Saturday, April 14th, 2007

Review: The Kansas City Urban Society 2020 Plan

[Note: this organization appears to no longer exist. Its web site and plan are no longer available.]

Some time back I promised to take more in-depth look at 2020 blueprint plan put forward by a group called the Urban Society of Kansas City. Their purpose is to advocate for an urban future for Kansas City. I thought this sounded interesting so decided to dive in.

As it turned out, it shouldn’t have taken me so long to get around to this. The report itself is not that long and did not take long to digest. It highlights four objectives they want Kansas City to achieve by 2020:

  • Add 100,000 new housing units. This is patently unrealistic. Their entire metro area probably doesn’t have more than 10-15,000 housing starts per year, and we are only 13 years from 2020 believe it or not!
  • Around the clock transit within a 5 minute walk of everywhere. That’s an extreme density of transit, and no system in the world I’m aware of provides that level of coverage during owl service periods.
  • Add 1,000 new storefront businesses.
  • Fill 95% of the city’s vacant land, including surface lots.

Barring a miracle, this plan is unachievable by 2020. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By setting an aspirational vision of what the city should be like, they are providing a pole star to guide future development.

What I would take issue with is the goals themselves. More housing, jobs, and transit are all good things. But if you think about what achieving these goals would actually mean, you can see that what we are talking about is transforming Kansas City into something along the lines of San Francisco or an old European city. That gives me pause. Kansas City isn’t San Francisco. And it isn’t clear to me why it would want to try to be. Now I love San Francisco. It’s probably my favorite city in the US. But to try to imitate San Francisco (or Boston or whatever the model of urbanity is this group is pursuing) is really a form of insecurity.

The cities I cover in this blog here are growing up, and like anyone coming of age, they look at their more established peers and feel a bit jealous. But there is no need to imitate the older kids, so to speak. Boston and SF aren’t the only templates for urban success. Smaller Midwest metros that have an entirely different history and development pattern are never going to be able to effectively replicate that old 19th century paradigm of urbanity. So why try? It isn’t necessary. Kansas City and other places can find their own definition of success, based on what they are, not on what they aren’t. Be the best Kansas City you can be, not the best imitator of Boston. I’m a big lover of cities. But a city doesn’t have to be Boston to be a city, even a great one.

What I do agree total with is the Urban Society’s revulsion towards encroaching suburban style development in the central city. Just as given the choice between the real Boston and a place that isn’t Boston trying to act like it, people will choose a real suburb over a city trying to act like one in a heartbeat. A San Francisco style urban development approach might even be the best way to do that in some areas, such as downtown and established urban districts. But it probably can’t and shouldn’t be replicated citywide. A “third way” needs to be found.

Beyond the goals, the report lays out a four step plan to achieve the vision. These are:

  1. Adopt urban design principles, which they call the “Orange Card” (more on that later)
  2. Six near term programs to improve the city: maximize on street parking, eliminate one way streets, ban strip malls, align tax abatements with economic objectives, rebuild intersections from suburban to urban style, demand better corporate citizenship and leadership.
  3. Strengthen and connect neighborhoods and districts based on a neighborhood hierarchy of city center, town center, and neighborhood.
  4. A list of “the hard stuff”: reconnecting schools to neighborhoods, broken-windows policing and community courts, improved access to services, removing freeways, mitigating sprawl, and encouraging risk taking to broaden revitalization.

Now there’s a lot to like in these. For example, the six quick hit items are difficult to quibble with, excepting perhaps their intersection recommendations. In particular, handing out TIF money and tax abatements like candy-canes to the connected who are as interested in lining their own pockets as building the city’s future is the bane of Kansas City and all too many other places.

Only item #3 seems a bit weak. Planners love functional hierarchies, but it is tough for me to get excited about them. “Strengthen and connect neighborhoods” is also the type of feel good statement that is operationally content free.

On item #4, yup, these are hard. Kansas City was the site of a disastrous federal intervention in local schools that should illustrate just how hard much of this is.

The “Orange Card” list of recommendations for urban design, however, are the highlight. I assume this group came up with the concept. It is a list of very simple design principles that should be applied to public and private development in order to achieve urban design.

The list for public entities is:

  1. Permit curb cuts on no more than 10% of the sidewalk
  2. Keep corners clear of obstructions for pedestrians
  3. Maintain or reduce street width at intersections, do not widen. (That is, don’t add lots of special turn lanes and such to widen out a road at an intersection).
  4. Maximize on street parking
  5. Eliminate one way streets
  6. Maintain tight corner radii
  7. Require street trees
  8. Allow traffic lanes no more than 10 feet wide
  9. Maintain consistent appearance of streetscape elements.

