronto from freeway development that would surely have destroyed them. Jacobs rejected the authority of imperious planners and their movable scale models, preferring the wisdom of those who knew cities and their neighbourhoods best—the people who lived there. She loathed single-use districts, low-density suburbs and freeways that permanently divided neighbourhoods. Jacobs’s ideal was a dense, mixed-use area where multiple functions and a diverse population generated vitality and created “eyes on the street”—the vigilance of citizens who cared about their neighbourhoods and kept them safe. Jacobs and her family moved to Toronto in protest of the Vietnam War (and to escape her sons’ potential conscription). She took out Canadian citizenship and eventually became an Officer of the Order of Canada.

A year after her death, some of Jacobs’s devotees in Toronto organized a series of volunteer-led neighbourhood walking tours, dubbed Jane’s Walk, to coincide with her early-May birthday. Jane’s Walk was intended to generate discussion of her ideas and to give citizens the opportunity to explore their own neighbourhoods, and others, from new perspectives. “Where more traditional tours are a bit like walking lectures,” notes the movement’s Canadian website, “a Jane’s Walk is more of a walking conversation.”

The movement quickly spread around the world. In 2008 Calgary became the second Canadian city to host Jane’s Walk, the result of a casual conversation just weeks earlier. Cesar Cala, the new manager of neighbourhood strategy for the United Way of Calgary, was at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation seeking ideas. Cala introduced himself to Jane Farrow, who was just then organizing Toronto’s second Jane’s Walk. “You know what? I think this will fly in Calgary,” Cala told a surprised Farrow.

“Cesar thought Calgary’s heavy involvement of citizens in urban engagement would make it work,” remembers Julie Black, who at that time had recently succeeded Cala as the citizen engagement officer at the Calgary Foundation, a granting agency with grassroots connections. Cala saw a perfect fit between Jane’s Walk and the Foundation, and he connected Farrow with Black, who quickly put together a Jane’s Walk in Calgary. “We had six walks in 2008,” says Black. “I’d say most people weren’t doing it for me or for the Foundation—they did it for Jane Jacobs.”


Discovering “The Calgary That Could Have Been.” The walks take place every May to coincide with Jacob’s birthday. (Reginald Tiangha)

Jane’s Walk is a decentralized movement, and in Alberta it appeared next in 2011 in Banff, Edmonton and Red Deer, followed by Lethbridge and Medicine Hat in 2012. At their best, the walks illustrate Jacobs’s ideas and stimulate conversation on how they apply, or could apply, in local circumstances.

In Edmonton, Jane’s Walk is coordinated by Walk Edmonton (formerly Walkable Edmonton), a unit of the city’s community services department. Walkability in cities and their neighbourhoods—and not privileging automobiles over pedestrians—was a priority for Jacobs. “Walk Edmonton’s interest is in encouraging and fostering walking as a viable mode of active transportation, and providing tools and education to do this,” says Julie Cournoyer, the coordinator of both Walk Edmonton and Jane’s Walk. “We work with community groups to develop neighbourhood walking maps. They tell us their favourite walking routes, their favourite destinations—the things that, if I were moving into your neighbourhood, you would want to tell me about.” Walking tours implicitly emphasize, and demonstrate, walkability.

In “Mysteries of Edmonton’s Underground: Discovering the Pedway,” one of the city’s 27 tours last year, Jackie Lee took this concept underground, exploring the city centre’s pedestrian tunnel network that dates back to 1974. Cournoyer wants to expand Jane’s Walk to newer suburbs. “Maybe I have to commute a long way to work,” she says, but exercise, dog walking and taking children to school present valuable walking opportunities. “Every neighbourhood has a story to tell.”

Steve Woolrich and Lorne Daniel introduced Jane’s Walk to Red Deer in 2011 out of an interest in crime prevention. For Jacobs a well-used street is a secure street. Street-level activity and neighbourhood pride establish natural surveillance. Well-designed public spaces encourage activity and thereby prevent crime. These concepts attracted Woolrich, a police-officer-turned-businessman, to Jacobs’s writings. Daniel had been involved in developing Red Deer’s Greater Downtown Action Plan. Woolrich led walks through back alleys and areas that invited loitering and vandalism, while Daniel examined counter-examples of intentional good public design that contribute to crime prevention. (Similar walks focusing on crime prevention through environmental design took place last year in Calgary’s Cliff Bungalow-Mission and Sunalta districts.) In 2013, Red Deer’s environmental program specialist Lauren Maris took over Jane’s Walk on behalf of the municipality.

