Born on May 4, 1916, Jane Butzner (nee Jacobs) went on to live a life of advocacy in pursuit of protecting urban communities. Ninety-nine years ago, John and Bess Butzner welcomed their daughter into the world, and during her lifetime Jane seemed to embody her home state of Pennsylvania’s motto: “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.”
Such were her contributions to communities across North America that, after her passing, Jane’s inner circle collaborated in an effort to honor their departed friend. Jane was laid to rest in 2006 and through the love and sentiment of her closest friends, the first ever Jane’s Walk was organized and launched in Toronto. The purpose of the walk was to connect neighbors at the most grassroots level: walking around their community and talking with one another. The event that was intended to be a commemorative tribute was overwhelmingly attended and drew intensive media attention. Toronto’s mayor at the time, David Miller, decreed May 5 to be recognized as Jane Jacobs Day.
To fully understand the depth of meaning of a Jane’s Walk, and how it has morphed into a globally observed event, one must gaze back at Jane’s lifetime of accomplishments. Starting in her youth, Jane began contributing to the Scranton newspaper as an unpaid intern. When she became of age her heart lead her to make the leap to New York where she reunited, and lived with, her older sister. Jane explored the city by foot and via subway, and eventually settled in Lower Manhattan for the next thirty years. Her passion for writing saw Jane writing articles on a wide variety of subjects. Her freelancing eventually culminated in an editor position with Architectural Forum magazine in 1952, at age thirty-six.
It was in this editorial role that Jane was able impact the evolution of urban planning. Her vision of an engaged and intimate community led Jane to author a book entitled, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her book defended and gave reason to the continuity of neighborhoods that were diverse in culture and building structure. The message that Death and Life delivered was that neighborhoods should sustain livable streets, where residents are able to feel at home and safe. Jane envisioned regenerations over renovations. Where city planners sought to destroy slums, Jane fought to rebuild and rejuvenate deteriorating neighborhoods. Jane saw a way to rescue and revitalize areas that city planners would have preferred to level and rebuild. Her perspective that cities were made for people and not for vehicles figured prominently in Jane’s work.
Jane’s approach to city planning was akin to the story of David and Goliath. Her stance that city streets that overflow with pedestrian traffic create an environment of safety and security was the driving force behind her adamant charges against urban renewals. Jane stood fast in her vision of bustling urban centers and intervened at every level, opposing urban planners through a series of lectures, articles and books.
Based on her own thought that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” Jane dedicated a huge majority of her life to protecting neighborhoods where inner city and urban families could thrive. Jane’s achievements become even more remarkable when the fact that she had no formal city planning training is taken into consideration.
While Jane blossomed in her professional career, she also married and gave birth to three children: a girl and two boys. Jane dedicated her life fully to motherhood and authoring books in 1962. In 1968, Jane and her family made the decision to immigrate to Canada and took up residence in Toronto. Her family and career continued to flourish and Jane eventually gained permanent citizenship.
In Toronto, Jane was instrumental in some powerful movements with regards to sustaining intact neighborhoods. She was part of a group that halted the construction of an expressway through Toronto’s Chinatown, and successfully opposed the building of a bridge that was meant to join Toronto’s airport and waterfront. Shortly after earning her citizenship, Jane was presented with the Order of Canada for her dedication to and success in urban activism.
For all of the work Jane did — the writing, the protecting, the advocating — and for opposing those with greater power than her own, we walk for Jane. Those who participate in a Jane’s Walk come away with a sense of what Jane was able to accomplish during her lifetime, some so much so that they choose to volunteer with Jane’s Walk as an organizer or walk leader.
Because Jane had such an impact on cities and neighborhoods both in Canada and the US, Jane’s Walks are essentially a tribute to her lifetime of achievements. Around the world walks have been organized in honor of Jane Jacobs and her tireless efforts to protect the walkability of neighborhoods. After the first walk took place in 2007, city after city were added until, in 2014, a reported 40,000 people participated in twenty-five countries. A total of one thousand walks were observed in honor of Jane, her life’s work, and her commitment to stronger, more livable and connected communities.
With the 2015 Jane’s Walk only days away, the Spectator Tribune, along with event organizer Matt Carreau, extend an invitation to you and your family to lace up your shoes and join a local walk. Set some time aside on Friday May 1, Saturday May 2 or Sunday May 3 to get out of the house, meet up with some new friends, and tour about town the old-fashioned way. Winnipeg is hosting more than twelve of the free walks, complete details can be found on the Jane’s Walk webpage
While most of the Jane’s Walk events take place during the first weekend in May, there are many Walks scheduled throughout the year. Walks are led by everyday people like you and me. If you are feeling inspired by the life of Jane Jacobs and wish to share the enthusiasm for and joy of your own neighborhood or favorite local spot, Matt Carreau would love to hear from you. Matt told the Spectator, “The walks encourage urban exploration and celebrate Winnipeg’s vibrant neighborhoods.” Matt advocates Jane’s Walk as a great opportunity to meet people interested in urbanism and community issues.