PORTLAND, Maine — On Saturday, dozens of planned walks across the state will attempt to get Mainers more invested in their communities.
The free, facilitated strolls are part of a greatly expanded set of Maine Jane’s Walk events on tap for 2023. Each walk aims to reintroduce people to their own communities, illuminating their collective pasts and letting them know they have a voice in shaping their towns’ futures.
“They’re an annual festival of walking conversations started in the memory of Jane Jacobs, who was an activist in her community,” said Tara Kelly, executive director of Maine Preservation, which organizes the walks in this state. “She was also a writer with really insightful ideas about how to engage communities with the places that they live in — and how every individual has the power to influence their built environment.”
Maine Preservation is a statewide nonprofit that advocates for local and state preservation policies.
Jacobs, who died in 2006, championed the community-based approach to city-building. Though she had no formal training in urban planning, her 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” introduced ground-breaking ideas about how cities function, evolve and ultimately fail. Many of her concepts, and criticisms of car-based cities, have since become pillars for today’s architects, planners and policymakers.
Jacobs is most famous for her long-running, partially successful, fight with New York City mega-builder and urban renewal champion Robert Moses. In the 1950s, Jacobs helped prevent a 10-lane highway being built through Soho, Little Italy, Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park.
“It is very discouraging to do our best to make the city more habitable and then to learn that the city is thinking up schemes to make it uninhabitable,” Jacobs wrote in a letter to the mayor at the time.
Jacobs won that fight, preserving what are now some of the most beloved neighborhoods in Manhattan.
The battle between Jacobs and Moses was, at its root, a fight between top-down and bottom-up urban planning. Thus, Saturday’s Jane’s Walk events are meant to be interactive and to introduce community members to the idea that they have a direct voice in the future of development in their towns.
“These are not really like typical walking tours where you’re just being led,” Kelly said. “These are volunteer-led conversations where people who are participating are really encouraged to share their own experiences and observations along the walkthroughs.”
This year, the number of Jane’s Walks in Maine has nearly doubled from 2022.
“Last year we had 21 walks in 11 communities and this year we have 39 walks in 26 communities,” Kelly said.
The walks and talks planned are as varied as Maine.
A walk in Portland will revolve around the city’s ghost signs, which are time-worn, painted signs still visible on brick walls advertising long-gone businesses. The walk will explore the history of the businesses, sign painting and the different approaches to preserving the barely visible relics.
At the other end of the state, up in The County, the Wild and Delicious Houlton walk will explore edible plants growing wild and free around the community’s streets.
Over in Parsonsfield, a tour will explore the middle 1800s history of Middle Road, which is in the center of town.
On the coast, in Stonington, participants will create a living museum on the streets as speakers stop along the route and talk about what used to be there, in the old days.
“We’ll start with the ghost of Stonington’s last sardine factory and describe the many important buildings no longer with us, as well as the histories and futures of five additional points along Main Street and Maine’s most productive fishing harbor,” reads the event’s official description.
Other Jane’s Walk attractions include cemetery tours, an exploration of urban stormwater runoff as well as excursions into the history of local department stores and theaters.
Kelly said organizing 39 walks, all over the state, on a single day is a lot of work, but it’s an effort that plays directly into her organization’s mission.
“We rely upon everyday individuals taking note and caring about what’s happening in their communities and the more people we have out there on the street, observing and becoming interested, the more that we can learn about what we need to do to help them,” she said.