Red Deer municipal planner Kari Idland and her grandmother, long-term care nurse Maureen Durant, emphasized walkability on their 2014 tour called “Where Will All the Boomers Go?” They demonstrated how sidewalks, short blocks, audible crosswalks and benches would make newer subdivisions more walkable for the growing number of seniors in Red Deer.

The Banff Community Foundation along with a group of Banff residents expressed interest in Jane’s Walk in 2011, and Randall McKay, the town’s manager of planning and development, quickly took the lead. “We have a lot to talk about in the context of a Jane’s Walk,” he says. “We’re blessed by a fixed footprint and limited land base, a very compact urban environment within the greater context of a national park, and streets teeming with activity.” To McKay, Banff meets Jane Jacobs’s recipe for a community with thriving street life—density, a mix of uses in new and old buildings, and shorter blocks that create opportunities for people to interact. “With that,” he says approvingly, “the streets become alive.” And in Banff, such interactions are magnified; the community is itself an intersection of urban and natural ecosystems, local residents and tourists and even humans and animals.

In Lethbridge, community planner Andrew Malcolm organized and led the first Jane’s Walk in 2012 on behalf of the city’s planning department. It began as an effort to stem declining citizen participation in the planning process, and it has grown to become a broader community initiative with Malcolm as its coordinator. Malcolm’s inaugural walk featured the historic London Road district, a once-tony neighbourhood where a strict area redevelopment plan has ensured good infill development alongside surviving Victorian homes. “It’s essentially one of those complete communities that we got away from for a number of years,” Malcolm says. “It’s close to amenities; it has grid streets, good transit, lots of sidewalks, parks, a bike path; and it’s walkable,” he says. A current functional design study that proposes widening a commuter road through the district has prompted a discussion framed by Jacobs’s ideas.

Medicine Hat’s Jane’s Walk has developed its own local traditions. Its inaugural event was held during the city’s Jazz Fest in June 2012, and subsequent Jane’s Walks have been held during Alberta Culture Days in September. The Rotary Club sponsors the event, which provides free bus passes to all participants. And everyone gets a popsicle. This is a reference to the “popsicle test,” explains Robbie Fairhurst, a community worker for the city who helped form the ad-hoc Jane’s Walk committee after attending Jane’s Walks while on a conference in Calgary. If a child can walk to the store, buy a popsicle and get back home safely before it melts, it’s an index of a great community. “It doesn’t matter how cold it is, they love those popsicles,” she adds.

In the course of illustrating Jacobs’s principles, Jane’s Walk events explore everything from bridges and buses to parking lots and suburban teenage ennui. But many of the walks, like traditional historical walking tours, cover older areas of Alberta’s cities. “Her time and place for her ideas was mid-century, reacting against urban renewal, freeways eating up the city,” says architectural critic Trevor Boddy in the 2008 documentary film Urban Goddess: Jane Jacobs Reconsidered. “In 1961 she said, hey, guys, you’ve forgotten about streets. You’ve forgotten about the diversity that makes cities. She was absolutely right then.” But Boddy doubts the timelessness of her message, which he finds fraught with nostalgia. “You get the idea that she would like to have every street in the world remade in the image of the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” he says. “A nostalgia for the 19th-century city is [considered] leading-edge thought in city building. It isn’t.”

Nonetheless I confess to the same nostalgia. I pine for the Calgary of my youth, when my older brother and I used to frequent the downtown east end and its greatest attraction, Jaffe’s Books, a second-hand shop crammed into an aging former cigar store and barber shop. Where the performing arts centre and Olympic Plaza now stand, we walked past drinking holes, greasy spoons, army surplus stores and junk shops on our weekly Saturday morning trips to buy comic books. Had I looked up from the comic shelf to the grown-up section and leafed through—oh, let’s say, Jacobs’s 1961 tome The Death and Life of Great American Cities—I might have appreciated my surroundings.

Jane’s Walks generate discussion of Jacob’s ideas and allow citizens to explore their own neighbourhoods from new perspectives.

For Jacobs, old buildings’ value had nothing to do with nostalgia. “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them,” she wrote. And she didn’t just mean gentrified, well-restored architectural gems, “but also a good lot of plain, low-value old buildings.” Without such structures and their affordable rents, Jacobs argued, low-earning independent stores would vanish, replaced by chain stores and high-profit businesses.

In 1961 Jacobs was an editor at the influential journal Architectural Forum and a community activist. Had she visited Edmonton or Calgary then, she would have found those cities expanding at the edges and emptying from the middle. Post-war prosperity, fuelled by the oil boom, saw families retreat to detached homes in the suburbs and automobiles eclipse public transit. City planning departments mandated “orderly growth” of “neighbourhood units,” which eventually followed the model of single-family dwellings, long blocks, curvilinear streets and a strip mall anchored by a big-box store and fronted by a parking lot.

