Kansas City has been on a roll lately when it comes to playing host to high-powered professionals and elected officials from across the country to ponder great thoughts on the future of cities, sustainability and smart growth.
By KEVIN COLLISON
The Kansas City Star
In December, a dozen U.S. mayors and a gaggle of experts came to town for the New American City conference, a two-day event that drew 550 people to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to discuss what lies ahead for cities in the 21st century.
This week, an even larger gathering, the 12th Annual New Partners for Smart Growth: Building Safe, Healthy, Equitable and Prosperous Communities, is expected to bring 1,200 people to a three-day conference regarding all things progressive when it comes to planning and development.
Its the first time the annual national event, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has been held outside the East or West Coast.
Its a big deal to bring it to the Midwest, said Dean Katerndahl, director of the Government Innovations Forum at the Mid-America Regional Council.
Its a great introduction to what smart growth is, from healthy communities to mixed-use and transit-oriented development. It will also get us up to speed with the latest strategies going on around the country.
More than 90 sessions and 400 speakers are scheduled for the event (NewPartners.org) at the Kansas City Convention Center.
It will kick off Wednesday afternoon with a pre-conference workshop on building sustainable neighborhoods that includes a look at economic development and job creation in poor communities.
A scan of the workshops on the agenda illustrates their ambitious scope and timeliness.
On a national perspective, there are sessions related to the recent Superstorm Sandy disaster. The New York City Waterfront Justice Project will examine how industrial waterfronts can become more adaptable to climate change, and there will be a session on land-use planning for coastal communities.
Midwest weather-related problems will be discussed too. Howling Winds and Ominous Skies: Disaster Resilience in the Age of Climate Change will look at droughts, tornadoes and fires. Bob Dixson, the mayor of Greensburg, the Kansas town leveled by an epic tornado in 2007, is one of the panelists.
Of particular interest to Kansas City will be sessions on how streetcars are encouraging smart growth around the U.S.; how local governments can support transit-oriented development; and reusing closed schools to benefit communities.
There will be mayors in abundance.
Mayors Sly James and Joe Reardon will be joined by the mayors of Cincinnati and Rohnert Park, Calif., for a kickoff all-conference event on The Arrival of the 21st Century American City.
Other cities whose chief executives are participating in various workshops include Flint, Mich.; Ashville, N.C.; Dubuque, Iowa; Tacoma, Wash., Little Rock, Ark.; and Fresno, Calif.
The mayor of one of my favorite places, R.T. Ryback of Minneapolis, is scheduled for the keynote speech at lunch Saturday.
Ryback will discuss smart choices that have contributed to his citys flourishing economy, including alternative transportation choices, affordable housing, better public health and safety and making it one of our nations best cities for biking.
Judy Corbett, executive director of the Local Government Commission, the Sacramento-based group organizing the conference, said one its great strengths is bringing together professionals with diverse backgrounds to discuss smart growth.
Most people at the end say this is great because they meet people with the same goal but from different professions, she said.
Kansas City was chosen for this years conference because of its location and affordability.
We know there is good stuff happening there, Corbett said.
Tours have been organized with themes that represent topics at the conference, including What 1893 Kansas City Can Tell Us About American Cities Today; the 18th and Vine Jazz District; the Kansas City Municipal Farm; a look at the Argentine neighborhood in Kansas City, Kan.; and one called Smart Growth Can Be Fun: City Market, Food Trucks, Power & Light District and Crossroads.
Not surprisingly, smart growth and sustainability are not universally accepted ideas in todays polarized political environment.
International efforts to promote sustainability, particularly a nonbinding resolution called Agenda 21 adopted by the United Nations in 1991, have been criticized as un-American by some conservative groups with links to the Tea Party.
Corbett has had experience with that criticism in California.
We did a seminar on the amount of property tax you get from a mall in the suburbs versus a downtown property, she said. Downtown properties bring in way more per acre, and the infrastructure costs are lower.
The Tea Party people in the audience came up later and said this is great. If you put smart growth out as a financial argument, it works.