Jane Jacobs outside her residence in Toronto in 1968
Jane Jacobs outside her residence in Toronto in 1968

Walking in Jane Jacobs’ shoes

  • A ‘walking conversation’ around Mumbai’s first planned suburb, Dadar, pays homage to the ideas of Jane Jacobs
  • Jane Jacobs Walks are named after the late American-Canadian journalist and urban activist who detailed her observations for a “teeming city"

Roughly a decade ago, I would end cab rides back home at a kulfi stall opposite the 10-storey building I lived in. It saved me a long U-turn under a deserted, foul-smelling flyover. There were always people at the kulfi stall—mothers and children, teenagers, and men with their bikes. They would linger for long late-night conversations, seated on makeshift benches, relishing a plate of kulfi. This was their ritual, and mine too. I would get off and dart across, finding solace in the fact that should I be faced with a thief, a drunk or a stalker, then help was just a holler away. The kulfi patrons were my eyes on the street.

Memories of the kulfi crossing and my attempts at making Mumbai safer for myself return during a recent Jane Jacobs Walk when we are asked if we know about the woman who gave us the popular catchphrase “eyes on the street". I am one of the 20 participants who have gathered at Dadar TT (short for Tram Terminus) at 8am, quite early for a Saturday morning. A young woman has brought along a yoga mat, two others hold coffees.

Jane Jacobs Walks are named after the late American-Canadian journalist and urban activist who detailed her observations for a “teeming city", stressing on the importance of the street, short blocks, mixed-use localities and diversity. In her seminal book, The Death And Life Of Great American Cities (1961), readers can discover Jacobs’ humanistic approach towards city planning. Beyond the circles of urbanists, architects and feminists, however, Jacobs is a figure we are still getting to know. And these eponymous walks are one way of doing that.

Around Jacobs’ birth anniversary, walks are held the world over to explain her ideas on neighbourhood planning. Jane’s Walks was initiated in 2007, a year after her death, by her friends at the Centre for City Ecology in Toronto, and promoted in the US by the non-profit’s sister organization, Center for the Living City.

Jacobs’ friends wondered how they could honour her memory, whether a park or a library or a street ought to be named after her. Margaret Zeidler, a co-founder of these walks and a board member of Center for the Living City, recollects in a 2014 essay titled A Toronto Story: “Finally an idea emerged: on the first weekend in May (the one closest to 4 May—her birthday) people both ordinary and extraordinary, famous and infamous, should lead walks and share with others what interests them about the city in which they live. Such a simple idea—it should have always been obvious."

Since then, there have been bicycle tours, wheelchair tours, urban agriculture tours and even a “cake walk", highlighting “the emotional relationship between people and food, desire and architecture," writes Zeidler.

The Center for the Living City expanded the annual walking festival to a year-long series of walks in different locations, calling it Jane Jacobs Walks. Both Jane’s Walks and Jane Jacobs Walks follow the same ideas—they are free, and led by volunteers.

At Dadar TT, the Jane Jacobs Walk is conducted by Alisha Sadikot, a heritage and museum professional who has led several curious explorers through Mumbai’s historic sites. While most are focused on neighbourhoods such as Byculla or Ballard Estate, Sadikot also designs tours that are more whimsical, such as a literary tour of the city through the words of Rudyard Kipling and Salman Rushdie.

Alisha Sadikot (right) leading the walk on 4 May in Dadar
Alisha Sadikot (right) leading the walk on 4 May in Dadar

This is Sadikot’s first Jane Jacobs Walk; that weekend (4 May), there were many more across the world—275 free walks were held in New York City alone. Citizen-led walks also took place in Slovenia, Bangladesh, Australia, the Philippines and Chile, among other countries.

Introducing participants to some of Jacobs’ basic tenets, Sadikot says: “This is a new lens to see the city. The more I read Jacobs, the more I feel she would like Mumbai." Sadikot has chosen Dadar, one of Mumbai’s busiest suburbs. It connects two important railway lines and is an important stop for long-distance trains and outstation buses. There is also a flower market adjacent to a wholesale fish market. Dadar is, essentially, an assault on the senses.

