Improving Walkability in Chicago Neighborhoods

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The NWAAT is now accessible on your phone

By Ruth Rosas, CLOCC Community Programs Coordinator

Equitable accessibility to pedestrian infrastructure is once again “in the news” as Illinois decides how it will spend $1.4B in federal funds for infrastructure improvements from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. CLOCC joined 50 additional advocacy groups from across Illinois in sending a letter to Governor Pritzker and Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Omer Osman, emphasizing the need to invest in projects that create a transportation system that is more equitable, sustainable, economically productive, safe, accessible, and affordable. Our hope is that some of these investments will support the types of Complete Streets projects that will make walking, rolling, and other forms of active transportation more feasible for Chicagoans, especially those in neighborhoods that have been historically overlooked in such investment decision-making.

Over the course of our twenty-year history, CLOCC has prioritized safe, active transportation infrastructure as a key strategy for supporting physical activity and promoting the health and wellness of children and families. We know that the communities in which we live and the physical environment around us can support or hinder our ability to be physically active. Additionally, we know that walking is an easy and low-cost way to be active throughout all stages of life, as well as an important way to access neighborhood amenities. To support walking as an important form of physical activity in Chicago communities where childhood obesity rates are high, CLOCC designed the Neighborhood Walkability and Accessibility Assessment Tool (NWAAT) and began the Neighborhood Walkability and Accessibility Initiative (NWAI) in neighborhoods throughout the City. The purpose of the Initiative is to increase walking as a form of physical activity for all Chicagoans through measures that address the safety and quality of the built environment and of transportation infrastructure. With the NWAAT, community members have been able to identify and address barriers to walking in their own neighborhoods.

The tool was designed to allow community members to walk together and explore the distinct parts of a Chicago city block. Residents learn the concepts of walkability, such as pedestrian right-of-way, infrastructure, safety, and design. The tool asks residents to collect data on their experience walking down a city block with 4 sections to assess: 1) each crosswalk at one intersection, 2) each side of one block, 2) review the area, 4) overall safety conditions of the block.

When the NWAI began in 2007, community groups would use one paper survey per group to discuss and collectively assess a block and its connected intersections. Each survey would take 30-45 minutes per block to complete. In 2009, we added an online data entry component. With this enhancement, communities were able to transfer their data from paper surveys to an online database and analyze their data more efficiently. In 2016, the tool was updated to include questions on accessibility, and evolved into the Neighborhood Walkability & Accessibility Assessment Tool, or NWAAT, as it is known today.

Today, we are excited to announce the latest iteration of the NWAAT. At the end of 2019, CLOCC partnered with the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) and Palenque Logan Square Neighborhood Association (Palenque LSNA), set out to create a mobile web application of the NWAAT that users can access from their own devices. Input and feedback from Palenque LSNA helped us refine the digital version of the tool. The development of this application was a necessary step to further facilitate the completion of walkability assessments by community members and allow more efficient access to the community’s own data. Groups who are advocating for infrastructure and other improvements are now able to view their data immediately and share their findings more easily. Along with updating the technology, we completed four focus groups with community groups and gathered feedback to update questions to include emerging concepts and social issues.

The technical process of developing this application was an exercise in authentic collaboration with many new and existing partners. We hosted a series of focus groups to review the questions on the walkability tool to ensure they were appropriate, relevant, ethical, and accessible. We focused on geographical differences in Chicago and invited our existing partners to give us feedback on their past experiences with using the NWAAT. We also brought in new groups and focused on issues of inclusivity of Black and brown Chicagoans, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and Chicagoans with disabilities. The conversations gave us information on how “walkability” is interpreted by people of diverse backgrounds and on what aspects of their environments made actively moving throughout their communities easy and difficult.

We partnered with CNT to craft an accessible and easy-to-use application. CNT also created a reporting tool that allows users to edit and view their results and CLOCC to see statistics and create data reports for communities and advocacy efforts. With the partnership of Palenque LSNA, we met with a group of residents who beta tested the application and gave feedback from their perspectives as users. With input from this group, the questions, interface, and reporting tool were updated to ensure ease and accessibility for all users.

Through this process, many people with diverse perspectives and experiences helped build a tool that exposes the root barriers to walkability and facilitates collection of qualitative and quantitative data. Compared to the previous iteration of the tool, individuals are now able to create an account, visualize their results on a map, answer questions, edit responses as needed, and see their results in real time using a smart phone or a tablet. This newly digitized tool and the data it provides will allow CLOCC staff to analyze data efficiently, view walkability issues on a map, and track changes over time in communities where the tool is used. Our goal was to create a walkability tool that not only provides CLOCC with data, but that puts data in the hands of community members that they can use to advocate for change in their neighborhoods and across the city.

To learn more about walkability or the Neighborhood Walkability & Accessibility Assessment Tool (NWAAT), please contact Ruth Rosas at or send a message to