October 1, 2016

Jane’s Walk Catching on in Utah

Nate Currey, National Director, Jane’s Walk USA

Jane’s Walk is a program designed to empower residents to help shape the way in which their communities grow.

See Jane Walk.  Walk, Jane.  Walk.

On May 7th pockets of citizens worldwide gathered to tour their neighborhoods on foot.  These educational walks were not tourist tours, nor were concerned citizens out protesting or promoting a cause.  In 15 different countries, local citizens hosted 450 Jane’s Walk events aimed at identifying and sharing observations about what makes our neighborhoods vibrant.  The walks also encourage participants to consider how we might preserve or improve the quality of our community assets.

Jane’s Walks are an annual celebration of the life and community activist work of city-dweller Jane Jacobs.  A journalist by profession, Jane spent her lifetime closely observing how humans naturally connect to, interact and form relationships with their urban environment.  Her ideas and the role she played in coordinating public grievance efforts in opposition to urban development projects challenged city planning models of her time.

Through her observations Jane concluded that successful neighborhoods contained high-density, pedestrian-friendly and mixed-use elements, the planning of which included input from the people who live in them.  Her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities has become standard required reading for university programs, to include the University of Utah’s Department of City and Metropolitan Planning.

Graduate students and Jane’s Walk organizers Paige Pitcher and Zachary Gill teamed up with Heber Valley’s Soldier Hollow School to introduce Jane’s principles of community observation and planning to grades 4-8, at the end of which the engaged and animated youth hosted a Jane’s Walk in Heber.  “We asked the students to identify their favorite places and to see the city from a kids’ point of view,” Paige explains.  The student group was then asked to apply the same question to every place:  “Do we want to preserve it, or do we want to change it?”  The culmination of the overall project is a presentation to the Heber Planning Commission of the students’ thoughts and ideas.  In addition, the student group looked at a controversial local conundrum, the proposed building of a highway bypass around Heber, and discussed the pros and cons of that proposal.

When asked why the city should listen to a bunch of kids, 5th grade teacher Matt Sproul touted the students’ inventiveness. “The kids have great imaginations,” Mr. Sproul remarked, to which his student, Max Moody earnestly added, “and it’s not just their decision.  If they’re going to do something to Heber, they need to talk to us because it’s our place too.”

Faculty liaison Kelly Gallo recognized how Jane’s Walks align perfectly with the school’s place-based curriculum.  “We want the kids to feel like a part of the community.”  “If we can get kids to start becoming aware of their community,” added teacher Shannon Poirier, “then they can enact change when they move into positions where they can have impact.”

At the Heber’s Main Street Park 4th grader Kate Hosack offered her group’s practical ideas for improving the public space, to include “providing trash and recycle bins, adding plants to make it more attractive and putting in a fence or hedge on the Main Street side to make it safer.”

4th Graders talk at Heber Park

4th Graders talk at Heber Park

Back in Salt Lake, Jane’s Walk USA national director, Nate Currey, co-hosted an afternoon walk through Liberty Park with members from the Utah Council of the Blind.  This tour explored the city’s walkability with the added component of considering the non-sighted community.  Council member Kira Larkin explained how to be a sighted guide as well as the importance of considerate etiquette when interacting with a blind person.  “I’ve been blind for almost 31 years,” Kira notes, “and my own mother still doesn’t always watch out for me.”  Hosts Kira, Alyssia and Tonya also shared some of the difficulties they have negotiating on foot.  “Construction sucks,” Tonya interjected.  “And,” adds Kira, “downtown’s treacherous with all the poles, light posts, parking meters and trees in those big containers, right in the middle of the sidewalk.”

Sighted participants donned eye masks and experienced being led through the park, noting the perceptual differences between the sighted and non-sighted experiences.  The functional output of the walk will be a resource map of Liberty Park for the blind and visually-impaired based on sound and smell.

In response to America’s booming, post WWII automobile culture and suburban growth, it was not uncommon for city neighborhoods to experience decline, motivating urban planning modernists to want to designate the areas as slums, then demolish and replace them with sleek, sterile high-rise projects which lacked the social networking elements that Jane identified as necessary for vibrant urban life.

“Jane’s ideas were radical back in the day, but today her ideas are pretty much gospel,” Nate remarks.  21st Century planning, he says, is a response to the “unintended consequences and effects of the ‘new urbanization.’”  Some of Salt Lake City’s neighborhoods already embody Jacobean components, areas like the 9th&9th /15th&15th hubs.  Other areas of the city, downtown in particular, continue to change.

“The Gateway was a nice try,” Currey opines, “but it lacks diversity and is targeted towards a specific demographic.  I think the best thing going on in SLC right now is what’s happening in the Pioneer Park area where there is mixed-income residential and business space, the buildings are a combination of old and new, and it’s very pedestrian-friendly.”

The challenge moving forward, Currey says, is not in getting city leadership to embrace Jacobean concepts, but in capturing the imagination of a conditioned and often wary public.  “Mayor Becker has a planning background.  Our city recognizes what good planning is, but people are so entrenched in a natural distrust of the government that the challenge will be getting people to change their expectations, re-imagine their environment and trust these new ideas,” and Jane’s Walks, Nate contends, provide a germane, civic-based opportunity to bridge that gap.

For more Information visit Jane’s Walk USA website