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Architecture program fostering a healthier Wyandotte County receives grants

Thursday, September 03, 2015

LAWRENCE — In a downtown storefront in Kansas City, Kansas, University of Kansas students mingle with local residents. Their goal: to help community members achieve greater access to healthy food and exercise.

Connecting the Dottes: Finding and Building Intersections Between Access to Healthy Food and Walkable Neighborhoods is directed by School of Architecture, Design & Planning faculty members Shannon Criss and Nils Gore, associate professors of architecture.

Through recent grants, Connecting the Dottes now has resources to start accomplishing its initial goals. The Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City (HCF) has made a $140,500 grant that includes matching funds from other institutions, and the Wyandotte Health Foundation has approved a $25,000 grant.

“Efforts to improve access to healthy eating and active living require engagement from the community,” said Jane Mosley, HCF Program Officer. “The Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas is pleased to support this program. Together, Wyandotte County is working to create a culture of health for the entire community.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 18,000 people living in Wyandotte County have poor access to food and are living in “food deserts.” And about 55 percent of Kansas City, Kansas, residents surveyed in a recent study said that they lacked access to sidewalks or trails in their neighborhood.

“In recent interviews of 25 community stakeholders regarding possible roles of the Wyandotte Health Foundation in improving the health of our community, one suggestion that surfaced was to be ‘innovative,’” said Cathy Harding, president and CEO of the health foundation. “We believe this project certainly fits that description, and we are excited about its potential impact.”

Criss is enthusiastic. “We don’t need to study the numbers to understand the problem,” she said. “If you can’t get to a market where fresh fruits and vegetables are sold, you can’t have a healthy diet. If you can walk safely in your neighborhood, you are more apt to use the parks and walk your kids to school.

“The grant is enabling us to hire a community member to help us gain a deeper understanding of this place and people living there. That is not a common way to approach this, and there are often barriers to getting the inside story.

“This relationship will allow us to better connect with residents to create new forms of data, maps and documentation of what exists, and to create ‘what if’ visualizations for new healthy community directions,” she said.

Nils Gore said Connecting the Dottes involves a number of KU programs. “What’s exciting for the school is that along with Architecture, we will be engaging the KU Work Group for Community Health and Development, the departments of Design and Urban Planning, and the KU Medical Center.

“We are trying to find easy ways to support change through small interventions we can do in our design-build studios, such as exercise benches along trails, and infrastructure for urban garden projects and farmers’ markets,” he said.

Other groups that have advised on the study so far and will be collaborating on Connecting the Dottes include the Community Health Council of Wyandotte County, Community Housing for Wyandotte County, the Latino Health for All Coalition and Healthy Communities Wyandotte.  

The Health Care Foundation of Kansas City provides leadership, advocacy and resources that eliminate barriers to quality health for the uninsured and underserved in the Greater Kansas City area: Cass, Jackson and Lafayette counties in Missouri as well Allen, Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas. HCF has awarded more than $200 million to agencies addressing health needs in the community.

The Wyandotte Health Foundation is dedicated to improving the health of Wyandotte County residents. Since its founding in 1997, it has awarded grants totaling more than $33.7 million to 84 organizations. The foundation’s main emphasis is to enhance access to primary care services for the uninsured and underinsured; it also supports health prevention, intervention and education.

The gifts count toward Far Above: The Campaign for Kansas, KU’s comprehensive fundraising campaign. Far Above seeks support to educate future leaders, advance medicine, accelerate discovery and drive economic growth to seize the opportunities of the future.

The campaign is managed by KU Endowment, the independent, nonprofit organization serving as the official fundraising and fund-management organization for KU. Founded in 1891, KU Endowment was the first foundation of its kind at a U.S. public university.

Photos: A Department of Architecture student works on a prototype of one of the benches. The grant will fund architecture student-built benches that will help make Wyandotte trails more walkable, among other things.