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What would Jane Jacobs do? Jane100 explores the multifaceted influences of Toronto’s great urban theorist

If you were in the habit of strolling along Bloor Street between Bathurst and Spadina back in the 1990s, you might have spotted a lone woman doing her errands. She was not tall nor especially striking, except for her heavy-rimmed glasses, her bright, blunt-cut silver hair, and (often) a somewhat tatty striped poncho. To look at her, you wouldn’t have guessed she was one of the greatest thinkers of her age, a woman of humour, piercing intelligence and a brilliant aptitude for seeing through accepted conventions. That was Jane Jacobs.

Jacobs became famous as an urban thinker in the 1950s and ‘60s while a resident of Manhattan, where she was active in campaigns like the fight against a plan to extend 5th Avenue right through the middle of Washington Square Park. Her ground-breaking book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is still required reading for anyone interested in how cities work. It says something to this city’s credit that in 1968 Jacobs came to Toronto, and remained here to champion this city’s causes (perhaps most famously, the fight to stop the Spadina Expressway) until her death in 2006.

In this year, which marks the centennial of her birth, a project has sprung up in a very Jane Jacobs-like way (evolving naturally out of an open community meeting in an old building) to honour her ongoing influence on Toronto and the world. Called Jane100, it is a year-long celebration of her life and legacy made up of contributions by many people and organizations.

Fittingly, the event embraces a diversity of activities, ranging from “Why new ideas need old buildings” panel discussion for Doors Open, to the first Canadian edition of the New Urbanism Film Festival of international short films on urban issues, and a concert at Heliconian Hall with a performance of “Liveable Cities” by Elisha Denburg, a musical study of urban growth and decay inspired by the ideas of Jane Jacobs.

"We’ve convened an online space where we can host these things, so we’re not actually running the events; we’re just engaging people in running these events, to celebrate, consider and share some of Jane’s ideas and her legacy that mean different things to different people,” says Jane100 Co-chair Yvonne Bambrick.

“She was a woman who thought about things in a different way and was going to have a say about it. She showed up and stepped up and built and activated community," Bambrick says.

She recalls her “one most meaningful encounter” some years ago when Bambrick was helping to found Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market: “Jane was invited to our very first event in July of 2004 where she participated in our ribbon-tying ceremony to close down the street to cars.”

A highlight of the Jane100 kickoff week was the 10th edition of the annual Jane’s Walk, an event founded in Toronto and now running in 200 cities around the world, which allows volunteers to lead walking tours through areas that have meaning for them. History, nature, urban infrastructure, economics or personal interest are all possible themes for a Jane’s Walk.

“With Jane’s Walk and Jane100, what we’re trying to do is put that same call to action out, ten years after her death,” says Jane’s Walk Executive Director Denise Pinto. What has given her work such staying power? “I think that it comes down to her real focus on the power of communities to do things for themselves and to look after things for their own needs,” she says.

Today, Pinto thinks Jane Jacobs would love “this total wave of young urbanists in Toronto who are mobilizing on all kinds of projects and who are using their own talents and resources and drive and ambitions… like the steering committee that has come together for Jane100,” says Pinto. She also mentions The Laneway Project (an innovative urban design and planning organization), the YIMBY Festival (for Yes In My Backyard, a festival for people involved in grassroots community projects), and the recent event called Citizen Action in the 6ix.

“In all of these cases, it’s somebody who has an idea and is empowered enough to take that idea forward,” she says. “I think Jane would have marvelled at how confidently this new wave of urbanists is moving forward with their own ideas and also co-opting some of the older legacy system that exists, like the ‘parklets’. This was a pilot project done along Church Street that took over parking spaces to create tiny areas of green space.”

Overall, Pinto says, Jane100 “is the bottom-up, grassroots way of hosting a city-wide celebration. We have an open call running for one year from her birthday [May 4] to next year on this date. We’re hoping to inspire the production of at least 100 events. It’s a moment for us to reflect and take stock, to riff on some of Jane’s lesser-known ideas.”

For Jane’s Walk in particular, “I hope it can open up some platforms for some new voices to join the conversation,” she says. “They’re gateway projects: they open a door and invite people in. We just cannot build a city that works for the diversity of people who are in Toronto if we don’t hear from all of them.”

“It gives me as a Torontonian a great deal of pride to have had someone of that nature [in this city],” says Bambrick, “someone so compelled by community and different thinking and not taking what she was being told by others as truth. She wasn’t afraid to duck in and look at things from another angle and debate and challenge. And we need more people like that.”
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