What's Keeping Kansas City Parks From Being Major Destinations? A Shameful History
After spending most of my free time in parks for a year, I visited St. Louis and saw a city that related to its parks very differently. My attempts to understand why revealed a stark truth: our parks were designed to separate people, not bring them together.
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A few weeks ago, my family took an I-70 road trip to St. Louis, our rival city or our sister city depending on how generous we're feeling as Kansas Citians — and maybe how the Royals are doing.
I was feeling generous. Spring had arrived and I was ready to get out and explore.
I'd been skeptical about visiting an urban center in our half-vaccinated state. But my husband won me over by pitching a few days in another city as a few days spent checking out parks we'd never seen.
As a household, we've been on the cautious end of the social distancing spectrum. So for us, the city has become its green spaces, and we now take "going out" quite literally. It used to mean going in: to restaurants, coffee shops, bars. Going out is different. It's not about being a consumer. It's just about being.
Swope Park's Fox Hollow trail is one of my favorite destinations. This time of year, the short muddy trail is flanked by dense foliage until about three quarters of the way through. Then there's a moment when you suddenly emerge, stepping onto a flat rock overlooking treetops and train tracks. It's magical.
I didn't expect, in St. Louis, something I wasn't getting at home. All I really wanted was a fun variation on the same idea.
We arrived in St. Louis late on a Friday afternoon and went straight to Tower Grove Park with a frisbee and a baseball.
It was packed. Twenty -and 30-somethings splayed out on blankets with snacks and bottles of wine, laughing and enjoying flirtatious banter. Small children dashed around, playfully shrieking, among ponds and flowers. Older couples enjoyed vigorous walks, stopping to rest on benches. Food trucks and pop-up bars were clearly a draw, but the hangout extended for miles.
Was this a fluke? It was not. I'm told it's like this every Friday.
We spent Sunday at Forest Park, which had a similar vibe. On a grassy hill between a museum and a pond, blankets dotted the horizon line. People just sat there, side by side with strangers, like it was everyone's lawn. It was a breathtaking sight.
Suddenly, the thought of my favorite underused hiking trail felt a little bit sad.
I've seen people enjoying Kansas City parks throughout the pandemic, but generally they're going to a particular place for a specific activity and then leaving — like I do after my hikes. We have a lot of parks with niche communities — disc golf for fun in Kessler Park, fishing for sustenance at Troost Lake Park — but a place that feels like everyone's lawn? That's harder to identify.
Roosevelt Lyons agrees, but you can tell he doesn't want to.
Lyons is the deputy director of the Kansas City Parks Department. And he's been defending our city's parks against my accusations — impressively, I might add — until this point in our conversation.
"That's probably a fair statement, actually," he confesses.
"You're touching on a few things," Lyons goes on, slowing down to choose his words carefully.
The first is that our city is really spread out, and it isn't well connected for pedestrian and bicycle use. We don't have many mixed-use neighborhoods. We get in our cars and drive to specific places to do specific things. Wandering into the park for a while on a sunny day out and about isn't a very Kansas City thing to do.
"There's not that same kind of informal gathering place that people just tend to flock to on the weekend," Lyons says.
The other thing is harder to talk about. It's race.
"We're going to get into a thorny topic here," Lyons warns me. "And it deals with a problematic path for this city and also specifically for the parks department ... One of the things that is visible but it's often not talked about is some of the inequities, and obviously distribution of resources, but also this idea of our city is segregated."
Lyons explains that equity is one of the pillars of the Parks Department. So in 2019 the team invited the Urban Land Institute to do an audit of the city's green spaces, focusing on how to create greater equity across zip codes — something the department is beginning to do through a new program called the Quality of Life Investment District.
The report did not mince words. Our parks were built, quite intentionally, to separate people.
"In 1895," reads the audit report, "KCMO’s municipal government approved a charter amendment granting the Board of Park Commissioners the power to condemn land for acquisition. During that same time, many African Americans who had settled in the area (attracted initially to the free state of Kansas after escaping slavery) arrived in KCMO for employment opportunities at the rail yards and packinghouses and as domestic laborers. They settled close to their employment centers, and as a result, inadvertently created 'racial enclaves,' living generally among other African Americans. As these enclaves grew, white elites began to use their control of the parks and boulevard system to create buffers between their homes and African American communities to maintain their high property values for white homeowners."
Buffers between one community and another. Not destinations for one and all.
As Lyons puts it, "the parkway and boulevard system, while beautifying the city, was also a way of enforcing and reinforcing segregation."
What I'm seeing, in our parks, is exactly that. It's no mystery why we don't all flock to the same places. They were created to prevent that exact outcome. And our separate parks have not been invested in equally over the years.
"It doesn't take a lot of data to go look at a park on the east side of town, and then go to the park on the west side of town and say, 'Hey, these look a little different. These feel a little different,'" says Lyons.
That's a tricky thing to change because inequity perpetuates inequity in ways people don't recognize. Take, for example, private donations to parks. A nice idea, but one that plays favorites.
Lyons explains: "People say often, 'Hey, how come Swope Parkway doesn't look like Ward Parkway,' right? And the answer to that is, 'Well, Ward Parkway, we have private donors who give us money to maintain that, to provide a higher level of service. So they get mowed more, it gets treated for weeds more. It gets a higher level of service because we have private donors and we've had those private donations for years."
Private donors, he tells me, often want to contribute to the parks they love and frequent — in their own neighborhoods. Loose Park, for example, has a lot of private investment.
So what about communities that have neither money nor sweat equity to spare?
The idea behind the Quality of Life Investment District is to make up for what amounts to a shortfall by prioritizing underserved areas in the allocation of dollars and personnel. Lyons tells me that 311 calls for park maintenance come largely from more affluent communities; people in struggling communities having "bigger fish to fry." So he says the Parks Department has dedicated more resources to being proactive about identifying maintenance needs, as opposed to relying on complaints.
Meanwhile, if Loose Park represents investment, it's also a place that's increasingly reflective of the diversity of the city. That's something Mayor Quinton Lucas tells me when I ask him about the parks.
"That always makes me feel good, to see Black people walking around," he says.
He remembers a time when that wasn't the case.
"In maybe the mid 1990s, we would drive over there to like walk down the street. And we were some of the few, I think, Black folks that we would see on the trail. And I always, it really always felt like at least to kid me that we were venturing into another part of town and, like, exploring," Lucas says. "We were like, 'aha! We found out where you were hiding the good stuff.'"
Everyone should get the good stuff.
Investment will help with maintenance; that's a step toward equity.
But what will create a greater sense of belonging across our historic divisions?
On some level, it has to be us deciding to behave differently.
"If we are doing business exactly the same way that we were pre-pandemic, pre-racial unrest, we've really missed an opportunity here," Lyons tells me.
We've always been segregated. And for the past year, due to this pandemic, we've been siloed in our separate worlds more dramatically than ever. Even in our parks.
Now that more people are getting vaccinated, case numbers are going down, and restrictions are lifting, are we going to return to going in rather than going out? Are we going to keep frequenting separate parks where we only encounter people who look like us, heeding the boundaries as envisioned by our city's founders? Or are we going to finally try for something different?