February 23, 2024

lost behind the windshield

a two-lane road viewed through a car windshield
photo caption: a california beach highway from the view of a passenger vehicle. the view is fantastic, isn’t it? i can truly say it was much nicer in person.

In community health, circumstances are everything. We can’t improve health at a population level until we understand those circumstances. One way community health practitioners do this is with a windshield survey.

A windshield survey is a quick way to survey an area, usually a neighborhood or part of a city. Think of it as a first pass on drawing a map of services in the area. What do the homes and apartments look like? What’s the state of the local infrastructure? Where can people get help if they need it? Where are the community centers? Where do people gather? Where do they not?

The questions may vary depending on what you need to know. The goal is to help the person behind the windshield understand what life might be like for the people they observe. What’s often missing from windshield surveys is actual dialogue with people on the other side of the glass. Without care, our biased observations may harm people more than our good intentions will help.

inside the cracks

I watched a video recently by the channel Not Just Bikes. Some people blame the united states’ horrible transit options on the size of our country. If we were smaller, we could easily create a car-free splendor to rival the Netherlands or Spain. In his video, “This Tiny Island has Insane Traffic,” he proves that theory wrong with a visit to the Bahamas. His travel companion, Foreign Man in a Foreign Land (he went by “Foreign” in the video), grew up and now lives in the Bahamas. A quarter of a million people call the island of New Providence, and its capital Nassau, home. Though the island is small enough to bike across, most people drive. Traffic is terrible there!

In the video, he and his companion’s goal was to traverse as much of the country as they could without using a car. Even though Foreign lived there, he rarely walked or bussed to any of his destinations. On the street, he saw more detail in his city than he had in a long time. This is a central issue I have with windshield surveys: you miss a lot from the driver’s seat.

at first glance

My first visit to Seattle after we decided to move here was from the comfort of my computer. I used street view to find our new apartment. To my surprise, we were living less than a mile from the Space Needle. When I tried walking there I discovered a fenced-off freeway blocking my path. It wasn’t as close as I thought it was!

When we’re mapping the nearest grocery store to a community, it might appear close to us by car. A person walking there might instead discover a high wall or steep drop in their way. Their wheelchairs might not travel well on uneven sidewalks or missing curb cuts. They may have to cross a busy intersection or dangerous street. It’s easy to make assumptions about a place we barely notice. Those assumptions can have powerful and negative impacts on people who live there.

making a detour

How can we do things differently?

Remember you’re in a car (even if the car is figurative). The car can be a metaphor for a web search, a GIS map, or a quick drive through town. Keep it in mind as a component of your perspective. How else might your perspective bias you to your surroundings? It’s unlikely that everyone in the community you’re surveying has access to a car. Your experience from the car won’t let you experience what they do.

Windshields are the lens and the lens cap. Quick breeze-bys are not a substitute for an actual connection to the community. There’s only so much you can glean from a survey or even an advisory board. When we use them, we have to be careful to leave room for more perspectives. Don’t apply your assumptions onto an entire group of people. Your findings aren’t more than observations fed through one person’s biases and needs. They are not a sample.

Push for collaboration from the start. Include people from the community in every step of the process. Explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. The CDC recommends a community needs assessment to answer questions about an area. From the beginning stages, they recommend assembling a diverse team of participants. Don’t feed the same assumptions into a more complex tool and expect better results.

get out and walk

Windshield surveys can be a useful tool to build a basic understanding of the needs of a community. So many tools created under white supremacy seek to create distance between people. We have to be very careful with any tool that feeds the dynamic of “us versus them.” The only difference between us is which side of the windshield we’re on.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space