ION dialogues: Jay Walljasper

Anna Beard

On June 18, award-winning community builder, journalist, author, and city collector, Jay Walljasper visited Waterloo Region to present 25 common sense ways to create a stronger more connected community as part of the Region of Waterloo’s ION Community and Transit Talk Series.

When he isn’t travelling around the world speaking and presenting, Walljasper lives in Minneapolis and
is a senior fellow with the U.S.-based organization Project for Public Spaces. He is also the author of “The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Place-Making,” and numerous internationally published magazine and web-based articles, including “How to Keep Cold Winter Cities Cool and 11 Reasons Why Transit, Bikes & Walking Are Moving Us To a Brighter Future.”

Before he had a chance to address attendees, TCE sat down with Walljasper to hear his thoughts on how we’re doing as a region, how he believes light rail transit will help foster community, and where we should focus our efforts.

TCE: How would you define the concept of ‘community building?’

JW: Community building is art as well as science. It’s not two big decisions you make but rather, 500,000 small decisions that a lot of people make. It’s that investment into where you live – that people can believe that the city can grow in the direction they want their lives to grow. It’s being conscious of the decisions you’re making today and the unseen consequences of those decisions. You know, we’ve made a lot of decisions in North American life – let’s build highways and strip malls but, we didn’t set out to hollow out the centre of our cities or to make walking seem like a quaint antiquated way to live. We didn’t say let’s segregate the wealthy from the poor or let’s spend the majority of our lives sitting down or sitting in traffic, so it’s about being aware of the consequences of our decisions. The other part of it is being able to be light on your feet and changing direction when you start to realize that your plans aren’t working out.

TCE: Have you had a chance to look through the Region of Waterloo’s Community Building Strategy?

JW: Yes, and I think it’s right on track. Those planning documents always make imminent sense but it’s about how much you really follow through on all the visions and good intentions and that’s what’s hard. Community building is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes what makes a great community will increase someone’s commute time or take away a parking space from in front of their home or shop. The good part is that you’ll meet people and that you have a common cause you work towards.

TCE: With our community building strategy, we’ve centered it around our transit corridor that will become like
a spine that connects the northern end of Waterloo and eventually will reach Cambridge. With that, we’ll be connecting three economic cores. Have you seen an example like this before where a city can create something like this and fill it in, while still protecting those surrounding neighbourhoods and communities that are not largely urban? How do we protect that feeling while still increasing the economic vibrancy of the area?

JW: It’s interesting that you used the word urban because, what does urban actually mean and what are the negative connotations associated with it? Urban means a lot of people together – that’s a hockey game, that’s a state fair, it’s a theme park or carnival or festival. Those places are all filled with people. I think the ‘urban’ part that makes people leery is a little to do with crime. I think the real issue is traffic. People don’t fear density because of people but because of cars. What you’re offering [with this kind of strategy] is the hope that you can have more here with less traffic. That is the light rail, that is the idea of a walkable urban village, that is better walking and biking conditions, carshare, bikeshare, etc. It’s about providing people with a choice now – sometimes I’d like to walk, sometimes I’d like to bike, sometimes I’d like to take transit, sometimes I’d like to drive. There are a lot of big cultural shifts happening that we don’t really recognize yet and so all of these things should allay the fears of people that this growth is going to be somehow a malignant attack on what makes this a nice place.

TCE: To that point, there are some communities within the region that are infatuated with how things are today – they don’t want massive development in their neighbourhoods, they only want to drive. How do we encourage that culture shift to start happening when there is so much resistance?

JW: There’s a reflexive reaction people have to new things sometimes but in most cases that disappears – they realize the roof hasn’t fallen in. The way things are going now, if you continue to build a community where people have to drive everywhere, the exact things they fear are going to happen. If you want the countryside to remain the countryside, you need the cities to take on a larger proportion of that development. It’s a bit of a culture change. It’s a bit of a psychological adjustment. It’s getting past what we’ve been fed for the last 100 years, that the only way people can move from one place to another is with a vehicle unless you’re poor or some kind of eco-freak. In fact we’re already seeing this shift with the number of people who are riding their bicycles. The whole bike riding boom – no one saw that coming, so we have a lot more options and opportunities for the future than the naysayers say we do.

TCE: Waterloo Region is in an interesting position given that we have a population of just over half a million, but we don’t have one city that has a population larger than about 230,000. It’s spread thinly and we don’t have that infill yet. In your opinion, and given the cities that you’ve visited, is light rail something we can use to spur that development and continue creating an ecosystem?

JW: Oh definitely, it’s the best way to do it. It’s an investment in what is already an advantage. This isn’t a greenfield, you already have business nodes and you want to connect them so I think it’s the way to go. Basically, light rail isn’t isolated alone, it’s connected to more biking, more walking, grouping your trips – it’ll have a big impact on transportation patterns and where people choose to live. I would think from what I’ve seen in just the short amount of time I’ve been here is there needs to be a bigger push for biking. I know you have some trails here and trails are great but you also need protected bike lanes and a bigger bike share system. This area is designed for bike share because you have a polycentric city and a huge student population that is slightly disconnected. […] Human communities are living organisms, they are ecosystems, and so the rules that are applied to ecosystems apply to cities. An ecosystem that has diversity is an ecosystem that is going to be strong. An ecosystem that doesn’t have diversity is a monoculture and we know what happens to monocultures. So having many different types of transportation, housing, demographics, is what makes a city stronger and more interesting.

In addition to his presentation on 25 ways to create a better, more connected, Waterloo Region, Walljasper led a full day community building workshop where attendees could connect with other community builders from across Waterloo Region, brainstorm and dream big about what they want the future of the region to look like. They also spent part of the day finding ways to put community-building aspirations into action to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces along the ION corridor and throughout Waterloo Region.