Published September 17th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Driving east along Gregory Boulevard in Kansas City, Missouri, the urban streetscape gives way to Swope Park’s rustic Rocky Point glade in the blink of an eye.
This wooded expanse off Oldham Road looks much like it has for centuries, predating European settlement to the days when Native Americans thrived here. The glade is a haven for hikers and mountain-bike riders, and also maintains the ecological balance between plants and animals.
Natural settings such as Rocky Point would become much more prominent features of city parks, under a plan Kansas City Parks and Recreation is now implementing. Along with converting hundreds of acres of grassy parkland to more of a savannah, the comprehensive sustainability plan also envisions replacing annuals flowers with native perennials in beds.
Put simply, the plan plants the seeds for long-term savings — both environmentally and economically.
The conservation benefits include creating a more natural haven for wildlife and environmentally crucial pollinators. The parks department also stands to save substantial amounts of money, thanks largely to reduced mowing and watering bills, after some upfront costs.
Prepared for the city a couple years ago by the Kansas City Native Plant Initiative (KCNPI), now known as Deep Roots KC, the plan concluded that implementation would create a “more regenerative environment – renewing, revitalizing and restoring ecosystems where people and nature thrive together.”
Parks and Recreation manages a sprawling system covering more than 12,000 acres. The department also maintains more than 100 flower beds.
But a city audit, released in April 2018, said the department needed to up its conservation game.
“The Parks and Recreation Department physically touches and interacts with the environment in ways other departments do not,” the audit said. “The department’s goals, policies, procedures, and practices should lead the effort to preserve, protect and restore our community’s natural resources.”
A lot of what the audit recommended found its way into the sustainability plan, including the idea of less mowing.
Excluding golf courses and playing fields, the department has about 2,700 acres it mows regularly.
The sustainability plan sets a goal of reducing that mowed acreage by 5%, or about 135 acres. The plan also aims to have 20% of the flower beds – perhaps as many as two dozen – converted to native plantings.
Benefits of this transition include reduced use of pesticides and fertilizers, along with decreased emissions from gas powered landscape maintenance equipment (though the department has already moved toward things like propane-powered mowers).
Parks officials said that the transition away from mowed turf will focus on hilly areas and other corners that are not used regularly by the public. Over time, sled areas could take on the appearance of ski runs, where the open space is bounded by native growth.
The math on turf transition is one illustration of how upfront costs yield long-term savings, along with the ecological benefits.
At about $2,000 per acre, seeding open spaces with native plantings is more than three times the cost of mowing the turf. But over time, the department estimates it can save about $500 per acre annually in maintaining native prairie and wildflowers versus mowing.
KCNI also estimated that the flower bed transition it recommended would save the department $9,000 a year by not having to buy annual plants. Native plants also only need watering in drought conditions.
Leading the charge for Parks and Rec is Environmental Manager Stephen Van Rhein. A veteran of the Missouri Department of Conservation, he was brought on by the department early this year to implement the sustainability plan.
He has much more ambitious goals than those set in the blueprint.
Van Rhein thinks the department could ultimately return more than 1,000 acres of mowed turf to its natural state. He’d also like all the flower beds planted with native perennials in the spring.
Van Rhein would prefer to be further along in implementing the plan, but COVID-19 has delayed some activities. Plus, he added, “Nature has a way of slowing you down.”
Public education will be a big part of the transition.
Walkers and picnickers could easily mistake swaths of native grasses and wildflowers as evidence of neglect rather than a planned conservation area. The casual park user might also not immediately appreciate milkweed over petunias, mums or marigolds.
Parks Director Terry Rynard acknowledges the potential for complaints. A decade or so ago, she said, the public reacted unfavorably when budget cuts forced the department to scale back mowing and clearing of invasive species. Even signs indicating that the approach represented best environmental practices did not help.
“They just kind of looked unkempt as opposed to intentional,” Rynard said. “We learned a big lesson with that.”
The department is facing a similarly tough budget environment now due to city-wide financial shortfalls due to the pandemic.
Rynard said the department must drive home the point that natural areas are good for the environment and save money for the city in the long run.
Hopefully, Van Rhein said, the general public can learn to appreciate something like swamp milkweed for an aroma that smells like a mix of chocolate and cloves. Likewise, he said, purple coneflowers offer the chance to watch goldfinches hop around on the flower as the birds get the seeds out of them in the fall.
“It’s definitely a new aesthetic to get used to,” Van Rhein said.
One way to avoid any misconceptions is to surround the natural areas with well maintained perimeters.
The ecological message may be a particularly hard sell in Kansas City, which has long prided itself on the expansive parks and boulevard system designed by George Kessler in the late 19th century.
But conservation is a key component of a modern park system, according to the National Recreation and Park Association. It is one of the association’s three pillars, along with health and wellness and equity. (The system is making progress on the latter pillar too.)
On the conservation front, Rynard said Kansas City is about in the middle of the pack.
Minneapolis, Atlanta and Indianapolis are probably more advanced in conservation efforts than Kansas City, as are well-known progressive cities like Seattle and Portland. In the sustainability plan, KCNPI also looked across the state line to Johnson County in highlighting the staffing it would envision for a “Reimagined Conservation Corps” for the city.
At the same time, Rynard said, there are many communities that aren’t even thinking about it yet.
“I think we have done a good job with the resources we have had. I am always of the belief we can do better. I will say the commitment is there,” she said. “We are starting to see that transition into a new Parks and Rec Department. It is just different, and that is starting to show.”
Members of the city’s conservation community are watching that transition with interest. Among those observers are Larry O’Donnell, president of the Little Blue River Watershed Coalition, and Tom Jacobs, environmental programs director for the Mid-America Regional Council.
O’Donnell said committing the sustainability plan to paper and putting it into practice is consequential. The movement toward native plantings is something he has been advocating for a couple decades, dating back to his early involvement with the Lakeside Nature Center.
“This is a good start in a big effort, and one that needed to happen,” he said.
Removal of invasive species, such as honeysuckle, is one key to success. It is a poor food source for birds and crowds out native growth, O’Donnell said.
The watershed coalition recently cleared a lot of honeysuckle off the banks of a lake in Blue River Park. That was also a good opportunity, he said, to talk with neighbors about how lawn fertilizer can run off and cause algae to grow in the lake, snuffing out the wildlife below.
To Jacobs, the parks department effort should help “imbue the community with an appreciation for our natural history and how our community relates to the natural environment.”
The department, he said, deserves kudos for leading by example.
“It is the public sector’s job to demonstrate what excellence looks like,” Jacobs said. “If we are asking businesses or residents to take certain actions, then it is our job to show folks what it can look like and why it is important, and the parks department is doing that.”
Mike Sherry is a former writer and editor for Flatland. He is now a communications consultant for nonprofits. This story expands on work he has done for Kansas City Parks and Recreation.