Every year, on the first weekend in May, there are thousands of people all over the world who help to make their communities more connected by leading walking conversations. Based on the work of urbanist and community activist Jane Jacobs, this completely organic event is known as Jane’s Walk.
Waterloo Region is one of the most active centres of Jane’s Walk activity. This year the Region hosted 23 completely different walks. Juanita Metzger of the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, and Kae Elgie from the Architectural Conservancy’s Waterloo chapter, are the unsung heroes who pull it all together. Using their community connections they get people thinking about community and they help inspire everyday ordinary people to become walk leaders. From there, and with seemingly magical ease, Jane’s Walks come to life.
Juliana Gomez was inspired by Metzger to lead an Instagram themed walk, encouraging people to bring their phones or cameras.
“I’m really into Instagram right now and I’ve been taking lots of late night walks uptown. When I was thinking of what my Waterloo looks like right now, those two things really jumped out at me.”
Walk leaders are encouraged to actively engage the people who show up for their walks.
“To me, the most important and effective way to build community is through connecting people,” said Gomez. “If we all knew a few more people, I think we’d hear about events more often, and in a ‘bigger picture’ kind of way I think we’d be held more accountable for our actions and would be more involved in how our cities are managed.”
Douglas Mulholland is a natural story-teller and so his Jane’s Walk featured discussion about the people and places that have shaped Waterloo as we know it today. His walk toured Waterloo Park, the Perimeter Institute, and the University of Waterloo, among other things.
“There are so many stories to be told,” said Mulholland. “If I can do my part to share some of the old stories – I’ve been around town for 30-odd years or so –I know a few things that maybe some folks don’t.”
Mulholland, like virtually all of the walk leaders, is very passionate about his community.
“I would love, and this is a bit of a dream perhaps, but I would love it if I could help to inspire a little more community involvement. You can never have too much of it.”
Another walk leader, Cathy McAllister, came up with a unique take on the Jane’s Walk concept. Instead of simply leading a walk that discusses what makes a city child-friendly, McAllister is engaging her 7-year old son Ben to help her provide a child’s perspective.
“I’d love if more citizens (and particularly children) felt that they actually could contribute to what happens in their communities,” said McAllister. “I want people to come away from this walk dreaming about interesting and creative ways to make the city better for all people.”
Walk leaders Jane Mitchell and Angela Vieth are both involved in local politics – Mitchell is a Regional Councillor, and Vieth is on Waterloo City Council – and they are so passionate about the neighbourhood that they live in that they decided to join together to lead a walk showcasing the area.
Their walk around the Lakeshore Village community covers a wide variety of topics such as the trail systems, the community gardens, the small businesses, the impact of the new LRT system, the historical significance of the area and how all these things shape the community in which they live.
“We’re basically celebrating the suburbs because the suburbs seem to get a bad rap,” said Mitchell.
“I think [Jane’s Walk] is a great example of community. It’s pulling people together, having a conversation, getting some exercise, and learning from each other,” said Vieth. “When people show up at your walk, you don’t expect it and you have no idea, but they have lots of information to share. So there it is again: community building.”
While many of the walk leaders are in fact city or regional officials, a good number are simply people who want to share something unique about their neighborhood. “I think it’s an interesting way to engage the public and build sense-of-place,” said Cathy McAllister, on her thoughts behind the Jane’s Walk movement. “I particularly like the bottom-up aspect of it, and that anyone with a good idea can create a walk.”