Obituary: Jay Walljasper, urban studies authority and former Utne Reader editor, dies at 65

30December 2020

Obituary: Jay Walljasper, urban studies authority and former Utne Reader editor, dies at 65

Jay Walljasper thought that walking was more than just transportation.

Walljasper, a prolific writer and urban planning expert, believed that walking defined a good neighborhood — where people could stroll to visit friends, shop for food, and do errands. He died Dec. 22 of kidney cancer in his Minneapolis home. Walljasper was 65.

“He was a world authority on walking,” said Michael Noble, director of Fresh Energy, a climate and energy policy nonprofit. “He was a giant in the field of urban design.”

Jay Walljasper (Courtesy photo)

For 15 years, Walljasper was the editor of the alternative magazine Utne Reader. He contributed dozens of articles to magazines and newspapers on the subject of strengthening neighborhoods. Walljasper was also an Urban Writer-in-Residence at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak wrote a remembrance on the CaringBridge website:  “I’ve read scores of books and articles on cities, heard by now most of the very best urban minds … but the single person who speaks for me is Jay.

“In fact, much of what I said that mattered as mayor was deeply influenced by Jay.”

In 1984, Eric Utne hired Walljasper to edit his new magazine — the Utne Reader.

“His interests were diverse and multiple. Jay had a lot of strings in his bow,” Utne said of the University of Iowa graduate.

“Above all, he was an enthusiast. He would bubble over with enthusiasm for some old blues artist, or something about walking or great communities,” Utne said. “He loved ideas that made a difference to people.”

Fresh Energy’s Noble said Walljasper encouraged common ownership and public spaces.

“That means things like sidewalks and boulevards and trees in parkways,” Noble said. “You ought to be able to walk around. You ought to be able to walk to a bank or hardware store. Can your kids walk to school? That’s what makes a neighborhood.”

Walljasper’s books include “The Great Neighborhood Book,” “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons,” “How to Design our World for Happiness” and “America’s Walking Renaissance.”

“For Jay, words like urbanist or communitarian or social thinker sound empty. He was not an egghead,” Noble said. “Everything he wrote was understandable and practical and real-world.”

Walljasper had no symptoms until August, when his energy level dropped.

“One week he was riding his bike, walking 20k steps a day and swimming at Lake Harriet. The next week we learned he has cancer,” wrote wife Julie Ristau on CaringBridge.

He died at home, with his wife and son Soren Walljasper beside him.

“He will be sorely missed by everyone,” Ristau said, “but mainly his family.”

No funeral or memorial plans have been set on account of pandemic protocols.

“We are going to wait until we can have a gathering,” Ristau said.

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