In an essay published a few months before he died late last month, Jay Walljasper challenged the popular notion that everyone should maintain a single list of exotic, faraway places they must visit during their lifetime.
"While bucket lists are useful," he wrote, "even more valuable would be an inventory of familiar things all around that nourish happiness."
Walljasper, who died Dec. 22 at age 65 of kidney cancer, found no shortage of things that fed his soul during long and frequent walks and rambling bike rides near his home in Minneapolis. And he never missed an opportunity to let others know.
"He was the quiet message-maker of why Minneapolis is such a wonderful place to live," said his wife and collaborator, Julie Ristau. "He spread that message far and wide."
Best known for his 15-year stint as editor of Minneapolis-based and nationally known Utne Reader, Walljasper was a self-described writer, speaker and storyteller. In the last decades he focused on the importance of "place-making," which he sometimes described as the practice of preserving or restoring a sense of place in communities.
Such spaces, he believed, had an innate power to enrich the lives of everyone who set foot in them.
"He believed good things can happen," Ristau said. "He was not a cynical man."
The title on the business cards his son, Soren, who shared his father's love of maps and cities, made for him said it plainly: He was an optimist.
Walljasper grew up in Urbana, Ill., and graduated from the University of Iowa. He spent most of his adult life in Minneapolis. But as a public speaker, traveler and researcher, he explored the world, savoring the quiet nooks and crannies of untrammeled streets and the bustling public squares and piazzas where people gathered.
Walljasper was the director of communications and collaboration for the Social Life Project and urban-writer-in-residence at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. He served as director of strategic communications and senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces.
He wrote several essays and books. In "All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons," Walljasper espoused the importance of preserving shared resources, from water to public spaces and everything in between.
Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said in a tribute that for Walljasper, it wasn't just about physical places but also how people animate those spaces. "It was about finding what he called 'the commons,' those magic parts of cities where we all belong," Rybak wrote. "The places that we find all that we share that none of us has in isolation."
Ristau said she and Walljasper created On The Commons, an online clearinghouse for stories, articles and essays about the concept. It was inspired by everyone he met, from people he crossed paths with on his urban explorations to policymakers he interviewed. He often formed deep and long-lasting connections with those people, including Satish Kumar, a prolific writer and editor in England, and Rip Rapson, a 1990s mayoral candidate who is now president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation.
Walljasper was one of the nation's leading advocates for walkable communities and civic life, said Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center and Dayton Hudson Chair in Urban Design at the University of Minnesota's College of Design.
"He did more than any other writer I know to help us appreciate the value of neighborhoods," Fisher said, "and his impact will be felt long into the future."
In addition to his wife and son, Walljasper's survivors include his mother, Doris, and brother, Eric. Ristau said a memorial service will be held, likely this summer.
Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376