Grownups like to reminisce about their carefree youth: walking to school, biking to their summer lifeguarding jobs, or walking to the park with their friends. And so often, those same grownups will bemoan the way the younger generations seem disconnected from family, friends, and community. So what happened in between “the good ol’ days” and now?
One big difference is the rise of streets built for automobiles, not for people. If you ask the highschoolers interning at the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, KS, they can show you examples of the way speeding traffic and neglected sidewalks divide neighbors and limit access to all the car-free independence older generations enjoyed. These students, who are enrolled in the ProX Summer program, participated in a walk audit of downtown KCK and Strawberry Hill with BikeWalkKC and UG staff this week.
“Youth are often left out of the conversation when we talk about the idea of ‘feedback.’ But the people most connected to our built environments are the people not yet disconnected by cars,” said Areiona King, Community Engagement Advisor to Mayor Garner. “That’s the kids and teens walking home from school, or the young adult walking to the bus to get to work. They can see what others may overlook and when they’re reminded that they have a voice, I believe they can envision a city in a way that has yet to be imagined.”
Students said that lots of shade trees and wide, smooth sidewalks made the most comfortable walking environment, and they noted that litter and speeding drivers made a street feel unsafe for pedestrians. One group stopped into Kinship Cafe on the corner of 6th and Anne to ask for their perspectives on safer streets.
“I would love to see more public art. We have really talented artists in KCK, and the parking garage across the street could be a perfect canvas for a mural celebrating local culture,” said owner T.J. Roberts.
As T.J. was talking with the students, a driver made a sweeping turn into Kinship’s parking lot, and then backed out suddenly. “When I took over this property, drivers used the big parking lot as a cut-through to avoid having to stop at the intersection. But we want to bring people together to build relationships, so we blocked the cut-through with a nice patio. Later this summer, we are adding more shade, plants, and eventually a mural to draw people together.”
The students will use their walk audit findings, community surveys, and their experiences with local government to develop a social impact plan at the end of their five-week internship. “Everyone loves data but when you can correlate these observations and photos to the concerns of citizens, then that audit becomes the prime evidence that some decision makers prioritize,” said Areiona King.
The youth are our future, and they are developing a vision for their communities. If this group of teens gets their way, it will be a vibrant and connected community where they can bike to their summer jobs and walk to an art-filled park with their friends, just like in the good ol’ days.