One of the great, outrageous characters and thinkers of Canada’s 20th century was an American by birth who made Canada her adopted home from 1968 until her death in 2006.
Jane Jacobs was passionate about cities and flew contrary to much mid-20th-century thinking about how to develop and grow urban space. She became an expert not by piling up degrees and credentials but by learning about her subject from a journalism base: researching, interviewing, and writing. Her books on urban development became classics: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961); The Economy of Cities (1969); and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984).
While I had not seen the connection before, I was researching her history at the same time as that of Canadian journalist and social advocate June Callwood and was struck at how similar their paths were. Both did not pursue advanced studies, combined motherhood with their writing careers, and were commentators and subject matter experts who also put the action into activist.
In 2016, on what would have been Jacobs’ 100th birthday, her friend and urban planner Joe Berridge wrote a tribute about her in Toronto Life magazine. “She was the most passionate, forthright, and unrestrained public figure I’ve ever known,” he says. Among the gallery of pictures accompanying his piece is one of Callwood and Jacobs hugging in 2005 on the occasion of Callwood receiving the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Urban Institute.
Jacobs’ interest in urban design and planning was piqued through her early journalism career and by her husband, architect Robert Jacobs. The couple moved to Greenwich Village in New York, where Jacobs in the 1960s became a leader in a movement to oppose extension of freeways that would have cut through the Village and knocked out parts of Little Italy and SoHo. In 1968, the couple and their three children moved to Toronto, partly because Robert had received an interesting job offer in Canada and partly to remove their two sons from the threat of a military draft to fight in Vietnam.
When she arrived in her new home, Jacobs quickly discovered a similar threat to downtown Toronto’s neighbourhoods with the proposed Spadina Expressway, part of a network of major expanded roads planned to criss-cross the existing downtown. She brought her protestor and organizational chops to the debate and, within three years, the project was cancelled.
After she died in 2006, Jane’s Walk was founded in Toronto by a group of her friends and colleagues who wanted to honour her ideas; they organized urban walks around the first weekend of May, near Jacobs’ May 4 birthday. In a decade, the idea has caught fire over the world. In 2016, more than 1,000 Jane’s Walks took place in 212 cities in 36 countries across six continents. Canadian cities remain well-represented among these numbers.
Say the Jane’s Walk organizers: “Jacobs believed in walkable neighbourhoods, urban literacy, and cities planned for and by people. That is, for a city to work, the people who live there must be involved in decisions about how the city grows and is run. Staying informed about civic issues, learning the basic concepts of urban planning, and meeting the people who make the decisions are all good ways to do this — and are all things you can do on Jane’s Walks.” The walks are run under the auspices of Tides Canada, a national Canadian charity “dedicated to a healthy environment, social equity, and economic prosperity.”
While most Jane’s Walks are clustered in early May, some are held at other times. I went on one in March 2015 led by John Sewell, who knew Jacobs well. She and Sewell were co-warriors in the anti-Spadina-Expressway movement and, in 1969, he was elected to city council on the platform of his advocacy in what was then Ward 7, an area encompassing Regent Park, Cabbagetown, St. Jamestown and other east-of-core-downtown neighbourhoods. Sewell served many years on council and became the city’s mayor for one term from 1978-1980. One of my fellow walkers recorded his impressions of the day.
On the walk, I learned gobs of history and information I never knew even after living in this Toronto neighbourhood for three years. At the south end of my street is a row of six gorgeous Victorian townhouses: Sewell told us about the practice in the 1960s of “blockbusting”, where developers would buy a place and tear it down, with the hopes/expectations the neighbours would then sell too, thus amassing a block of property for new development. Some developer bought a middle unit in this row of townhouses and knocked it down, leaving its neighbours on either side in precarious shape.
Thanks to the insistent voices of people such as Sewell and Jacobs, the blockbusting stopped and downtown Toronto neighbourhoods such as Cabbagetown and the Annex continue to this days as residential and retail neighbourhoods near the downtown core. Eventually, someone rebuilt that demolished unit: Sewell pointed out the almost imperceptible difference in the brick colour between the new build townhouse to the original units.
“[Cities] are not like suburbs, only denser,” Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. ” They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.”
In early May each year, many of those strangers will gather to go on a walk and learn a bit more about their city, and each other. They’ll be moving together to create a better a better urban place — one step at a time.
Main photo: Kelley Teahen