This is a pretty good list. I’d probably quibble with a few points. For example, it isn’t necessary to eliminate one-way streets. Many of the truly urban places are replete with one way streets because of narrow street widths, for example.

The major point that should be thought about further here is the requirement for 10-foot travel lanes. This works for cars, but not heavy trucks. One thing you find missing from the Urban Society’s report in general is a discussion of the role of industry in the city. Cities were traditionally as much about being factories to the world as they were about storefront business districts. The Urban Society seems to have a post-industrial future in mind for Kansas City. I suppose that’s something one can aspire to, but it’s also something that should be explicitly laid out on the table with the pros and cons clearly understood. For example, what are the implications for lower income people? Are they simply to become a coolie-class, working in service jobs to cater to the needs of the elite knowledge workers and creative class? Now let me say that the Urban Society doesn’t say this is what they want. But when there is no mention of industrial districts in their plan, only major office, retail, and residential districts, you have to wonder if they’ve thought this all through. Again, the model seems to be San Francisco.

The list for private entities is:

  1. Build out to the sidewalk
  2. Make the building front permeable (no blank walls)
  3. Minimize curb cuts
  4. Use clear glass at sidewalk level
  5. Establish primary entrances at sidewalks, not parking lots
  6. Use durable building materials
  7. Encourage shared off street parking.

Again, this is a hard list to argue with if traditional urban style development is what you want. I think the Urban Society did a great job in general of distilling the essence of urban development down to a few simple rules. Now I’ve seen similar lists elsewhere, so perhaps they can’t take all the credit, but I like the compelling “Orange Card” presentation.

One thought provoking item is the notion of durable materials. In a world of such rapid change, does trying to create buildings for the ages really make sense any more? This isn’t so much a comment on the Urban Society report as just a general notion. We’ve all seen how older buildings can be both a blessing and a curse. When a poor structure is erected, it can be difficult and expensive to replace or redevelopment. And even the newest “Class A” space is soon obsolete because of new generation amenities. Just look at the rate of innovation in warehousing, for example. Perhaps a better approach is to find out how to build with a defined lifespan and in a way that maximizes redevelopment opportunities later. This is a notion I’ve been kicking around for many years.

So overall, what is good about the plan?

  • It sets explicit, aspirational goals. You can disagree with them, but the Urban Society has laid their cards on the table. No hidden agendas here.
  • The Orange Card is a pretty good, simple distillation of urban design principles.
  • There are plenty of example photos to illustrate exactly what they are talking about, which is nice.

What is weak? Fundamentally, I think it is that the Urban Society put forth the standard version of the conventional wisdom on urbanity and did not think through the broader implications, or put forth anything new or thought provoking. I mentioned the lack of consideration of industrial uses previously. There’s also the fact that in Kansas City, as in most metro areas, the bulk of the people now live in the suburbs, most new development is there, and what’s more, they like it there. They talk about mitigating sprawl and acknowledge it is hard, but don’t talk much about how this urban city is embedded into its overall region. For example, the bulk of the jobs are in the suburbs now too. How does a transit system built around city center nodes help with reverse commuters with highly diffuse origins and destinations?

Also, it is difficult to see the linkages between the actions they recommend taking, which seem to be primarily about achieving urban form, and the goals of increasing housing and businesses. There almost seems to be a view that if the infrastructure and form are in correct urban form, the rest will just take care of itself. I’m not so sanguine on that point. It would be useful to know, for example, why these recommendations are going to generate 100,000 new housing units.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Kansas City

2 Responses to “Review: The Kansas City Urban Society 2020 Plan”

  1. ShowMeKC says:

    I don’t see how 100,000 housing units in 20 years is that unrealistic for Kansas City. Sure we aren’t Atlanta, but we also have a lot of area to still fill up in our inner city. Eventually, cities, even Kansas City will move away from Suburbs, It doesn’t matter if people like Suburbs, it’s wrong, and it’s destroying our world, our economy and our cities, and it’s extremely wasteful. With the renaissance of urban areas, and the future climate and resource usage of future cities, we will turn from sprawl to urban areas. Right now, in the city of KCMO, in it’s inner 60 square miles (that is, it’s 1940 city limits), there are 180,000 people… However many of the buildings that existed when we had 400,000 people are still there, and those that aren’t there, are just vacant lots waiting to be built on. Just because a city isn’t a tourist destination or anything, doesn’t mean it can’t get it’s own citizens to move back into it’s inner city.

