Innovation Ecosystem

When neighbors talk to neighbors

A weekend of Jane’s Walk strolls are planned for May 5-7 in Providence, part of a larger celebration of Jane Jacobs – touting her belief in the power of building communities, not highways

Photo by Nadav Assor

A photo from the Doors Open RI website, from the belfry of the First Unitarian Church of Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/24/23
A series of Jane’s Walk events will occur the weekend of May 5-7 in Providence, with neighbors talking to neighbors about what they see and observe.
Which elected leaders – such as Mayor Smiley or Congressman David Cicilline – will participate? Is there a walk planned that includes the neighborhoods of South Providence? Is there a way to capture the dialogue that occurs during the walks and then share it with a broader audience? How important is it to get people out of their cars and actually onto the sidewalks, walking their communities?
Too many of our public gatherings are structured to be people talking at each other, with politicians controlling both the microphone and who gets to ask the questions. The worst offenders are often news reporters themselves, who try to shape the news into bite-size nuggets that are easily digestible. As a result, people tend not to read anymore, other than to skim the headlines. Imagine actually talking with your neighbors.

PROVIDENCE – There are no tickets, no reservations, and the walks will happen rain or shine. All that is required is a willingness to participate, to listen and then engage in conversation, related to a sense of place, with neighbors talking with neighbors.

That’s the strategy of serendipity that pervades the plans by the local organizers of Jane’s Walk, an international celebration of the philosophy of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who successfully battled against New York developer Robert Moses and prevented Greenwich Village in New York City from being torn down to make room for a highway.

On the website advertising the walks, the organizers ask the question: What is a walking conversation? Their answer: “In the case of Jane’s Walk, it ‘s a dialogue between neighbors on the move. It’s a time to be observant of your surroundings, consider new ideas, thoughts, and perspectives, and share your own.”

The walks include an eclectic series of strolls – from re-imagining the heart of the city on Friday morning, May 5, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., beginning on the eastern side of Michael Van Leesten Memorial Pedestrian Bridge, and ending up at Waterplace Park, to “Remember Me,” a walking adventure at St. Patrick’s Cemetery on Saturday May 6, from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., meeting up at the Douglas Street entrance.

Each of the walks will have two co-leaders. Rather than a tour, the organizers stress, where the walkers are passive participants listening to a guide, walkers who join the Jane's Walk gatherings are encouraged to engage, to be active talkers, sharing their observations. [For an up-to-last-minute list of featured walks that are part of the local Jane’s Walk strolls, visit]

ConvergenceRI spoke recently with Caroline N. Stevens, the co-founder of Open Doors RI and a local organizer of the walks taking place for Jane’s Walk in Providence. The style of the interview was one of conversation.

ConvergenceRI: I am really impressed by the local Jane’s Walk events. How did you become a fan of Jane Jacobs?
STEVENS: Because of her values.

ConvergenceRI: Years ago, when I was in college, I had a professor, Norton Juster. Do you know who he was?

ConvergenceRI: He wrote The Dot and the Line, and The Phantom Tollbooth. He was an architect by training. He had a tremendous influence on how I saw the world. He led us on all these walking tours and urged students to talk about – and write down – what they saw. He introduced me to The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.

ConvergenceRI: Rhode Island seems to be at the center of what I consider to be a continuing philosophical debate between the fans of Jane Jacobs and the fans of Robert Moses, the builders of highways.
STEVENS: I think that that is a really good way of putting it, because you can totally see that on the streets today. I am looking at Providence, wondering how we can recover from the “Robert Moses period” of how all these highways just demolished different parts of the city, and how can we come back from that.

In terms of Jane Jacobs, her values are my values – and, I think that they are the values most of leading urban planners of today. [They are asking:] What kind of city do we want to live in?

And, I became involved with Jane Jacobs with Jane’s Walk, because my interest is very much in connecting people to places, and in starting new perspectives on the city, and in connecting people to each through the city.

These walks are a great way of doing that. More importantly, I care that the idea of this program goes beyond being a celebration of Jane Jacobs to being about connecting people to one another, through the power of place, and how we can work together to make Providence a place where we really want to be.

That is, as you were saying, something that is an ongoing process. And so, [the challenge] is if we can empower people to be a part of that process.

ConvergenceRI: How did you come up with the ideas of the walks that you have chosen? The first one on Friday morning, for instance, starts off at the pedestrian bridge, and then goes to Waterplace Park.
STEVENS: I didn’t actually come up with any of the walks. I should begin by saying, Jane’s Walk is part of an international movement. There are Jane’s Walk festivals all over the world. I think that there are more than 200 such events
The way that it used to work, up until a few years ago, is that anybody who wanted to lead a walk could lead a walk. If you decided the day of, “Oh, I want to lead a walk, you could go to the website, which is no longer really functioning, and you could up load your walk.

There was no oversight or anything; It was just everybody who knows that Jane’s Walk were happening, would look up and see what are the walks that were happening that weekend, and they would just go.

We are still doing the program, even though it’s decentralized. It’s a balance between anybody can lead a walk, and a little bit more oversight.

The walks in Providence have all been proposed by the people who are leading them. I don’t actually know much more about the walks than what you can see on the website. What I have really pushed this year, and the committee has pushed for this year, is a new way of looking at the walks. Before, it was supposed to be a series of walking conversations, but more often than not, a lot of the walks had become like tours.

To me, that was not the idea of Jane Jacobs. It was not the best way to connect neighbors to one another. A better way of doing that is through actual conversations.

So, this year, we did turn down a number of walks that look more like tours, in their description, and kept the ones that looked like they had more of a possibility to be about dialogue, conversational, that could empower the various participants to share their voices and ideas, as opposed to just listening to a tour guide and whatever they think.

ConvergenceRI: That’s really smart.
STEVENS: It is hard. It is a hard switch to make, especially when so many people are used to being a passive audience.

This year, I am asking participants, don’t be a passive audience, share your own ideas, and observations, and your perspective. More than serving as a tour guide, we are asking the walk leaders to be a facilitator of dialogue. How can you empower their voices to come forward? Does that make sense?

ConvergenceRI: Yes. I don’t know how much you know about ConvergenceRI, but I launched it 10 years ago because I was dissatisfied with the way that the new media covered the news, as if there was no connection or convergence, that everything was in silos. The idea was to promote conversations between readers, in the hopes of creating an engaged community around shared content. Because a person’s story is their most valuable possession, and the more that we an share those stories with each other, that’s what makes us human, and it builds an engaged community. It sounds as if you have thought a lot about this yourself.
STEVENS: Exactly. I think that is spot on. We don’t have a lot of control over what actually ends up happening on the walks. We coach the walk leaders, saying that these are walks by neighbors for neighbors. No one walk is the same. This is truly an ongoing experiment.

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