words and photos by Colleen Carroll
Middlebury residents have taken their neighborhood improvement to a new level by partaking in resident-led walk audits, with the aim of improving safety and walkability in the neighborhood.
Middlebury, an Akron neighborhood east of the University of Akron, has been partnering with Habitat for Humanity’s Neighborhood Network program for several years in efforts to rebuild and restore the area. The walk audits are the newest effort to support the restoration.
After receiving a $1,500 grant from America Walks, Neighborhood Network introduced the walk audits to Middlebury in March at a monthly meeting.
“At Habitat for Humanity we try to build on the quality of life framework,” says Marissa Little, coordinator of Habitat’s Neighborhood Networks Neighborhood Revitalization Program. “Our focus is the social outcomes, like a sense of community and how can we connect neighbors to get the work done.”
Marissa explains that the goals of the audits are to increase walkability in Middlebury, collect data for analysis and give residents hope.
During audits, residents take notes of public safety concerns such as hanging wires, obstructed sidewalks, potholes, high grass and leaning poles. After routes were completed and leaders had documented issues, the complaints were then collected for data and submitted to Akron’s non-emergency 311 call center.
Middlebury residents who were selected as route leaders were responsible for completing walking routes and submitting the reports.
Marissa and the residents worked together to construct and organize the walking routes. Each route contains three to five streets in Middlebury.
“We really relied on the residents as the experts,” Marissa explains. “They have a dedication and desire to want to be engaged and help their community.”
Middlebury resident Kurt Kupchella worked with Marissa to map out the walking routes and helped with the data collection and analysis.
“As a member of the neighborhood, it’s good to see some progress as neighbors work together,” Kurt says.
Donna Christy has lived in Middlebury for 37 years. Donna has invested herself in rebuilding her neighborhood. With a full book of city reports, Donna and her husband as well as neighbors dedicate their free time to mowing vacant lots and boarding up vacant buildings.
“All my sweat equity is in this house. My kids live here and my grandkids live here,” Donna says. “We have to do something.”
Dawn Berghone, another resident of Middlebury, is concerned about the area surrounding Mason Community Learning Center, which sits just across Exchange Street from the blocks where the audits are taking place.
“Most of my [311 reports] were about the school area,” says Dawn. “You worry about the kids, it’s dangerous for them.”
The 311 call center is Akron’s non-emergency service request system in which residents submit nuisance complaints to be serviced. Once the complaint is received, the report is distributed to the specific department to be scheduled for service.
Marissa explains that often residents’ frustration with the city stems from feeling ignored as the more complex services, such as vacant homes and abandoned cars, are very involved process that take much longer to be completed.
“The 311 call center averages 165,000 calls a year, generating 65,000 to 70,000 requests for service,” says John Valle, Director of Neighborhood Assistance for the City of Akron. “This week we received 2,300 calls for high grass and weeds.”
John noted that the call center is supported by few employees who are charged with responding to a large number of reports from the entire city daily.
“We are always concerned with residents’ expectations,” John says. “It is frustrating because we don’t control the end destiny of the complaints. It is up to other departments to make decisions about the services.”
John is very involved with the community and has attended Neighborhood Network meetings in the past.
“I think [the walk audits] are great,” he says. “It’s another set of eyes and ears and support for us.”
John noted that often multiple calls about similar situations in the same area can often reveal bigger problems. For example, multiple calls about broken street lights within the same vicinity can lead to discovering a cut utility line that needs repair.
Marissa and Neighborhood Network are collaborating with the call center to improve the efficiency of the 311 system as well as working with residents to learn and better understand the issue reporting process.
“We really try to focus the nuisance complaints on the quick wins,” says Marissa. “High grass and weeds are a quick win that people can see and get their hopes back.”
As of early June, 10 audit routes had been completed. Neighborhood Network planned to complete more throughout the summer.
Marissa, who also helps run the Akron2Akron walks, hopes analyzing the data collected from the audits can be used to identify specific blocks or streets that need more support — and that the audit model can be implemented as a tool in other Akron neighborhoods.
Colleen Carroll is a journalism student at Kent State University.