Walking the Neighborhoods, Theaster Gates and me

I had an inspiring conversation with Theaster Gates earlier this week about organizing for the future of Jane’s Walk CHICAGO. It helped me articulate a few of my goals for this program, so I thought I’d put them out here in hopes of getting some feedback.

Encouraging Walking as a Street Activity. Walking is generally perceived in one of two ways: as an accidental activity, a means to get from one place to another; or sometimes it’s literally a walk in the park, to get fresh air, exercise, clear one’s head. There’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere lately about the value of walkability, pedestrianism and “complete streets.” This is not ordinarily a word I’d use (because I’m just not a granola kind of person) but I think I’m trying to encourage mindfulness. Being aware of your surroundings when you walk, and thinking about what the urban environment is telling you about its history, how it got to looking the way it looks today, and how it could be improved.

Enhancing Knowledge of the City at a Human Level. In Chicago, as in so many cities, one makes snap judgments about the characteristics of a neighborhood and its residents. If I say Bridgeport, Humboldt Park, Bronzeville, Back of the Yards, Boys Town, Andersonville … what comes to mind? We could organize a “sidewalk swap,” as Theaster put it, with say, 20 people from Bronzeville walking around Back of the Yards – and vice versa – and then ending up with a meal at someone’s house. It’s a more complex and time-consuming endeavor than a 90-minute Jane’s Walk in the South Loop (just one example of what we did in 2013), but wouldn’t this be the most basic form of “public engagement”?

Reimagining Density. “Density” is a loaded word for a lot of people. It’s something that people move to the suburbs to avoid; it has overtones of clogged traffic. But it’s also something that makes retail stores in neighborhoods viable (or not), and it’s key to the energy that’s so palpable on the streets of downtown Manhattan and many of the neighborhoods of Chicago. The concept of density has far greater complexity than has been generally acknowledged, although there are increasingly terrific tools available to analyze and think about it.

A great place to start is with Tactical Urbanism, one of many publications by The Street Plans Collaborative. Another is the great set of graphics in this month’s Atlantic Cities. While this is specifically about the New York metropolitan area, wouldn’t it be cool to have something like this for thinking about pedestrian patterns and neighborhoods in Chicago?