LAWRENCE – The storefront Dotte Agency was established in 2015 to bring the power of architecture and design to bear on some of the problems, mainly around health, that confront underserved communities in Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.
Now the Dotte Agency has taken grant funding from the Health Forward Foundation and others and created a “walking audit” tool that is being used to facilitate communication between citizens and leaders about desired improvements to the built environment.
Shannon Criss, University of Kansas associate professor of architecture, said the walking audit tool kit grew out of conversations she and the other agency principals (fellow ArcD Professor Nils Gore and doctoral student Matt Kleinmann) had recently had with representatives of the Historic Northeast Midtown Association. HNMA is a Neighborhood Business Revitalization organization – a nonprofit entity that contracts with the city/county government to provide services to specific areas.
Dotte Agency and ArcD students have worked with the group before on other projects. HNMA obtained funding from Communities Creating Opportunities to help fund the walk audits.
“The neighborhood leaders identified their No. 1 issue as the negligence and/or lack of sidewalks, safety and streetlights,” Criss said. “They are frustrated with the city’s lack of capacity to address these needs and to engage residents.”
The connection to health is that walking is perhaps the most universal form of exercise and that barriers to it should be eliminated wherever possible.
So the participants began to think about how to help at least facilitate conversations between unified city/county government leaders and residents about the problems.
They came up with a tool kit that consists of a clipboard with maps, stickers and markers that can be used to create a standardized audit of the streetscapes in the neighborhood. Then they engaged not only adult members of the neighborhood association but also area middle school students to undertake block-by-block surveys that noted the condition of streets, sidewalks and lighting.
“This tool kit has enabled many conversations in the community to address the issues with those that live there and know their neighborhoods better than anyone else,” Criss said.
She said community members understand that city/county government may not have the money to fix every problem they document, but they hope their audits will help leaders to prioritize possible fixes.
After completing surveys in the neighborhood, Criss said, “We go back to the neighborhood association meetings and lead sessions where residents prioritize.”
“So the community says, ‘Well, this is where the School for the Blind is, and this is the most traveled space, so let's fix these sidewalks.’ We follow up and work with the city to try to help connect federal grants, such as the Safe Routes to Schools program, to support the neighborhood’s priority choices.”
The Dotte Agency leaders, she said, have contributed their expertise on identifying the potential costs of sidewalk improvements, based on city policies in place. This helps educate residents about their options as they make priority choices.
Having worked with city/county leaders on various projects in the past, Criss said, “We can serve to connect the neighborhood folks with civic leaders.” Further, she said, city planners and public works officials “appreciate it because they don't have the staffing capacity to do all this detail work.”
Ultimately, however, it is up to members of the city/county governing board to decide whether and how to improve the built environment.
Criss said the walk-audit process has been completed in five neighborhoods in northeast Kansas City, Kansas. The next step, she said, will be to bring the information to the attention of civic leaders and hope they respond appropriately.
And of course, the walk-audit procedures and tools can be replicated throughout the city, as desired.
She said some of the organizational partners, the HNMA and the Community Health Council, “have an IOBY campaign to raise funds for walk audits in other neighborhoods, and they're getting more youth involved. It just feels like it's empowering more people. They've seen this as a mechanism to get people behind this.”
Photo: Teens help complete a walking audit in the Historic Northeast-Midtown Association. Credit: Matt Kleinmann