Interview with Stephen Goldsmith, Director of Center for the Living City
In 2005, The Center for the Living City was founded by a small group of urbanists, in collaboration with Jane Jacobs. The Center builds on the work of Ms. Jacobs, promoting increased civic engagement and understanding of urban life to new generations.
The Center sponsors a program called Jane Jacobs Walk, self-organized walking tours throughout the world. We caught up with Stephen Goldsmith, Director of the Center for the Living City, to find out why the walks were started and what happens when people share the experience.
Tell us about the Center for the Living City and why it was founded.
We founded the Center with the support and encouragement of Jane Jacobs, prior to her death in 2006, as a way to advance her observations with new generations of engaged citizens. Our founding board members include the journalist and author Roberta Brandes Gratz and this year’s Jane Jacobs Medal winner, Ron Shiffman, as well as many other committed practitioners. We all felt that Jane Jacobs’ legacy of the power of observation, community based and participatory planning, and the importance of self-organization, fit perfectly with what we see is needed to heal and repair the places we, and others, care about.
What brought about the Jane Jacobs Walks?
We decided to join our sister organization in Toronto, The Centre for City Ecology when they began the program. One of their brilliant board members, Margie Zeidler, who is also on our board, was a long-time friend of Jane Jacobs and winner of the Jane Jacobs Prize herself. The opportunity arose to offer ways for people in the US to celebrate the ideas of Jane Jacobs, connect people with their places and each other, and through them, deepen their care and engagement in communities.
This has become an important teaching tool in our Department of City & Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah. Through our passionate and talented students, we’re able to reach out to communities everywhere with the opportunity for them to walk and discover more about their places, and at the same time reach into the minds of our students and cultivate their understanding of how we create, restore and regenerate neighborhoods, streets, sidewalks, trails–any places that people value.
During Jane Jacobs Walks, neighbors from around the country walk together through the neighborhood they share. What happens when people share that experience, and their observations?
Its always fascinating to hear the stories about what happens during and after these walks (and sometime even bike rides). For instance, we recently learned that the non-profit publisher of our book, What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, met someone during Jane Jacobs Walk last year. They went for coffee after the walk and are actually moving in with each other this April. So that’s a very personal “happening” as a result of a walk. We also have stories about people who didn’t know about Jane Jacobs’ work or about community based planning processes who have decided to go into the field of Urban Ecology, Urban Design and Planning, and still others who have discovered places in their neighborhoods they didn’t know existed before the walks.
We’re now seeing young students–elementary school age students–engaged in walks, and we’ve partnered with the Children and Nature Network to introduce kids to the ideas of Jane Jacobs and connect with one another. We also have a powerful partner in Glenna Lang, a children’s book writer whose book Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a delightful introduction to powers of observation. Observation is really the central them of these walks and the self-organizing events that follow form the possibilities for change in neighborhoods everywhere.
What are the ingredients of a great Jane Jacobs Walk?
The essential ingredients are people who care passionately about their places, who want to share what they see, hear, taste and know, and also love to listen to those who join them on their Jane Jacobs Walks. Importantly, these are just ingredients, not formulas, as every walk is as unique as the people who guide them.
Among urban planners and community advocates, Jane Jacobs is a remarkably influential figure–but why is Jacobs’ legacy relevant to the average person that just wants to make their block a little better?
Jacobs’ illuminated the fact that we’re all planners, stewards of our places. She empowered citizens of every age and background to realize that the top-down planning approaches, that so often undermined the health of our neighborhoods, could be transformed when citizens participate fully in shaping the future of their places. Whether it’s in the realm of preservation, the creation of local businesses, diversity of use, economic strategies that give people ownership of their futures, or just appreciating the ballet of the street, as she wrote about so eloquently, her legacy opens doors to understanding the ways our cities work. By observing cities as organic systems and when we see ourselves as engaged members of our urban ecology, as essential, creative animals shaping our places, we can make our blocks and the people within them healthier, more sustainable and exuberant places.
Jane Jacobs Walk is now using Neighborland to help you organize your own walks:
Start by adding or supporting a Jane Jacobs Walk in your city.