Let’s take a walk. While it could be done for exercise, most community tours entail something more purposeful. We walk in order to get a better sense of the neighborhood.
What are you looking for? You could be observing housing conditions, infrastructure needs (such as roads and bridges), the presence or absence of businesses, the types of public space (such as parks and libraries) available. Or you could be observing the people: how many people do you see at a given time of day, and where are they going? What is the traffic like? How about the noise level? Again, the common aspect here is that all of these are things you can observe with your eyes and ears.
A community tour could be helpful in bringing about a shared understanding of the situation faced by the community. Conflict mediators stress the importance of “joint fact finding” to break an impasse and achieve common understanding. In the same way, when neighbors confront the same set of facts, such as broken sidewalks and stop signs bent out of shape, it makes it easier to do something together about the problems.
Calling it a tour implies something more systematic than simply wandering around the neighborhood to see what can be discovered. For this reason, a checklist will be necessary. What sights do you want to see? What questions do you want answered? If you are doing a windshield tour (by car or bus) it works best to have a team of two in charge, one to drive and the other to guide participants as they observe and record their observations.
For a walking tour, a few guidelines might help. First of all, try to be unobtrusive. When working with a team, this would mean splitting the group up into groups of two or three. A group of five or six constitutes a crowd and could draw attention. Second, try taking part in everyday activities such as taking public transportation, buying something at a store or eating in a restaurant. Third, take notes as you go along and discuss your observations as you go along. Finally, in some cases, you may want to combine walking and driving, particularly when you need to cover a city or a large neighborhood, or when safety is a consideration. Some communities were not built for pedestrian traffic and may not be safely walkable.
Later you may want to analyze what you observed. The following questions might be helpful in doing a debriefing or analysis after the tour. “What are the community’s outstanding assets? What seem to the community’s biggest challenges? What is the most striking thing about the community? What is the most unexpected? Are you struck by the aesthetic quality the community, either positively or negatively — i.e., is it particularly beautiful or ugly?”
What might this look in practice? Latino Health For All Coalition took a windshield tour of a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas to assess the condition of seven different sites for physical activities (such as gyms, pools, and playing fields) for a neighborhood that was approximately one by one and a half miles. In preparation, the leaders did an Internet search of facilities, then used free online mapping tools to create a map with the sites on them and to establish the boundaries of the community. They printed maps and drove the community, stopping and getting out to assess the facilities at each location and using a digital voice recorder and camera to document what they discovered. This tour took about fifteen hours to complete. Afterwards the leaders developed a list of physical activity resources for the community. They asked key stakeholders, such as parents, about their experiences at the sites and how often they used them, which went into the final product.
Community tours can be undertaken with the broad goal of getting an overview of the neighborhood, or it can be more narrowly focused on a one aspect of the community, such as the environment, housing, or street conditions. Whether the scope is broad or narrow, and whether the purpose is observation or intervention, there is no substitute for just doing it. The point is to get out.
 Daniel T. Schober, “Example: A Windshield Tour to Assess Physical Activity Resources in Kansas City,” https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/assessment/assessing-community-needs-and-resources/windshield-walking-surveys/examples
Photo: Hotblack, Morguefile license.