Collecting Data and Stories on COVID-19’s Impacts in Communities of Color to Further Walkability Goals and Equitable Investments in the Built Environment

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With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Elevated Chicago, the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University (IHS), Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago (PHIMC), and Rudd Resources convened community-based organizations and stakeholders working on walkability initiatives across Chicago to learn more about the place-based and neighborhood impacts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice protests that spanned 2020. The project aimed to better understand emerging challenges and changing priorities, identify opportunities to amplify community voices in future walkability projects and planning processes, and inform strategies to promote long-term community walkability goals. 

This page highlights the project’s community engagement process and tools, key takeaways and lessons learned, and videos highlighting community narratives in two Elevated Chicago transit hubs. 

Laying the Groundwork for Improved Neighborhood Walkability

As part of the 2019 and 2020 Healthy Chicago Seed Grant initiative, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) and Public Health Institute of Metropolitan Chicago (PHIMC) awarded six community-based organizations funding and support to lead locally-driven activities and solutions aimed at improving walkability in communities of color and in close proximity to Elevated Chicago transit sites. The Seed Grant Program aims to build community power to address local conditions that influence health and improve the built environment so that residents can live and age well in healthy communities. Seed-funded projects are aligned with a larger collaborative effort, Elevated Chicago, to drive systems change towards greater racial equity in the built environment.

Seed grantees are leaders within their community and across the city and identified improving walkability and the community’s built environment as a priority. The grantees successfully advanced their community goals by completing community walkability assessments, developing action plans, and advancing steps to implement a built environment intervention to improve community walkability.

Walkability in a Pandemic: New Challenges, Changing Priorities, and Emerging Opportunities

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed how residents live, work, and navigate their communities and risks reversing positive gains achieved from these community-led walkability initiatives. COVID-19 fatalities and the resulting economic downturn have disproportionately impacted communities of color in Chicago. These impacts have manifested geographically in ways that have community-wide and place-based impacts that could deepen inequities in the built environment. Many mom and pop businesses are facing closure, impacting the availability of neighborhood amenities in communities that are working towards attracting investment or experiencing ongoing small business displacement. Public transit, which many essential workers rely on, has seen a significant drop in ridership and service. 

However, the pandemic has also created opportunities to leverage short term COVID-19 response to achieve longer-term community walkability goals. In 2020, City agencies and community stakeholders have rolled out strategies such as urban design solutions that help small business owners and programs such as shared streets that make additional room for pedestrians and bicyclists. 

How can community-based organizations, practitioners, and policymakers adapt and remain responsive to emerging needs during COVID-19 while making traction towards long term goals established prior to the pandemic? Elevated Chicago and project partners sought to better understand emerging community challenges and shifting priorities in order to inform future walkability and community planning processes, strategies that address existing walkability barriers, and policies that promote equitable investments in the built environment. 

Understanding and Identifying Community Needs

Elevated Chicago and project partners tapped into the expertise and knowledge of the community organizations, stakeholders, and residents collaborating on ongoing walkability projects to learn about how the neighborhood-level impacts of COVID-19 were unfolding in their communities. The project’s community engagement activities included:

  • Recorded walking tours of communities surrounding Elevated Chicago transit hubs that amplify community narratives through storytelling
  • Virtual convenings of Seed Grantees and practitioners implementing walkability initiatives to discuss how their ongoing work has been impacted by emerging community needs and changing neighborhood conditions as a result of the pandemic
  • A survey tool administered in English and Spanish to gauge walking experiences, perceptions, and priorities from residents and community members who live, work, and visit communities surrounding key Elevated Chicago transit hubs

Reframing Equitable Development through Community Narratives

Collecting narratives and stories from community members who experience the built environment firsthand can help contextualize neighborhood-level walkability barriers and opportunities for future investment. In partnership with two community members, project partners recorded on the ground walking tours surrounding Elevated Chicago’s Logan Square Blue Line ehub and Green Line South ehub. 

Logan Square is located on Chicago’s Northwest side. Starting in the 1960s, the community area became home to a large population of Chicago’s Hispanic and Latino diaspora, including many Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and South and Central American residents. Over the last decade, Logan Square has experienced an influx of new development and losses in its unsubsidized affordable housing stock. Subsequently, many long-time residents face growing displacement pressures. Since 2010, the number of Latinx residents in Logan Square has dropped by over 20%. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic risks exacerbating existing economic inequities in the broader community. 

Isabel, a longtime resident of Logan Square and parent mentor, takes us on a walking tour surrounding the Logan Square Blue Line eHub. She highlights the Emmett Street development, a first in a series of equitable Transit-Oriented developments across Chicago that aims to locate affordable housing within walking distance to public transit. Next to the Blue Line station, a plaza with new sidewalks and protected bike lanes, landscaping and upgraded lighting, and accessibility features is slated to replace a dangerous traffic circle. Isabel also reflects on the importance of a mural in the neighborhood that reflects the long-time Latinx community, highlighting the importance of incorporating culture within community arts and place-making.