  2. thePhantom* says:

    This review was done so over two years ago. I thank you for doing so because I was unaware of this plan. I will say that I'm glad that you are in concurrence with the bulk of it's proposals, and agree that a few tweaks are especially necessary.

    There are a few points however in which you are flat out wrong.

    1. The notion of Kansas City copying the great cities of America such as your personal favorite San Francisco is actually quite amusing. Kansas City has no bay. How can we possibly copy it verbatim? Impossible. What we can do – which is actually smart planning – is to follow the traditional model — the model the beloved San Fransisco followed. Kansas City was built around the trolly – much like San Fran. It's infrastructure can accommodate the redux of similar utilizations of mass transit. I'm wondering how an urbanophile can miss the mark so gallantly on the observation the execution of the traditional model of planning – THAT is the model the Urban Society of Kansas City is following.

    You mention fraternally that the cities you cover on this blog are "growing up" and that there is no need to "copy the older" kids. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The older kids followed the traditional model of planning. These "big kids" followed the models of Europe. But you, however, know this. Nothing is more obvious that Kansas City has a distinct culture and architecture in planning. One of the best planners in American history helped foster it's unique urbanity. Have you heard of J.C. Nichols?

    It can be apparent that your "big kid" mentality has blinded the appreciation of the "growing up" of these cities that you follow. I would disable the cuteness of the situation if I were you – it's a strong unfair bias that clearly taints your competency.

    2. The critique of #3 of the four-step plan is irrelevant. Why does this step have to be overly-complex? The notion is simple and straight-forward. Name one model that is remotely effective that doesn't follow this basic premise.

    3. You mention that the Urban Society elicits a "post-industrial" model for this plan. If you haven't noticed, this country is showing signs of becoming just that. With that said, every study in the book shows that widening roads has ugly effects including, speeding (ironically police and fire departments lobby for widening roads for obvious reasons), exponential decreases in pedestrian life, traffic jams and accidents. Clearly cars outnumber the amount of industry related vehicles. To cater to this small percentage of drivers would be unfortunate. It CREATES sprawl and is part of why Kansas City is frankly so, if you will, sprawlicious!

    One-way streets in most cases should be avoided. All they do is confuse people – especially tourist (who laughingly are often times residents of KC's suburbs). There is no significant advantage of utilizing them. They were put in place in the first place to cater to the vehicle – the main source of the death to Kansas City urbanity. I'm sure you know that a change is needed.

    4. You question that since the world is rapidly changing, does building a structure to last for ages make sense anymore. The answer is Y-E-S!!! How on earth can a local government function when structure are needing to be overly-maintained. Would you build a paper airplane to use to fly? Hell no. Part of the problem of sprawl that I'm sure you're aware of is the crumbling of the suburbs. That's one of the main reasons movements such as the New Urbanism one exists.

    Jane Jacobs who I'm sure you're also aware of notes that old buildings are crucial to the success of a city. Why? Because they encourage business. Local / small businesses often cannot afford to build brand new structures. This is where old buildings are needed. As you know, a city without local business isn't a city. Also, how can you cultivate a neighborhood or district when these flimsy buildings are being erected every decade? People return to what they know.

    Needless to say, my jaw almost dropped to the floor upon digesting that very novice question. And I, in this case as a college student, am the novice!

    You do highlight some great points however. Even though I agree that 100,000 new units in KC is possible, when you don't, you do note however that overshooting could be beneficial. Anyone can agree upon that.

    You also note that The Urban Society of Kansas City does a great job of distilling the complexities of planning into entry-level sentences. I couldn't agree more.

    There are other points where your knowledge on the subject is greatly identifiable. I will say however, that perhaps the undercurrent of the aforementioned bias, the obvious ignorance of urban geography and transit, in combination with your misinformed view of traditional planning is the unfortunate snitch of this review. The waft is noticeable to those who know and love urbanity – people such as yourself.

    Honestly, if you haven't already, I would suggest a few great readings to add depth to your already vast knowledge:

    "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by. Jane Jacobs

    "Global City Blues" by. Daniel Solomon

    "Suburban Nation" by. Andres Duany
    (read THIS one if one were to be read[again, if you haven't already done so])

    As a citizen of Kansas City and an Urban Studies student, thank you for this review and don't let my objections and critiques frustrate nor obfuscate your keen observation toward what makes cities great.

    Peace & Progress,
    Kemet D. Coleman

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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