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New City Beautiful Movement: Restoring KC’s Parks and Boulevards

Study Pushes for More Equitable Investment Citywide

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Above image credit: Local neighborhood groups are working with the Parks and Recreation Department to renovate the Troost Park. Among the renovations are upgrading the playground set and expanding the surrounding walking trail. (Mawa Iqbal | Flatland)

The 2019 Family Fun Day was coming to a close, but the kids were not ready to leave just yet. Esther Kershaw remembers them trying to buy more time on the inflatable bounce house, despite their parents telling them it was time to go.

The event included games, music, food and the giant bounce house in the shape of a Ferris Wheel as the main attraction. Kershaw said there were about 200 people at Troost Park that day.

“One lady told me she was at home when her kids came and told her, ‘momma, you got to come to the park’,” Kershaw said. “It was a beautiful occasion.”

Kershaw serves as the president of the Boston Heights/Mt. Hope Neighborhood Association. She says she couldn’t have hosted this event without the assistance of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department staff.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic may have put a hold on her plans for a 2020 Family Fun day, Kershaw’s work with the department is not over yet.

“Troost Park is a lovely park, it’s a huge park, and all it offers is three basketball courts and a playground,” Kershaw said. “I mean, I love basketball, but give (the kids) something else.”

Kershaw is not alone. She says that after speaking with other residents in the area, they have decided on upgrading the playground, expanding the walking trail and installing a gazebo for family gatherings and cookouts.

The Boston Heights/Mt. Hope Neighborhood Association has entered a partnership with KC Catalytic Urban Redevelopment Initiative for this project. They were awarded a $200,000 Public Improvements Advisory Committee grant for the next three years, and are now working with the parks department to carry this out. Kershaw said landscape architect Richard Allen is already working on the first phase of the plan. 

2019 Family Fun Day at Troost Park
(From left) Facility director at Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department Carol Green, Boston Heights/Mt. Hope Neighborhood Association President Esther Kershaw, Councilman Brandon Elington and Father Justin Matthews from St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church at the 2019 Family Fun Day in Troost Park. (Contributed | Boston Heights/Mount Hope Neighborhood Association)

“I do have parents who said they are very pleased with plans to upgrade that park,” Kershaw said. “I am very excited to have even thought of these items and to see it come to fruition.”

A tale of two cities, and parks

Troost Park near 31st Street and The Paseo is just one of about 220 parks maintained by the parks and recreation department. The 126-year-old parks and boulevard system includes 12,242 acres of parkland and one of the largest municipal parks in the U.S., Swope Park.

According to the Trust for Public Land ParkScore Index, Kansas City ranks 32 out of 100 cities on park access. TPL researchers based the index on how many city parks were within a 10-minute walk from a residential area. 

“Proximity wise, we were in good shape,” said Terry Rynard, deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department. “We started diving a little deeper. The quality of the experience was all over the charts, and some of that was due to history.”

Due to years of redlining and housing segregation, the area east of Troost Avenue has and continues to experience blight, poverty and little economic investment, reinforcing the perception of Troost as a historic racial divider.

The city has made efforts to spur economic growth on the East Side, including a one-eighth-cent sales tax that would go towards residential and industrial redevelopment, as well as a 100% property tax exemption for commercial development projects.

However, the city is still in need of a more equitable process for parks and recreation investment. Rynard said the main issue is that there is an unequal balance between new development in some areas and deferred maintenance in other areas. 

“For years, the West side of the city received more maintenance, care and improvements than the East side did,” Rynard said. “That was never really intentionally fixed.”

Terry Rynard, deputy director of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department.
Terry Rynard, deputy director of the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department. (Contributed)

In an effort to address this disparity, the parks department invited the Urban Land Institute (ULI) staff to study Kansas City’s parks and boulevard system in December 2019. A panel of ULI staff recently released a report detailing a plan for how the department can bring equity to the parks with limited resources.

“Terry reached out to our district council chair and said they were interested in creating a more formalized process for evaluating where the parks’ funds go,” said Joy Crimmins, executive director of ULI KC. “Basically how the parks were prioritized.”

Their main suggestions include updating zoning guidelines, implementing a more equitable process for development, establishing a parks conservancy fund and working with neighborhood associations on what is needed in their parks. The report also calls for changes in citywide budgeting to give the parks department more funds.

During the five-day panel assignment, ULI staff took a tour of the city’s parks and boulevards before conducting hour-long interviews with nearly 100 community members. The panel consisted of staff from outside of Kansas City, a move that Crimmins says was intentional.

“We felt that with a larger issue like this, it made more sense to bring in outside perspectives,” Crimmins said. “We wanted to know what are the best practices in other cities and how do we do that here.”

Better parks, better neighborhoods

One of those cities is Detroit, Michigan. The report highlights a redevelopment project of a golf course as a model for Kansas City to follow. 

