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Walking with Jane Jacobs

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The first weekend in May has quickly become known as Jane's Walk weekend in cities the world over -- named for Jane Jacobs, the late author, activist and urban theorist who died in Toronto in 2006.

Jane was a neighbour of mine, living a few blocks over in The Annex neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. After she passed away, seeing the spontaneous outpouring of loss and remembrance, I wondered if anyone had created a book of condolence. No one had. I quickly bought a sketchbook. Made arrangements for it to be available for public signing in one her regular Annex restaurants. There, friends and strangers shared their memories and thoughts. I later forwarded the book to her family.

Initially, there was much discussion on how best to honour her life. The suggestions of naming a library or a park after her were too obvious. Organically, and quickly, a number of different people came up with the same idea...

"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."

-- Jane Jacobs, Downtown is for People, 1957

A year later the first of Jane's Walks took place in Toronto. At first, only a handful were listed, lead mostly by people who knew Jane personally. It hadn't occured to organizers that others who never met Jane, but were influenced by her would also wish to lead a walk. Eventually 27 walks all over Toronto were held in May 2007.

Looking at that embryonic list of walks, it was surprising there wasn't a walk directly linked to her involvement in stopping the Spadina Expressway. "Spadina" was the proposed highway that would have cut through Toronto neighbourhoods in the 1970s. She and many local activists together fought tooth and nail to Stop Spadina. Ultimately they won.

I quickly drew up an outline of my proposal for a Jane's Walk, dubbed it Retracing Stop Spadina and lobbied for it to be included. The walk would be a three-hour walking tour of the path the Spadina Expressway would have taken had it been completed.

The walk began exactly on the three foot wide sidewalk where the Expressway was stopped. The walk ended in front of the house Jane Jacobs lived in on Albany Ave. in the Annex.

That first year I didn't know how many people would turn out. I was pleasantly surprised to see almost two dozen did. Almost everybody stayed right until the end of the walk.

I've continued leading the Retracing Stop Spadina Jane's Walk annually since then. And every year in-between the walks, more knowledge and history comes my way about the Stop Spadina movement and its pro-expressway nemesis, Go Spadina. This year with so much more learned, I've had to split the walk into two parts.

The first half focuses on the Expressway story, the latter half brings to light knowledge of the neighbourhood
.

Now, there are already over 500 different Jane's Walks in dozens of cities around the world. I've also increased the number of walks I personally lead from one to six. Three each on Saturday and Sunday.

I've been asked, why do I lead so many walks?

Some people in Toronto wait all year for the Toronto International Film Festival. When September comes around and it's TIFF time, many people book off work, see several films per day, schmooze and star gaze as Hollywood North becomes incarnate.

For me and many people interested in neighbourhoods, ideas, and cities, the first weekend in May has quickly become our walking equivalent of a film festival. And unlike hard to get film festival tickets, all Jane's Walks are free!

Jane Jacobs the author may best be known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, however her final book, Dark Age Ahead, is a warning of pending civilizational collapse. It's also the title of my final Jane's Walk of the weekend on Sunday Evening.

If you're in Toronto this weekend, please join me for a Jane's Walk or two.

Why?

Because as Jane would say, "You've got to get out and walk."

Jane Jacobs, Toronto, and Jane's Walk
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Follow Jane's Walk on Twitter via @JanesWalk & @JanesWalkTO plus the #JanesWalk hashtag.
Jane's Walk also has a public Flickr photo group.