Active Living Trails
A how-to guide for promoting health in our parks.
The community-wide collaboration known as the Healthy Community Corridor first came together in 2016, and was selected as one of fifty cities for the Healthiest Cities and Counties Challenge. Our goal was to improve the health of our community by improving access to our public parks.
Our group of community health advocates had already collaborated together to launch Walk Wyco, a text-message reminder system facilitated by resident community mobilizers to create walking clubs five parks in Wyandotte County that had existing walking trails. As part of the Challenge, we wanted to go further and actually enhance walking trails at two of those parks (Heathwood Park and Parkwood Park) with positive messaging encouraging more active use of the park and trail.
For the Challenge, we were asked to define an area that included at least 65,000 residents. When we started, we saw the upcoming installation of a new bike lane in Wyandotte County as a chance to connect our parks. The area we defined includes the approximately 86,000 people that are within walking distance to the 10th Street bike lane, and is an area considered to have some of the highest health disparities in the region.
We adopted a 'Safe-Route-To-Parks' mindset in thinking about underutilized urban parks as part of a larger, holistic network of accessible public spaces to be physically active. Some of these parks haven't seen major investment in over 30 years, partly due to having neighborhoods that have been systemically dis-invested since racial integration of schools and the subsequent 'white flight'.
Heathwood Park is along the Jersey Creek Trail.
Parkwood Park is just north of Heathwood along 10th Street.
Dotte Agency began the development of this project when we partnered with the Gehl Institute, an urban design think-tank that focuses on improving life in public spaces. They had developed a set of observation protocols that we proposed adapting to our parks to determine if people used or noticed new wayfinding and other elements that promoted active living.
At the same time, we used the Community-Initiated Park Improvements process that we helped to develop with our Parks and Recreation Department and Healthy Communities Wyandotte over the last year to submit this project for approval by our Parks and Recreation Department.
With funding from community partners - including the Gehl Institute, Historic Northeast Midtown Association, the Community Health Council, Parkwood Colony Neighborhood Association, the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, and Communities Creating Opportunity - we proposed a variety of elements that we could reasonably design, fabricate, and install within a short amount of time, between two park observation weeks, and for a limited amount of funding.
All together, the additional elements, motivational wayfinding, and new park signage makes up what we're calling our "Active Living Trails", using design to promote greater awareness and access to physical activity.
We started by scheduling park observations to take place in mid-August and mid-September of 2017. We enlisted community volunteers to do observations on a Tuesday and a Saturday, from 8-11 AM, 1-4pm, and 6-9pm, one as a baseline, and another a month later to track what changes - if any - people noticed or engaged with.
What we wanted to learn was: Do improvements that encourage physical activity have any impact?
During the baseline observations, we set up at each park large magnetic boards we had previously fabricated, and laid down 3' x 5' maps of the park with 12 magnetic buttons on them to allow all people visiting the park to engage with what they'd like to see improved where.
We received a lot of great feedback this way, and more than any quantitative data, it was the stories we heard that helped us recognize how the park is used, and how it could be improved.
A benefit of this method is that it's also extremely accessible to all ages and levels of education. We invited participants to think of it as a 'game to redesign their park', and they were generally quick to engage with the maps, stitched together from Google Earth Pro aerials (about 10-12 4k resolution images stitched together to make each map).
For example, we heard that the lack of sidewalks made people less inclined to use newly installed park playgrounds. We learned that people felt afraid in one area of the park because of frequent drug dealings.
We observed kids drinking from a spray park that used recycled water; signs did say not to drink the water, but they were faded, in small font, and not designed to be noticed by children. We noticed that there were a lot of signs, in fact, and almost all of them were negative: "Don't", "No", and "Prohibited" were common.
We found out that about 40 kids ran the park as part of the high school's cross-country practice each afternoon. We learned that the usage of the parks was far more diverse than we expected.
We learned about the history of old WPA projects that have been falling apart, including a freshwater stream that used to bring residents to the park for clean water access over a hundred years ago, but is now contaminated.
We heard that the lack of lighting lead to people feeling very unsafe in our parks.
We saw that bathrooms had their doors and stalls removed to promote more safety (better visibility), but instead lead to people feeling less valued by their city (too exposed).
We learned that at our Spray Park, senior citizens from the nearby senior housing used the space as a way to get fresh air, while at the Parkwood Shelter, older men drank beer to dodge their wives' asking them to do chores around the house.
Neighbors shared that they had done their own engagement in 2007 to develop the Parkwood Dream Plan, though little had come from it recently.
Maybe most surprising of all, we walked into a birthday party that saw over 40 people totally reshape the space, letting us see it in a new light (I also became their official photographer for the night in exchange for some amazing tacos and cervezas).
All of this came up not through observations, but through dialogue with residents as we were present, asking them to share their perspectives, and inviting them to participate in helping us better understand what they thought each park needed.
After our initial round of observations, we reached out to YouthBuild KCK to develop a relationship between them and our community partners on this project.
We discovered that YouthBuild require its students to get in a couple hundred hours of community service each year. This was helpful, because while we at Dotte Agency work out of the KU School of Architecture & Design, our students have curricular requirements that limit their capacity to drive to KCK and fabricate these elements so rapidly.
Spark Bookhart and his crew at YouthBuild KCK took on the challenge, and we worked together using SketchUp to model elements based upon previous YouthBuild Philadelphia and Cleveland examples.
