[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:
- Adopt urban design principles, which they call the “Orange Card” (more on that later)
- 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.
- Strengthen and connect neighborhoods and districts based on a neighborhood hierarchy of city center, town center, and neighborhood.
- 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:
- Permit curb cuts on no more than 10% of the sidewalk
- Keep corners clear of obstructions for pedestrians
- 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).
- Maximize on street parking
- Eliminate one way streets
- Maintain tight corner radii
- Require street trees
- Allow traffic lanes no more than 10 feet wide
- 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:
- Build out to the sidewalk
- Make the building front permeable (no blank walls)
- Minimize curb cuts
- Use clear glass at sidewalk level
- Establish primary entrances at sidewalks, not parking lots
- Use durable building materials
- 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.