29.04.15 - Q&A: Daniels Faculty alumna Denise Pinto, Global Director of Jane’s Walk

Since graduating from the Master of Landscape Architecture program in 2011 with a specialization in Knowledge Media Design, Denise Pinto has piloted an impressive multi-disciplinary career, incorporating civic engagement into a diverse range of fields. These days, Pinto is applying the work she does locally — which includes advocating for safe, accessible, and stimulating pedestrian environments and encouraging people to explore their city on foot — to a global scale. As Global Director of Jane’s Walk, an annual international festival of citizen-led walking tours, she has been convening conversations within communities in cities around the world.

Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Studies student Josie Harrison (HBA 2017) met with Pinto in advance of this year’s Jane’s Walks (taking place May 1-3) to learn more about walking tours as a form of civic engagement, Jane Jacobs’ influence in the online virtual world in Second Life, and how her Master of Landscape Architecture degree helped prepare her for the work she does today.

Can you describe Jane’s Walk?
Jane’s Walk is a global project of citizen-led walking tours inspired by writer and activist, Jane Jacobs. On the first weekend of May, we host an annual festival which takes place in over 100 cities. Last year, in Toronto alone, over 150 walking tours were held over the course of three days!
The project isn’t an expert-led initiative — we encourage people of all ages and abilities to explore and discuss the places they live, work and play. Everybody has a perspective or experience that can offer real insight into making better, more inclusive cities. The walks are an incredible platform for civic dialogue because people don’t feel intimidated to attend and participate like they might at a town hall meeting. Walkers are encouraged to explore neighbourhoods in a way that means something to them, and in some cases that even creates an appetite for grassroots action.

What are your responsibilities as Global Director?
As the Global Director, my responsibilities are to think about the project’s broad impacts. For example, we’ve grown Jane’s Walk to include in-class education for high school students, workshops in priority neighbourhoods, and facilitated conversations between organizers across different continents. I manage our staff, and help build partnerships in Toronto, across Canada, and in the United States. My goal is to bring together the constellation of people who are part of the project and engage them in a discussion about what civic dialogue looks like in different places, and what the walks can teach us about shaping good cities.

A Jane's Walk weaves along Spadina to explore women's labour in the city. Walk led by Tanya Ferguson / Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts, 2014. Photo by Moe Laverty

Your past work experience has involved a diverse range of projects that incorporate various forms of civic engagement. What inspired your interest in this area?
I started with an interest in human-centered design research, and that interest has stayed with me. HCD focuses on human interactions, persuasions, and habits. It understands messy systems and contradictions and incentives. Urban landscapes are some of the most complex and messy systems, so making them legible and understandable at the community scale is vital. Figuring out how and why people engage with, invest in, and steward public spaces is an intensely interesting question.

How did your experience at the Daniels Faculty prepare you for the work that you do today?
One of our goals is to increase "urban literacy." Urban literacy is about understanding that the city is a made thing, it can be reworked and appropriated. My background in Landscape Architecture gave me a set of methods and technical skills to design and critique public spaces which is essential to the advocacy part of my job. I also think that toggling between a great many scales, from a human interaction right up to regional and watershed issues, requires a mental flexibility that is sorely needed to take on today’s civic challenges.

Although you haven’t pursued a traditional career as a landscape architect, you have remained well connected to the field as a regular contributor to Ground, the magazine of the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects. How do you see your relationship to the field and your future within it?
What landscape architecture was when it first became a professional body is very different from where we are now. I see myself as occupying an “edge space” that explores where the profession is going, what it intersects with, and how to make sense of the overlaps. We have just started to think about how an age of pervasive data affects our relationship with urban places. That brings up all sorts of questions about how our experience with urban landscapes is mediated, amplified or enabled by our devices. Jane’s Walk deals with stewarding a global face-to-face movement through a website, so it looks to technology as an ally. Landscape architects are uniquely positioned to think about the world in terms of these kinds of spatial and social relationships.

That reminds me, I noticed that there’s going to be a digital Jane’s Walk this year.
It’s true! Vanessa Blaylock, an artist with a virtual-reality-based practice and an interest in walking, has signed on to organize a ‘walk’ in Second Life. Inspired by Jane Jacobs, she and her colleagues see the critique of car-centric culture paralleled in this massive virtual world, which has taken on a culture of its own. In Second Life, users are able to fly and teleport as a method of travel. Flying and teleporting, Baylock noticed, is the equivalent of driving — it’s detrimental to the community and social fabric in Second Life. They were moved by the idea that if we seal ourselves off from the world and the city’s streets (as we often do when driving), then we can’t observe, relate to, and engage deeply with the wonderful diversity of things around us. She and others launched a project called Pedestrian Access, which includes “no-fly, no-teleport” zones. In these zones, Second Life users have to walk around so that they will come across and interact with the stuff they would miss if they were simply going from point A to point B through flight or teleportation.

I’m excited that this walk will be happening. It’s a novel context. It is the kind of mental flexing that I think we should encourage — a cross-pollination between two concepts that are not obviously similar. What can we learn from melding ideas like this?

Walkers ascend the staircase to Mabelle Park in Etobicoke to talk about "idea gardening." Walk led by Leah Houston / MabelleArts, 2013. Photo by Jeremy Kai.

When I was doing the research for this interview, I thought, “If I led a Walk, what would I discuss?” — and I realized that I had no idea. Do you know of any good brainstorming strategies?
This is a big, big question for us. One approach is to start using some of the existing tours given by citizen walk leaders in other places as story templates.

We also have tools that people can use to jump start the process. We take an asset-based community development approach (ABCD) to our workshops, which we host in libraries and community centres to draw in a wide audience. ABCD is about taking an inventory of all the things that are of value to a person in the places around them. We ask questions like “What spaces do you feel safe to walk around in? What’s one neighbourhood you go to often and why? What’s something that happened to you near where you live?” These prompts can become fodder for a really good tour.

The other thing you can do is to go for a walk with a friend. That’s often a really great way of sussing out topics that might come up in conversation. To capture the ideas that come up while you wander, we’re introducing an Instagram plugin so that people can walk around, take photos, tag them onto a map, and think about whether there’s a narrative arc that they can turn into a story.

The very last thing is a series of video tips for walk leaders, which you can access once you register on janeswalk.org. One of the videos discusses how to create dialogue by inviting responses and stories from people in the crowd. I went on a great walk that did this. The walk leader got to one of the stops, and said, “You know, I don’t know anything about this space,” and then passed the mic off. It was truly a conversation because everybody was able to share something.

That moment when you learn about how varied and storied the places around you are, and that you only have one slice of the experience, that’s what’s so special and wonderful. I haven’t yet found a project outside of Jane’s Walk that gets at community engagement in quite that way.

For more information on Jane’s Walk, visit janeswalk.org