Along the new Trans-Canada Highway in Calgary, the North Hill Shopping Centre, Motel Village and the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium proved stronger attractions than downtown shops, hotels and theatres built for the streetcar era. In this context, urban planners pushed for single-use zones with names like “The Retail Core,” “The Office Core,” “The Government Centre” and “The Institutional and Residential Area,” and they saw little to no value in the aging buildings that stood in their way.

All of this would have depressed Jacobs, though none of it would have surprised her. The month The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published, Calgary’s planning department announced a plan for the Parkway (dubbed the “Eastern Calgary Downtown Penetrator”), a cross-town freeway to be built south of the Bow River in tandem with relocated Canadian Pacific Railway tracks. The project would have freed the historic railway right-of-way through downtown for real-estate development, and it was meant to bring a massive volume of cars into downtown each day. The riverbank had long been blighted by industrial use, but the combined freeway and CPR tracks would have pulverized it forever, along with Chinatown and the Inglewood district east of downtown.

Architect Jack Long led the neighbourhood protest movement that “stayed the hand of the freeway projects” until cooler heads prevailed, says Gian-Carlo Carra, a Jane’s Walk leader who grew up in Inglewood and now represents it on city council. “From 1960 to 1970, the neighbourhood was effectively redlined. No bank was going to lend you money to either renovate or buy or sell a house in Inglewood.” The city later enacted a downtown parking strategy meant to limit the number of cars entering downtown and encourage other transportation modes, Carra says, “Today we enjoy Inglewood—recognized by the Canadian Planning Institute as 2014’s best neighbourhood in Canada—because of that strong neighbourhood resistance movement.”

Edmonton faced the same issue and the same pushback, and its Jane Jacobs was Gerry Wright, a University of Alberta associate professor. Wright led the battle to stop an expressway through the North Saskatchewan River valley, and in 1974 he established the Old Strathcona Foundation that helped save Whyte Avenue. He co-founded a Jane Jacobs practicum that met biweekly to discuss her ideas and how they could be applied. Jacobs visited Edmonton in the late 1970s while her architect husband was designing the city’s University Hospital. Her impressions are unrecorded, but she would have found a kindred spirit in Wright.

In 1980 the election of Wright and other members of his Urban Reform Group of Edmonton (URGE) “changed the face of city council, who saved the core communities, the ravines and the river valley, revitalized Old Strathcona and built the first LRT line in North America,” says Shirley Lowe, Edmonton’s former historian laureate and a protege of Wright’s. Council funded the kind of festivals that Edmonton has become known for and that bring vitality to streets such as Whyte Avenue. This phenomenon began with the Fringe Festival, and more recently it has included Jane’s Walk.


Kensington, Calgary. (Neil Zeller)

In Edmonton, Jane’s Walk leaders David Holdsworth and Marianne Fedori see the problems, and the possibilities, of redevelopment. Holdsworth, a municipal planner, gives what he calls a “heritage planner’s rant.” He contrasts the success of southside Whyte Avenue with the fate of Jasper Avenue, its downtown counterpart. “If you look at old pictures, Jasper Avenue was heaving with people, even in the winter,” he says. But for every block-long office tower that has been built, a dozen or more old storefronts vanished, and that killed the street life. However, Holdsworth is encouraged by policies such as those on Whyte Avenue, which maintain a human scale by restricting street frontage for new construction and mandating rear-access for automobiles and parking.

Heritage consultant Fedori discusses infill development on her Glenora district tour. Infill encourages density and prevents urban sprawl. Ostensibly this follows Jacobs’s philosophy. However, when two massive, expensive infills replace a single middle-class bungalow, the typical result is a more well-heeled population.

“Jane Jacobs might say that we have brought suburbia into the inner city rather than found a way to sustain the inner city through diversity,” Fedori says. She points to the influence of developers, which still counterbalances the input of citizens. But Jane’s Walk gives her hope. “People are learning more about their cities,” she says. “I think we’re on the cusp of a new generation of people who are hoping to find values in cities in different ways than just the continuous-growth, economic model.”

Jane’s Walk sustains Jane Jacobs’s legacy and projects its reach to new generations unfamiliar with her accomplishments and writings. Her ideas have become mainstream. But has anything really changed since her time? “I think it has,” says Darryl Cariou, Calgary’s senior heritage planner. “At least now, at every level of planning from the staff level to the political level, we’re talking about livability, walkability, mixed use, connectivity. At the time of Jane Jacobs, we weren’t even talking about those things.”

Harry Sanders is a Calgary-based historian, author, freelance writer, historical consultant and public speaker.


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