The Rogell Golf Course had become overgrown after ceasing operations in 2012, but was later identified by the city as a potential site for stormwater infrastructure and recreation in 2018. 

The Detroit parks and recreation department developed a matrix to measure investment opportunities in the area. One metric was the level of investment within the surrounding neighborhood as a whole. 

Utilizing a “holistic” approach to redevelopment, the ULI report recommends that Ivanhoe Park do something similar. The park currently has two vacant lots in front of it, which the panel recommends should be owned by public agencies and a place-based nonprofit.

“I think there are big lessons (in Detroit) that can be applied here in Kansas City,” said Paul Angelone, a senior director at ULI headquarters. 

Angelone presides over ULI’s Advisory Services program, which put the panel together. He and the panelists agreed that community development around the parks is a great way to give resources back to the park system.

“It goes back to the mission statement developed by the parks (department),” Angelone said. “This is an opportunity for the department to leverage the parks system to provide more equitable development and address the legacies of the decision-making that has happened in the last several decades.”

That mission statement, which was developed around five years ago, focuses on three main pillars: health and wellness, conservation and equity. This was also around the time when Rynard learned of the six zip codes where the life expectancy is up 15 years lower than the highest number. 

“I was like, ‘oh my God we have to fix this!’ ” Rynard said. “We found that we could put a million dollars in a park, but if we don’t work with the community to enhance that whole circle around it, we’re not getting much bang for our buck. No one will be at the park.”

The answer lies in increasing neighborhood density and activity. And with The Kansas City Planning and Development Department updating the city’s Comprehensive Plan soon, Rynard sees her department playing a huge role in doing this.

“It’s kind of like a chicken and egg situation — you lose eyes on the park and then people start feeling not so safe, so maybe they don’t go there to walk,” Rynard said. “Then nobody’s there walking so there may be some illegal activity and then you don’t feel comfortable walking in.”

‘A seat at the table’

The University of Missouri-Kansas City Center for Neighborhoods opened in April of 2016. While it is still fairly new, the center currently works with 67 neighborhood associations across the city. 

Director Dina Newman refers to the center as a “one stop shop” for neighborhood associations seeking resources to go back to their communities and do the work that needs to be done.

“There are over 240 neighborhood organizations in Kansas City,” Newman said. “The majority don’t have a brick and mortar facility, they are meeting in church basements. So we help neighborhood leaders build their capacity.”

Newman believes it’s important for neighborhood leaders to be involved in projects from the onset. They are currently working with a community near the UMKC campus on potentially converting the site of a demolished school building into student housing.

“We firmly believe that neighborhood leaders are the experts in the room, and a lot of the time, they’re not given a seat at the table,” Newman said. “A lot of communities of concern are aware of the challenges, they’ve been told that for years, they live there. So we flip the script and ask neighborhood leaders to map out their assets.”

Making sure neighbors can capitalize on their neighborhood’s assets is important for Dianne Cleaver. 

“One of the biggest tragedies is that the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites is much larger than the income gap,” Cleaver said. “For most people, their main source of wealth is their house, and Blacks couldn’t get the houses and therefore, couldn’t get the value of the next generation.”

Cleaver serves as the president of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative. It’s goal is comprehensive neighborhood revitalization, with one of their biggest initiatives being the Vacant to Vibrant project.

“There are so many vacancies in these areas, of course, it does not… lead to neighborhood health and most often leads to blight,” Cleaver said. “If we are working on increasing the density of our neighborhoods… a park would contribute to that.”

According to Cleaver, there are 3,900 vacant houses and lots in the 10 neighborhoods UNI works with. The Vacant to Vibrant initiative consists of 45 community leaders and focuses on four action items: clearing tax sale titles, promoting affordable housing, hosting UNI partner meetings and maintaining urban farms.

They have also included a guide on their website on which crops and plants are native to the land they are farming.

“Beautification and care for the green space really contributes significantly to the health of the community, to the safety of the community,” Cleaver said. 

The Urban Neighborhood Initiative works with 10 neighborhoods in an area East of Troost, bound by Truman Road and 52nd Street, and Troost and Prospect avenues. One of those neighborhoods is the Boston Heights/Mt. Hope neighborhood. 

Kershaw has been president of the neighborhood’s association since 2008, but has lived in Boston Heights/Mt. Hope for over 35 years. She has seen her neighborhood transform greatly, thanks to an influx of families moving in.

“I feel that more families may want to use the park if there were more things to offer,” Kershaw said. “I want to see bright colors up there, you know, the reds and yellows and blues, their little eyes perking up. We need something up there for the little kids.” 

Renovated playground at Troost Park.
Renovated playground at Troost Park. (Mawa Iqbal | Flatland)

Mawa Iqbal is a summer intern at Kansas City PBS.

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