Jane’s Walk: Stimulating Imagination and Creativity

“Walk and Be Moved.”

Martha Frish Frish, March 7, 2014

“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!

This blog has been reposted from janeswalkchicago.net. Visit us for more stories and information about our Chicago event.

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