Midwest Voices

Making Kansas City more walkable

Updated: 2013-10-26T23:43:02Z

By CINDY FREWEN WUELLNER

Special to The Star

Westward Ho! I’d bet early Kansas City was thrilling.

The 1930s jazz era hummed, and art deco skyscrapers blossomed. We innovated with parks and boulevards, the Country Club Plaza and beautiful neighborhoods.

The Liberty Memorial renovation, the Power & Light District and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts shot us forward again.

Kansas City has seen wave after wave of beautiful, cutting-edge city-making and has long represented the best that America offers. Yet now the skyline is quiet. Not a crane is to be seen. The high-rise towers are converting one-by-one to residential or sit partially full. What happened?

For once, large development is eerily silent in the suburbs, too. Only Cerner continues building oases of vibrancy, with some housing projects sprinkled in. That’s about it. Our current image of construction is orange barrels on highways marked for more than ambitious transformations.

In contrast, Atlanta, long a flagship for low-density suburbs, just hit “peak sprawl.” That city now is building more walkable urbanized projects than low-density developments.

A survey by the National Association of Realtors says 60 percent of Americans, in particular Generation Ys (20- and 30-year-olds) and baby boomers, want to live in communities where they can walk to stores, restaurants, schools, parks and more. Yet less than 2 percent of new construction is designed with walkability in mind.

So why would any city, edge or otherwise, continue to build low-density, single-use developments? Cities depend on growth, and they take what walks in the door. So far, the mega-developers around Kansas City continue to mostly offer car-dependent green field developments.

Can we demand more imaginative options?

Before too long, home buyers will decide: “I am tired of driving for every errand, carting my children to school, and sitting in traffic gaining weight. I want to live healthy and sustainably, on streets filled with people, and nearby shops, restaurants, parks, offices and schools.”

Have we been doing it wrong? Walkable developments cost less in city services and use less energy and resources per capita. Plus they yield higher taxes and real estate value per acre. Yet, we stay locked in this backward-looking bubble. Does it matter what people want?

Kansas City as a whole ranks low on the list of walkable cities. That bodes badly for an aging population, a desire to attract young people and an increasing amount of poverty, in which people depend on nearby services.

The formula is simple: mix residential and shops with offices, and offices and residential with shopping districts. Build on infill sites or rebuild schools and malls to use existing infrastructure.

Make streets pleasant with sidewalks, trees, slow traffic, frequent parks, interesting architecture and places to go. Focus and orient with gathering spaces.

Look to Park Place in Leawood, Old Mission, Independence Square, Westport and the Plaza. A generation from now, do we want Kansas City dependent on others or leading the pack?

We need a new face that celebrates healthy lifestyles, reduced ecological footprint and far more community interaction. The older population, those in poverty, immigrants, and younger generations, both singles and families demand it. The future of Kansas City depends on it.

Cindy Frewen Wuellner is an architect and urban futurist. To reach her, send email to oped@kcstar.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.

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