However, as Sadikot points out, Dadar also has the distinction of being Mumbai’s first planned suburb, under a scheme of the Bombay City Improvement Trust (BIT) at the turn of the 20th century. Ironically, it was the outcome of an emergency situation—a catastrophic plague had broken out in the 1890s in the most populated parts of the city, including the docks and the mill lands. There was a need to decongest Mumbai, and Dadar was developed as a new area, mainly for the aspiring clerical middle class.

A villa with low compound walls in Dadar
A villa with low compound walls in Dadar

Sadikot stresses on our own capacity for observation, something Jacobs did as well. We walk through Hindu Colony, just a turn away from the main road, where most lanes run east-west to let the sea breeze pass through. The street corners are busy—an outlet of the Parsi Dairy Farm, a laundry called The Best Laundry Co., an Irani café and a department store.

One of Jacobs’ hallmark theories is about the “intricate sidewalk ballet". She writes about the stretch of Hudson Street, where she lived in Manhattan, in an eloquent passage in The Death And Life Of Great American Cities. The sidewalks come alive after 8 am—the shopkeepers, school-going children, women with briefcases and women in house dresses, people hurrying to the subway—everyone is out on the streets. “We nod; we each glance quickly up and down the street, then look back at each other and smile. We have done this many a morning for more than ten years, and we both know what it means: all is well," she writes.

As a planned suburb, BIT’s planning ensured Dadar would be self-sufficient, that its corner stores could be accessed easily from the inner residential blocks.

This sidewalk ballet, something that may seem commonplace in a city like Mumbai, is not so in many American cities. Kavita Gonsalves, a PhD candidate at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, says Jacobs’ principles are embodied in the suburbs of Mumbai. “Most neighbourhoods are pretty much mixed-use—there will be businesses on the ground floor of buildings, street hawkers, grocers and an Aarey Milk counter. Everything is at a walkable distance. Except for workplaces, of course," she says.

Gonsalves was among those who held the first Jane Jacobs Walks in India in 2013. She used to volunteer with the Chennai-based Urban Design Collective, which initiated the series of walks across Chennai, Puducherry and Mumbai. “We read passages from Jacobs’ book during the walk and carried it around with us. It’s like a Bible for urban designers," she says.

On the subject of sidewalks, Gonsalves says that in many American cities, which focus on zone-wise planning, the business quarters are active during the day but dead at night. It’s the same case with residential areas at night, where everyone is at home. “The streets are not safe therefore," she says.

In Jacobs’ world, every city is only as good as its streets, and Dadar is a great example of this. Sadikot draws our attention to the early 20th century villas with low compound walls and balconies. Apart from being utterly picturesque, the layout and design allow the homes and streets to flow into each other. Residents call out to vegetable vendors with handcarts and ask pesky, photography-crazed groups like us what we are up to.

Ever seen an old-timer gaze out from a balcony on a Sunday evening? Or parents keeping an eye on their children, playing in the courtyard below? It’s a fairly ordinary scene in India, but it holds a lot of value, for these people are the eyes on the street, making it safer for everyone.

With its proximity to Lower Parel, the manic business hub of Mumbai, Dadar’s real estate is among the most expensive in the city, and it’s easy to spot new constructions everywhere. Sadikot points out the number of sites lined with blue fencing, remarking sarcastically, “It’s a shade of blue I love."

The new buildings are not villas but towers with high compound walls. The streets are barricaded, kept out of sight of these gated communities. The neighbourhood’s eyes are now CCTV cameras. If it sounds dystopian, that was also the way Jacobs saw it.

Participants recall major infrastructure projects, such as the coastal road project residents have been protesting about for three months. Jacobs too opposed city planner Robert Moses when he proposed a road through Greenwich Village in 1955, calling an end to the car-centred approach to urban planning in the city. That story has taken on overtones of David and Goliath—how one woman stopped an expressway from cutting across New York City.

Sadikot says there are those who don’t fully agree with Jacobs’ ideas, but that’s the point. These are not tours, they are “walking conversations". Chelsea Gauthier, associate director, Center for the Living City, says on email: “Jane Jacobs Walks are more than just ‘tours’ where you listen. We are all the experts of the places in which we live, and it’s important to foster the ongoing conversations about our places. This invites patrons to be a part of the movement and the broader conversations of what’s going on in their cities."

The kulfi stall itself is just down the road, a short walk from Dadar TT. Its kulfis are still as popular, and its patrons still the eyes of that CCTV-less crossing.