Asked to name a urban hero, Samridhi Kundra says, “Can I pick Jane Jacobs? I like her idea her about everyone being involved. She seems like a cool person.” For Kundra, it’s an easy choice: she’s the School Editions Coordinator at Jane’s Walk. Since 2007, the Toronto-based organization has paid homage to the respected urbanist through annual neighbourhood walks led by local residents and experts. From May 1 to 3, Toronto will host more than 100 such walks, which provide an intimate, story-based look at the urban landscape.
Barely 22, Kundra, who moved to Toronto from Uganda four years ago for school, has been with Jane’s Walk since November of last year. Eight hours each week, she works with Toronto District School Board students at three high schools, as part of a team creating a classroom adaptation of the Jane’s Walk ethos. The purpose? Getting students to see themselves as part of the city’s larger story.
Kundra, a recent grad of the University of Toronto, holds a degree human geography and psychology. She has been active in the TEDxUTSC conference for the last three years, and has worked a research assistant examining the accessibility of Scarborough’s public transit plan.
Our interview with Kundra—about the definition of environment, adapting urbanism for the high school crowd, and the importance of basketball courts—is below.
Torontoist: How did you get involved with Jane’s Walk?
Samridhi Kundra: I had previously done an interview with the School Edition Lead [Josh Fullan] for another job, and he suggested that I apply for this job. That’s how I heard about it. He was hired at Jane’s Walk in the same capacity as me. I had never been on a walk before I joined, and I only heard about Jane’s Walk because of Josh. I’m not from Toronto—I knew who Jane Jacobs was, because of my degree, but the reason I applied [to this job] is because conversation is interesting. That sporadic, unexpected experience is interesting to me, because everyone has a story, and I like hearing that story. Jane’s Walk fosters the environment to create that story. You’re almost forced to be in a social space where you’re forced to tell your story, but there’s no judgement.
What makes a good Jane’s Walk? How do the stories and histories people are telling on these walks translate to moving through the urban geography?
There is lots of intersectionality between many factors. One of them could be age range: there are kids that go to Jane’s Walks, and there are old people, and they have really interesting stories. They’re from different time periods, and the context changes, and that’s really interesting to me. Some Jane’s Walks are smaller in number, while some are bigger. The smaller ones generate a community experience, so going for a walk with five people for two hours becomes very intimate. Depending on what you like, it has value for everyone. Personally, I learn from different points of perspective, and I think the walks are a really good way to learn different points of perspective. Reading is good, but I think the way someone tells a story is a big component of the story. How interested they are in their story can tell you a lot about the story. The other factor is just finding out things you didn’t know about the place. Within the school edition, we’ve taken student outside the classroom. I live in Scarborough [and] I’ve been to the Scarborough Bluffs, but when we go outside and look at the Bluffs and the students start talking about their experiences and stories, you can see the place from the perspective of a kid or an adult. To me, that’s fascinating.
What’s the pilot program that you’re working on with the Toronto District School Board?
We had an application process and teachers applied. Because it’s a pilot program, we chose three schools. We chose older students because it’s easier to get feedback and to see what works. We chose the schools based on a needs assessment, how much access we can give them, and how easy it is to get to certain areas. We looked at diverse locations and ages. The backgrounds are quite varied. Because the Central Tech classroom is an ESL class, nobody is from Toronto. Riverdale and RH King have a different position. We work with the teacher, and we send in a classroom animator and partner organizations who help lead the walks or help during the classes. It’s not just about the school room, it’s about how the school room connects with the outside world, which is where the partner organizations come in.
We have five classroom sessions, and the fifth one is the walk. The first one is an introduction to Jane Jacobs and Jane’s Walks. We ask students to draw a map of a walk they do regularly. We ask them what they see, what they smell, if they’re afraid of the roads, how they feel. It’s to get the conversation going. In the second session, we take them outside the school. We walk around the neighbourhoods and ask them questions about what they see. The feedback we get varies from classroom to classroom. For example, the ESL students at Central Tech often compared things to how they were in their home country, whereas in Riverdale, they knew a lot about the area, and they said things like, “Oh, I don’t like this place because they took out the basketball court.” It depends on who we’re talking to. The third session is research. They do research about each of the stops on the Jane’s Walk. These walks are environmentally themed, but the definition of that word is changing. We are the environment. During the fourth session, the partner organizations model the walks. The idea is that Jane’s Walks aren’t guided tours, and we like people to have conversations. The fifth session is the actual Jane’s Walk, which is scheduled ahead of the weekend of the walks. We encourage them to lead the walks on the weekend as well. Our definition of success isn’t just how good is the walk. It’s how much of the community is involved in the walk, and who it was promoted to, and if their parents come out.
How do you adapt the Jane’s Walk ethos to school-aged kids? Does it require adaptation?
Jane Jacobs basically had the philosophy that people were part of their cities, and they should be involved in what the city does and why the city does it. There should be space for your opinion in the city, and by default, everyone’s opinion matters. And I think it does. In terms of adapting that to a school, we’re trying to get students to understand that there are ways for them to make change, and that their opinions matter. We always have to remind them that they’re important, and that their perspective is important. We try not to structure our sessions like a traditional classroom, with teacher lecturing. We know our students don’t often have a chance to get outside the classroom in a structured format. We want to be in the background. If they need help, they ask us. Yes, the topic is environment, but we can talk about anything in the environment. It’s a way for them to learn about each other in a less invasive way. The intent is for those conversations to come naturally, and we hope it’s the students leading the walk.
What do you think the end result will be for the kids who participate in the program?
At least they’ll learn one new thing about the neighbourhood around their schools. Even if it’s just they’re friend’s story, even if it’s in a smaller capacity. They might value their own stories more, depending on how people react to them. Whatever point of perspective the students share, someone will learn from that perspective.
What’s your favourite part of this job?
The people, by far. You get to meet people with different experiences, and from different places. People just come up to you, especially on a Jane’s Walk, and just start telling you about themselves. The normal people you meet in the everyday, you meet them again in a story-like form. It’s intimate and you get to learn about people. You feel so connected when two people share a story.