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Celebrating Cities

Celebrating Cities through an Urban Ecological lens

by Chelsea Gauthier | City Observer

Cities around the world are unique, with their own geography, identity of place and histories that impact who we are. While our professions play a large part in defining our roles in the urban ecosystem, the way in which we live our daily lives shape the chapters of a city's embodied story, history, and health passed from one generation to another. If you take a moment to step back and look past the boundaries of yourself, you'll experience the wonders of your city through interrelationships of the urban ecosystem. Journalist and urban critic Jane Jacobs, famed for her book Death and Life of Great American Cities, observed these many relationships within the ecology of cities; the interrelated social, environmental, and economic systems.

"A natural ecosystem is defined as 'composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude.' A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethical processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies." -Jane Jacobs, '93 Foreword in Modern Library Edition of Death and Life of Great American Cities

With the support of Jane Jacobs, the Center for the Living City was founded to enhance the understanding of the complexity of contemporary urban life and through it, promote increased civic engagement among people who care deeply for their communities. Jane Jacobs encouraged people to truly get to know their cities, to observe them, experience them in all their glory, and to actively be a part of the community. In the 1993 edition of Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs urges us to "...become interested in city ecology, respect its marvels, and discover more." And so, our work focuses on providing portals of community engagement in cities through the lens of urban ecology. Through this dynamic lens, there are endless avenues to walk and explore; each person, community, and environment bringing a different story layered within the city's walls. What does this path look like to you in your city?

Jane Jacobs Walk, one of our year-round programs, encourages people to celebrate and investigate the people and places that make a city great. Jane Jacobs Walk provides the encouragement and framework for anyone to get to know their cities and each other. These walks are self-organizing urban explorations led by locals worldwide throughout the year. Walks inspire people to make a difference because they enable members of a community to discover and respond to the complexities of their city and environment through personal and shared observation.


The Path of Our Cities Seen Through an Urban Ecological Lens

Jane Jacobs observed the city as an organic ecosystem, webbed with dynamic interconnections. Her words represent a larger and more integrated understanding of ecology as an alternative model for human development. If you begin to observe cities on the ground, you'll be able to recognize the fluidity of city life and the temporality within city design. By engaging in a deeper human understanding of cities, the acknowledgement of intricate interconnections can begin to catalyze comprehensive change. This recognition of complexity and connection inherent in an urban ecological approach is vital to the wide-ranging approaches of public design, policy and environmental practices, and is pertinent to the way everyone experiences our cities. As experts in your city, you have the opportunity to lead the way in the future of your community.

Each year we are taking steps to bring the insights, community connections and power of observation to a diversity of neighbourhoods in cities throughout the world. Jane Jacobs Walk becomes a great case study illustrating an urban ecological approach through on-the-ground urban explorations. Jane Jacobs Walk invites us all to become urban ecologists through explorations of our cities and neighbourhoods. Each walk is an instance to inspire creative responses to the current challenges, questions, and ideas of our time. Walks are self-organized and focus on many areas within the built and natural environment. Cultivating opportunities for people to explore their cities through an urban ecological lens will involve us in fostering more collaborative and holistic interventions within our cities.

Often led by locals or local organizations, these Walks become walking conversations on an array of topics, inviting local experts, community members, and visitors alike to join the urban exploration. Through this, participants are able to experience cities as ecosystems while learning and gaining knowledge of the way people impact cities through activities, urban design and development patterns. The following examples give a glimpse of some walks around the world.

In Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, non-profit arts organization, Big Car Collaborative, hosts Walks in their community yearly focusing on place making and creative community building. They state, "We see walking as a great way to build community and develop personal bonds, enjoy deeper conversations with each other, explore neighbourhoods and look closely at places, and think of and share ideas for making communities better and more pedestrian friendly — all while using our bodies for something we were built to do" (Big Car Collaborative 2015). In 2015, they hosted a Walk that explored opportunities presented through their project Reconnecting to our Waterways, that took participants on a journey exploring design opportunities with two nearby waterways to the community.

In India, Vidhya Mohankumar with the Urban Design Collective, hosted a series of walks around the history of neighbourhoods and their development over time. Many of their walks involved conversations of local histories with long-time residents and businesses (Mohankumar, 2013). Their Walk participants were of a wide age-group with varying professional backgrounds, which gave interesting perspectives at the end of their walks, where "participants were asked to trace back the route taken through mental map drawings" (ibid).

Walks often provide explorations into the dynamic social systems within cities. For example, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, visual artist Glenna Lang and some of her community colleagues lead Jane Jacobs Walks annually. In a recent interview, Glenna reminisced that her favourite part of the Walks were the chance encounters (Lang 2015). One of her most memorable walks with Michael Kenney, former Boston Globe reporter and freelance writer, was inspired by Central Square's sixty places of worship within one square mile. This particular walk brought together one of the largest groups of diverse individuals and highlighted the inclusive philosophy behind Jane Jacobs Walk.

Walks also can take people on an exploration of making the invisible visible. For example, in Florianópolis, Brazil, Gustavo Pires de Andrade Neto hosted a Walk that focused on rivers that became invisible because of urbanization in the city. The route for this Walk came to life with the intention of making these invisible old rivers visible again. Similar to the Brazil Walk, Brian Tonetti with the Seven Canyons Trust in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA has been leading Walks with local community members to rediscover the seven hidden creeks of the Salt Lake Valley. During these walks, participants discuss ideas, challenges, and share stories of what the area once was and what it could be.


Celebrate Your City!

2016 marks Jane Jacobs' 100 year anniversary. We are gearing up for an exciting year celebrating our cities through Jane's urban ecological lens. To see how you can be involved, visit janes100th.org.

For more information on walks, visit janejacobswalk.org and Center for the Living City, centerforthelivingcity.org. To join the 100th year Jane Jacobs' Anniversary celebrations, visit janes100th.org. #janes100th