Did Americans build cities for people or for cars? It's a question Jane Jacobs asked often. The journalist, author, and activist, known for her influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was a staunch defender of pedestrian-friendly urban planning in an era when suburban sprawl took hold of development in America. “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” she wrote.
For Jacobs, the reality of people interacting on sidewalks made for a better quality of life in connected communities. The sidewalk was more than just a slab of concrete keeping pedestrians safe from vehicular traffic: It also represented a way of life in walkable cities. Although she had no formal education in the male-dominated field of urban planning, the mother of two and then-Greenwich Village resident led, and famously won, many significant grassroots movements to protect neighborhoods from the kind of gentrification that neglected to preserve the intangible and irreplaceable social networks of its people, which could only develop organically over time with a "sidewalk" lifestyle.
Miami-Dade County as we know it today is a product of that 1950s push for low-density communities centered around malls. Anyone who gets stuck on the Palmetto Expressway during rush hour, drives two miles to grab a gallon of milk, or can’t call their neighbors by their names can attest that the 305 is more of a car town than a sidewalk town. South Florida also ranks third in the nation behind the New York and Los Angeles metro areas for pedestrian deaths: 1,508 fatalities occurred in 2016.
Naomi Lauren Ross and many others around the world want to reclaim that “sidewalk” concept. Jane’s Walk, a movement of free, citizen-led walking tours, began just a year after Jacobs' death in 2006 and remains part of her legacy toward community-based city building. Last year, more than a thousand Jane’s Walks took place in 212 cities in 36 countries on six continents.
Ross, a native South Floridian who works as community curator at the Center for Social Change, follows in Jacobs' footsteps, pursuing her personal mission to encourage civic engagement in Miami. In 2014, she founded Celebrate Diversity Miami, which envisions a united greater-Miami community where residents from all backgrounds feel accepted, connected, and valued. She’s organizing the second Miami Jane’s Walk, set to take place May 5 through 7 in various neighborhoods around town. Her effort is supported in part by funding from the Knight Foundation program Community and National Initiatives.
“We’re very sheltered,” Ross says. “We don’t even know the people who live down the street from us. Jane’s Walk is going back to the way people used to connect with each other without technology in the way.”
Jane’s Walks are organic and refreshingly informal. Anyone, even children or senior citizens, can a lead a walk. All you need is an interest in sharing some aspect of your neighborhood with others. And to participate, all you need is the willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, to see Miami fresh from someone else’s perspective.
“There’s so much potential in Jane’s Walk to get people out into their neighborhoods or other neighborhoods,” Ross explains. “They promote cross-cultural knowledge and connections. They build social capital.
“There are health benefits to walking, of course,” she adds, “and opportunities to learn new things and connect with others. We’re all Miamians, but every place is different.”
The walks encourage people to get out of the air-conditioned malls and click with strangers, turning the “sidewalk” into a place of hyperlocal backyard tourism and diplomacy. Jane's Walks are also vastly different from Wynwood’s monthly art walk, which has evolved into more of a street party. “The art walk is great,” Ross says, “but it doesn’t reveal all of Miami’s hidden gems.”
Miami Jane’s Walk areas include Little Havana, Brickell, downtown, the Miami River District, and the North Miami Arts and Design District. A South Miami walk encourages participants to bring their dogs.
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Corinna Moebius, a Little Havana resident, community leader, and cultural anthropologist, is co-author of A History of Little Havana and regularly leads private walking tours. For her Jane's Walk, she'll give special emphasis to "a-ha moments" that can happen when we experience neighborhoods on foot and hopes "to get folks thinking critically about how we think we know a neighborhood."
“We hear the stories and histories that are typically silenced or made invisible," Moebius says. "Walking in this way, in the way that Jane Jacobs walked through neighborhoods, can help us move beyond stereotypes and very limited ways of understanding people and place.”
Jane's Walk Miami
Thursday, May 5, through Sunday, May 7, at various locations and times. Admission is free. For more information, visit janeswalk.org and check Facebook for last-minute updates. Follow the hashtag #MiamiWalks.