Tips for Developing a Walking Tour

By Jane Farrow & Leigh Thorpe, with input from Tim Groves

These tips are intended as guidelines only. Feel free to invent, create, and colour outside the lines.

Jane's Walk celebrates and investigates the walkability and potential of cities and neighbourhoods. Quite simply, they are intended as a way to get out and discover something new about a community you know or want to know better. Walks can range from formal and educational to experiential and eclectic-it all depends on who's leading the walk.

Leading a tour involves

  • choosing a topic or theme
  • planning a route
  • thinking through the stories, places, and people you want to talk about

You decide what's important. This is a prime opportunity to learn more about your community, find out its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and vulnerabilities, and use this information as a foundation for planning a better community, encouraging people to get involved and take control of their future.

You don't have to be a Jane Jacobs expert to lead a tour. Jane championed the practical and experiential expertise of local residents and pedestrians over the formal, analytical expertise of architects and planners. As a local resident, you are an expert on your area of the city. If you decide to incorporate more of Jane Jacobs ideas, you might want to bring along one of her books, read short excerpts (or ask others to do that), observe a 'sidewalk ballet', discuss what 'mixed use' means in the local context, and so on. We have a little background information about Jane Jacobs on our website but there are many more extensive resources at the library or on the web.

We encourage you to share the guiding duties with one or two friends or colleagues. A walking tour is very different from a talk or a lecture-you're using the space around you for illustrations and inspiration. Tours can include extensive historical research, but they don't need to. You could focus on contemporary insights, observation, and opinion. Some of the best walks provide a minimum of talk from the guides, and focus instead on drawing out participants to tell their stories and thoughts about the area.

People are captivated by experience and narrative. Get people to think about how the place would have smelled, sounded, or looked years ago, or what it could be like in the future. Talk about what happened in a particular corner or neighbourhood, or your vision of what it could become with people's creative input.

Jane's Walk is about connecting to the places where we live and work, to cultivate belonging and engagement-get your participants involved. Poll your participants on what they think, get them to share their stories, past or present about, say, the pubs they frequented, what clothes they wore, what music that was hip and happening at different times in the past.

As well as sharing your own perspectives, consider involving some local residents or business people along the way. Talk to a hot-dog vendor who is thoroughly familiar with the local characters, and the patterns and rhythms of the street, what Jane Jacobs called the "sidewalk ballet"). You might want to line up a local business owner, arrange to drop into a store, or even meet up "accidentally" with a local politician to get their perspectives on the neighbourhood.

Props and performances can add a novel and creative touch to a tour. Ask one of your participants to read aloud an excerpt from a local writer or a newspaper clipping from the past. Some tour guides have been known to get very theatrical, arranging to have people in costumes en route to 'animate' the site.

Length of Tour

Try to keep your tours an hour, and no more than an hour and a half.
Some people get uncomfortable standing or walking for longer periods of time, and need a place to sit. If you must go longer, plan a break inside the tour. Your walkers might also want to do other walks, so try in the execution to keep to the time you've planned.
Breadth versus depth
Try to strike the balance between talking and moving. It is much harder to stand on pavement for two hours than to walk on it. Keep the group moving, but bear in mind that covering great distances with only a few key stopovers may make it hard to maintain attention. The most successful tours find that magical balance between walking and standing.

Longer Tours

There is an argument for having a stroll that covers more territory than stories or details. Talking as you stroll along with your group, individually or en masse, can certainly be enjoyable and personable.

Especially if you're planning a walk of over 2 km, keep in mind that you are going to have to sacrifice stationary talk time and focus on 'getting there' to some extent. People will drop off naturally if they need to take a break or get somewhere else—don't be offended.

Local versus global

When thinking through your tour, assume folks in your audience live and work in this city. If they are visitors to town that's great, but pitch the content to locals who are familiar with the urban turf, some of the politics and players. Jane's Walk is not a tourism initiative. It's a chance to learn more about our own city: neighbourhoods we don't know, or want to know better.

Choosing Points of Interest

Think about having four to eight to fifteen points of interest, depending on the distance being covered, and the depth of information and discussion you are planning. If you have multiple stories about individual sites, you should have fewer sites in total. Aim for a variety of sites that speak to a range of interests and approaches. You might want to consider some of these sorts of sites, depending on your topic and theme, of course:

  • parks, courtyards, benches, any small urban oasis
  • community hang out spots, like malls, restaurants and drinking spots
  • places outside of park settings where kids like to play
  • natural wonders (a very old tree, a pond, a rock outcropping, an interesting garden)
  • unusual marks or features on a building or street
  • local institutions (library, schools, colleges, police & fire stations)
  • unusual stores or businesses (artist's or artisan's studio, a long-time general store, bakery, cafe, etc, that helps define the neighbourhood or give it character)
  • examples of quirky or vernacular architecture
  • old buildings that have been converted to a different use
  • places that mix uses between retail, business and residential
  • architecture and buildings that interact dynamically at the street level with pedestrians

Determine a route that takes you past the sites you have chosen. Keep the distance manageable for a broad range of ages and fitness levels. You do not have to start and end at the same place, but the starting point should be an area where a small gathering will not be in the way, and preferably, where seating is available. End the tour near public transit if possible, and ideally, where people can sit down and talk more. Bars, coffee shops and patios are perfect for this.

Your own tour notes should be well-organized and easy to read. Maps are always good, and any kind of historical photographs or printed material that goes along with your points of interests.

Once your tour notes and route are complete, it is a good idea to stage a dry run with a friend or co-guide. Scope out the good places to stop, think about shade and sun, overhanging roofs are great to stand under. Remember all the walks go rain or shine.

Conducting your tour

It is important to act as a friendly host and 'border collie' for your group. (Jane's Walk Ottawa tries to identify volunteers to act as marshals to ensure that the group can find the leader, that people are safe at crosswalks, and to round up stragglers.)  Establish a friendly vibe by having people introduce themselves to each other to start off. Emphasize the need to gather in close while you're talking and not block the sidewalks for other pedestrians. Make sure they can hear you. To do that you must corral them into a space where there's as little street noise as possible and face them when you speak. Position yourself so you can be looking at them, while they look at the 'point of interest'.   Where available, you can get them to stand on stairs or a rise, and speak to them 'amphitheatre' style. You could also stand on stairs or a low wall to get a bit higher, and project over the group [however, choose something compatible with your age and agility---be safe!]. You've really got to belt it out, especially if you're on busy streets. Do not be shy---you are the host.

A washroom break is always a good idea for walks longer than an hour, so you might want to plan passing by a fast food joint or coffee shop to facilitate these functions.

Amplifiers and Megaphones

For groups bigger than twenty or so, some form of amplification can be helpful, particularly if your route will take you along noisy streets. We will have a megaphone available to lend.  Unless you have a booming voice or are walking in a quiet location, you will probably need it to be heard consistently by everyone in the group.  If you want to borrow our megaphone, please get in touch with the organizers, and we'll arrange to have it available for your walk.

If you have your own megaphone, bring it along. If you can lend a megaphone, or know where we can borrow additional megaphones or amplification, please let us know.

That's it for now, but if you have tips to add, drop us a line.