Washington Park is located on Chicago’s South side and became home to many African Americans that settled in Chicago during the Great Migration between 1915 and 1945. By the middle of the 20th century, the neighborhood’s Garfield Boulevard became a thriving corridor of Black cultural institutions and businesses. In contrast to Logan Square, Washington Park has experienced the displacement of residents and local businesses in recent decades as a result of long-time disinvestment. However, the community is home to many assets, including one of Chicago’s largest parks and institutions such as the DuSable Museum of African American History.  

David, a resident of Washington Park and visual artist, takes us on a walk through Garfield Boulevard to the Green Line Garfield station and highlights recent investments in the community. The Washington Park Arts Block, a creative corridor sponsored by the University of Chicago Arts + Public Life, houses a gallery, café, business incubator, and the Green Line Arts Performance Center. Organizations such as Emerald South Collaborative and Washington Park Development Group are working to activate vacant lots through landscaping and art. David remarks how Washington Park, the namesake of the neighborhood, has been a great place to take walks during the pandemic. Throughout the tour, David highlights multiple murals in Washington Park, including one that David created that commemorates the life and legacy of Kleo Barrett.

What We Learned

Through virtual convenings and online surveys, the project’s community engagement activities with Seed Grantee partners and stakeholders revealed key neighborhood walkability challenges and priorities that emerged since the pandemic. Additionally, the engagement process also highlighted opportunities to address walkability barriers that existed before the pandemic and important considerations to incorporate in data and stories to make the case for future walkability investments. Key takeaways from this process include:

Walkability remains an important priority: The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities in communities of color in Chicago. In contrast, racial justice protests in 2020 emphasized the importance of community-led priorities that advance more equitable outcomes, such as engaging a wide range of perspectives in community planning processes, investing in the built environment in ways that meet immediate community needs, and working to address long-standing neighborhood-level inequities. Although residents are walking for different reasons during the pandemic, many continue to frequently walk, consider walkability as an important priority, and face existing walkability barriers in their communities.

Strengthening neighborhood resources: For many, the pandemic has limited the scope of community residents’ daily life to the neighborhood level. Community members report walking to neighborhood businesses, surrounding parks, or simply down the block to run essential errands, for exercise and recreation, and for mental wellness. While identifying key priorities for improved walkability in their communities, stakeholders noted the need for strengthened existing neighborhood resources, such as preventing the closure of existing businesses and community assets, and new and improved infrastructure that promotes pedestrian safety.

Reframing community context: Community stakeholders expressed that dominant narratives about their communities do not always reflect on-the-ground realities and risk overlooking existing community assets and opportunities for future walkability investments. These dominant narratives typically do not contextualize current community challenges and may overlook the contributions of people who live, work, and visit these communities. To reframe these narratives, communities have used arts in place-making efforts to highlight community identity, culture, and history in the built environment.

Community-informed projects and investments: During the pandemic, community-based organizations leading walkability initiatives have faced challenges conducting community-led processes that generate a breadth of perspectives. Events that previously engaged a wide range of stakeholders are no longer feasible. Organizations that want to engage residents virtually face challenges reaching community members who lack access to broadband. To ensure key stakeholders’ voices are heard, organizations adapted their community engagement strategies by moving some events online and when possible, safely convening community-members in-person at outdoor events. For example, organizations held online surveys, focus groups, and community meetings and continued neighborhood walkability assessments by requiring masks and social distancing.

Accessible data can make the case for walkability investments: As the pandemic has changed the conditions in which people walk, the development of data indicators should be informed by community-specific walkability challenges and priorities. Community organizations expressed the importance of data to raise awareness of walkability and equity issues, advocate for additional community investments, and track the progress of walkability goals. Community members’ reported experiences with walking illustrate that inequities indirectly related to the built environment can have a direct impact on community members’ likelihood of walking. Factors such as air quality, accessibility of public transit, and the presence of neighborhood businesses can all impact how comfortable, useful, and safe walking may be. Data indicators should take into account not only factors related to the built environment but also social and environmental factors that may impact community members’ ability to walk in their communities.

Using Community Engagement Findings and Data to Influence Walkability Investments

Data will play an important part in informing equitable investments in the built environment as Chicago and its neighborhoods recover from COVID-19. Data can help community-based groups advocate for needed resources, help public officials identify areas of need, and allow stakeholders to monitor and evaluate the success of equitable investment strategies. A key component of this project was to develop a framework that can be used to inform the development of data indicators that respond to the community needs and priorities highlighted above. 

This document summarizes data and methods practitioners and researchers have used to assess and measure neighborhood walkability. It also catalogs existing data resources available in Chicago that can be used to measure features of walkable environments and create walkability indicators. This information will be used in future phases of this project to inform an assessment of existing local data resources in Chicago and provide a framework to guide the development of data indicators to measure and track different aspects of neighborhood walkability. This resource is not exhaustive and will be updated as we learn more from practitioners and stakeholders with expertise related to walkability and the built environment. 

If you are interested in providing feedback on how the pandemic has impacted walkability needs and priorities in communities surrounding Elevated Chicago transit eHubs, take the survey in English here or take the survey in Spanish here. Survey responses will be used to strengthen walkability priorities, initiatives, and investments in communities of color and neighborhoods in close proximity to Elevated Chicago transit sites. To learn more about this project, please contact Elevated Chicago or the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University. 

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