Chris Sholberg, the City of Nanaimo’s heritage planner, brought along 20 souvenir pins to hand out to participants in Jane’s Walk.
He figured that would be enough – organizers expected 10-15 people, perhaps, might wish to take a stroll downtown Saturday to talk about walkability, public spaces and community planning. As it happened, more than 100 showed up.
“It’s really good to see people interested in the downtown,” said Tyler Brown, who organized Nanaimo’s first Jane’s Walk.
The event, held in nearly 250 cities around the world, is named for Jane Jacobs, an author and activist who advocated for community decision-making in city planning. The idea for a local walk came from Frank Murphy, who operates the urban planning blogs Nanaimo Commons and the Sidewalk Ballet. The city’s first Jane’s Walk, he said, was “beyond expectations.”
Saturday turned out to be a fine day for feeling hopeful about Nanaimo’s downtown. The first stop was the old A&B Sound, where Lauren Semple of Humanity in Art talked about plans for seven artists to cover the building’s exterior with murals depicting colourful characters, flowers, wildlife and other West Coast-inspired images. We continued on, challenged to talk about how to enhance public spaces and make them more accessible and inclusive. We heard about how newer buildings fit in amongst heritage buildings. We were reminded of the South Downtown Waterfront Initiative’s efforts at visioning. We heard ideas about redesigning parkland in hopes of making it more functional and friendly.
“The issues are important,” Brown said. “People want to see their downtown thrive and all the speakers that volunteered their time really spoke to the importance of a downtown for city life and what it can mean around inclusive, safe space, but also the economics of it, the history of our downtown and where it can go in the future.”
Nanaimo’s Jane’s Walk, by looking closely at bits and pieces of the city, was an interesting exercise in that it deconstructed the downtown, so to speak. We sometimes talk about the area as one entity, but as Semple pointed out, a series of what we might consider small interactions make up our impression of the downtown as a whole.
Before the walk, Brown told me he thinks that the vacant buildings and empty spaces downtown present an opportunity. That’s true, but at the same time, any city’s downtown is continually changing. Is there reason to believe a transition is coming sooner than later?
“I want to think so,” Murphy said. “There’s signs, there’s generational change … young activists, really promising signs. So if those come to fruition, there will be real change and a really different approach. The old message won’t be accepted as easily. There’ll be questions asked … I like to think there is a transition in the air for Nanaimo.”
Certain public spaces projects could help hasten downtown revitalization; others are probably dependent upon revitalization. That’s where we get into bigger-picture considerations that become hard to predict. Revitalization can come from municipal leadership on planning, zoning and capital projects, but it will also take private spending, the right economic conditions and business climate, housing and housing affordability, positive tourism trends, investment in arts and culture, social order and safe streets.
I believe it will take a few good ideas, too. And maybe going for a walk this weekend was a start.
“How do you leverage this positive energy to make really promising change? And I don’t know the answer,” Murphy said. “But that’s what’s on a person’s mind after this display – don’t let it be wasted.”