Jane’s Walk: Stimulating Imagination and Creativity

“Walk and Be Moved.”

That’s the title of a paper recently published by Brian Knudsen and Terry Nichols Clark in the Urban Affairs Review. Subtitled “How Walking Builds Social Movements,” the study examined more than 30,000 zip codes across the United States.

While articles about the study in the Atlantic Cities by Richard Florida and Grist by Susie Cagle have emphasized the link between walking and social movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square, I think the most interesting aspect of Knudsen and Clark’s work is the interface between the physical infrastructure of cities and the people who imbue those spaces with significance.

The study analyzes the correlation between social movement organizations like Occupy Wall Street and urban attributes like density, mixed-use neighborhoods, walkability, and short city blocks (which encourage interpersonal connections), while controlling for other factors.

The study presents evidence that it is not just density, or the crowding together of people in urban areas that encourages political and social activism, but direct engagement with the city through walking. As Knudsen told Richard Florida, walking “activates imagination and creativity” and “it empowers people to act through creating trust and familiarity.” And he added: “It does both in part through enabling social interactions.”

Et voilà, the concept behind Jane’s Walk… in Chicago and elsewhere.  In Chicago, activating “imagination and creativity”, and “creating trust and familiarity” through “social interactions” can lead to:

  •  Being more 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.
  •  A “sidewalk swap,” as Theaster Gates 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.
  •  Experiencing “a sense of awe,” as Bonnie McDonald, the president of Landmarks Illinois puts it, in walking into an old movie palace.  These significant cultural icons were, and remain, necessary components of a vital, civilized city.
Terry Nichols Clark

Terry Nichols Clark

Terry Nichols Clark (a sociology professor at the University of Chicago) has written elsewhere about the importance of “scenes,” how demographic variables affect the evolution of neighborhoods where people want to live, work, and relax.  Jane’s WalkCHICAGO exists to explore how ethnicity, family type, political or religious orientation – among many other factors – can “activate imagination and creativity.”  Come join us on May 3 and 4, for the second Chicago version of Jane’s Walk!

3 thoughts on “Jane’s Walk: Stimulating Imagination and Creativity

  1. This is your best post ever!

    I know that direct engagement with the cityscape energizes me and provides an attachment to my community. Seems like it works that way for others too.

    There’s nothing more depressing and enervating than seeing a plan for a new development in Chicago that has big long walls along the sidewalk. Nothing to look at, no way to look inside to see what’s going on, impossible to engage and interact.

    Thanks for this post.

  2. It’s interesting to think about how being a pedestrian helps you get connected with a community that’s not your neighborhood. I have done a far less healthy thing by finding the best local food treats in a neighborhood and stopping whenever I come through. It gives me the chance to engage with people too (like the lasagna on Taylor street, the Polish grocery store near Midway airport, and the many pho places near Argyle and Broadway). Walking is cheaper and less fattening. I intend to choose it over treats as soon as it warms up just a little!

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