What we came up with included See-Saws, Picture Frames, and Porch/Benches, all of which responded to comments we received during the participatory mapping exercises we did with park visitors.
A challenge we faced was getting our signage proposals approved by Public Works and Parks and Recreation. We learned that all city-owned property, regardless of which city department oversaw it, was technically in the public right-of-way. That meant that we needed to have a dialogue with our Public Works Department.
Initially, their response was a flat "No", however as we worked with them we modified our signage design to resolve the issues that they had. We teach this adaptive approach of design iterations to our architecture students, and its why we believe that design professions have a lot to offer in partnership with public health and community organizations.
With Parks and Rec, there was additional concern about the park elements themselves (namely the Porch/Bench and the See-Saws). We learned that liability is a tricky issue, and it's one we are still learning about.
What helped us was our friends with at the Parks and Rec department. Jeremy Rogers, Angel Obert, and Jack Webb have been both our best allies and toughest critics in navigating this process, because while what we do is innovative and upsets the "how things are always done" mindset, they see the value in having neighborhoods play a more active role in taking ownership of their parks. Without their support, none of this would have been possible.
Once we had a basic idea set, I went about designing the signage to match previous walking club graphics (and with some inspiration from the Mayo Clinic). We also hired one of our community mobilizers to translate the text into Spanish.
We ended up spending approximately $1,800 to order all 40 signs with the graphics printed, as well as the 6' tall steel U-posts on which the signs would be mounted with carriage bolts, and the picture frame signs.
As all of that was going on, one of our community partners in the HCCC, MOCSA (Metropolitan Organization for Countering Sexual Assault) reached out to us about doing a park cleanup to make the parks more safe.
This effort was based upon CPTED(crime prevention through environmental design) principles, and it aligns with our overall effort to increase safer access to and within our parks. YouthBuild joined us - as well as local neighborhood groups, residents, and the YMCA - to cleanup debris along the Jersey Creek Trail.
It also coincided nicely with the DASH KCK 5k, which saw residents run through our park system the following weekend.
Over the last week, we've been installing elements, signage, and wayfinding to promote access to and a greater awareness of the health benefits of walking.
Large 'community totems' were installed as well, coming from previous Dotte Agency student proposals with Professors Shannon Criss and Nils Gore. Graphic designer Rachel Krause contributed her skills to the graphics installed on the totem signs.
We've heard wonderful stories about the impact that promoting health in our parks can make.
We heard from concerned mothers that said they'd be more encouraged to walk the trail around the football practice field now because the signage was more friendly and encouraging.
An older gentleman that didn't want to fill out our survey, but was enjoying the park all the same, said that he was displaced from Houston by the hurricane, and wanted some time in the park to speak with his Lord.
A women using the trail for exercise told me she was encouraged by the signs pointing out what she could do to lower her risk factors for type-2 diabetes, and that she liked the sign reminder her to notice nature as it would lower her stress levels.
It was also exciting to see the YouthBuild kids themselves be empowered to change their built environment; these are spaces that they've grown up in.
When we asked one of the YouthBuilders what his impression was when looking at the old first sign visible in Parkwood Park - which has been riddled with a dozen bullet holes for years - his response was, "It doesn't feel like I should even be here".
By the end of the day, he and his friends had installed their own signs in the park, replacing the old with the new.
Another feature of the Active Living Trails was the addition of messaging on the trail itself. Professor Shannon Criss developed graphics to be painted directly on the trail.
One special moment occurred when a Hispanic grandmother, with her five grandchildren, stopped by the Spray Park to play on the Active Living Trail elements. The five kids immediately began playing on the equipment, and using the painted trail markers as a way to race each other along the trail.
Some of the concerns we had about safety and appropriateness of the elements vanished as we watched kids explore and play in the park. Their joy was evident in how they interacted with the new Active Living Trail park elements.
Perhaps the most impactful story came near the end of our observations when Valerie, a local resident, rode her bike up through the trail and was surprised to see signage that encouraged her to reduce her risk for Type-2 diabetes by being more physically active.
She shared that she recently had her A1C levels checked by her doctor, and that he had encouraged her to find a place to be more physically active.
After seeing the trail's signage, she told us that she was motivated to keep using the trail for her daily physical activity needs.
I'll end this essay with my own personal opinion on all of this. We know that there are a lot of great groups doing amazing work out there; we continue to learn and be inspired by you all and others in this area. And we are especially grateful to our volunteers and partners who shared with us their time and their talents to make this project a reality.
What I do think needs to happen more often is that we - our city, non-profit, health, and education leaders - work together to build trust within our communities. We can do that by partnering directly with the individuals and neighborhoods we intend to serve.
For these projects to be sustainable - for them to live beyond the lifespan of our relatively brief engagement - we also must address the systemic inequalities of health present within our community. At least here in Wyandotte County, those issues can sometimes feel daunting, and "moving the needle" begins to just sound like a feelgood buzzword than actual progress.
So my appeal to all of you that have read this far is this: work with the residents you intend to serve, from the very beginning and throughout the entire process.
We're still getting better at that, but building trust starts with being present, being an accessible and knowledgeable resource within the community, and doing what you say you're going to do.
If this approach is interesting to you, it's based off of the CDC and NIH's best practices for community engagement, and if you're interested in how it relates to design, then here's my shameless self promotion as a doctoral student studying this topic: A Participatory Design Model for Community Health.
Thanks for reading, and check back soon for an update on the final installations and observation analysis!
- Matt Kleinmann