Jane Jacobs was an activist and journalist recognized as one of the most important thinkers in the field of urbanism. Concerned with the state of democracy she saw cities as a manifestation of democratic ideals. She believed in diverse cities where local governments preserve historic buildings, promote public transportation, and create walkable communities. She advocated flexible and gradual development. Jane’s Walks began in Toronto shortly after her death as a celebration of her ideas. These walks encourage people to meet their neighbors in an inclusive setting that celebrates diverse opinions, ideas, and observations. Led by volunteers they provide participants the opportunity to share stories about their community and observe, reflect, and collectively re-imagine their city. Many educators have adopted the ideas behind these walks to provide their students with an opportunity to get out of the classrooms and view their communities in a different way.
Edmonton teacher Mary Sekulic led a high school class on a Jane’s Walk in the community of Highlands. She found that her students were genuinely interested in learning more about their city. They were happy to be outdoors and were relaxed and receptive to the information shared at the four designated sites on the walk. She found that the students improved their understanding of public and private spaces through the activity. For one of the stops, the home Marshall McLuhan lived in as a child, she utilized some pre-teaching on “the medium is the message” concept. This helped engage the students at the micro-museum located in the house that is dedicated to McLuhan’s life and research. Students were enchanted by the humble home which was beautifully decorated and curated.
Another stop on the walk found the students standing in front of a stained-glass window inside Highlands United Church. They listened with fascination to the story of Reverend Richard Davies who served as padre with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Winnipeg. Six weeks after D-Day Davies was walking through a mostly destroyed church in France when he came across a piece of stained glass. He took it back to his regimental aid post and over the next few months, he collected pieces of stained glass from 24 churches in France, Holland, and Germany. The fascinating story enthralled many of the students and provided them with a new perspective on World War II.
Sekulic found Jane’s Walk to be an engaging way to build rapport among her students as they learned about their physical community. The students gained a new perspective on their city while getting out of the classroom and experiencing the world around them. Teachers wishing to utilize this approach should start by investigating what resources already exist from their local Jane’s Walk community or from books and websites featuring local historical walks. Teachers will want to find curriculum connections that help them meet outcomes for the topics they are teaching. Having a list of critical thinking and historical thinking questions is a good way to prepare for the walk and ensure students are building skills and competencies. Through these walks students see themselves as members of an urban community. And as citizens of a community, they start to see how they can help make it a better place to live. As Jacobs said in the Death and Life of Great American Cities, “The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts… Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all.”
John Tidswell is a retired teacher and former president of the ATASSC