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Levee Trail In Kansas City, Kansas, Begins To Take Shape

Matt Kleinmann
Community Health Council of Wyandotte County
Trail supporters propped up letters on the wall of part of a proposed levee trail in Kansas City, Kansas, although they haven't yet received permission to mount them.

Standing at the meeting point of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, you can still get a glimpse of what Lewis and Clark might have seen when they camped here 212 years ago: vast skies, tall trees, wide, shimmering rivers, even the occasional eagle.

Rick Behrens, pastor of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kansas, says the rivers are hidden gems.

“It’s really a unique slice of nature in the middle of our cities that’s pretty amazing and a great opportunity for people to get away from the city, in a sense, right in the middle of the city,” Behrens says.

Behrens and other cycling and fitness advocates want the community to be able to take advantage of the rivers and surrounding nature. They’re trying to open public access to the levees in Kansas City, Kansas, for cycling, walking and jogging.

To do so, however, they’ll have to overcome circumstances that have shaped this part of the city for decades.

No man’s land

After their early development, the two Kansas Cities gradually turned their backs on the rivers, and now they’re surrounded by industrial sites, railyards, highways and Kansas City, Missouri’s downtown airport.

These developments have been great for jobs and the local economy but they’ve cut people off from the water. Today, many people who live nearby have few places to go for activities in a natural environment.

“There isn’t the opportunity or encouragement for people to get out and walk, bike, hike, exercise,” Behrens says.

Advocates want to open the levees in stages along the north side of the Kansas River and the west side of the Missouri and create what could eventually be a 10-mile trail linking up with other trails and bike routes.

Credit Healthy Communities Wyandotte
A trail proposal would open the levee along a nearly 5.5-mile stretch of the Kansas River. An additional proposal would continue access north along the Missouri River levee.

It would open up a part of the city that has become something of a no-man’s land.

Behrens admits it’s an ambitious proposal for an area that has struggled, but he thinks it’s something residents deserve.

“We’ve lived with so little for so long in areas like this that people don’t even know it’s possible, so we don’t even ask for it,” Behrens says.

But the levee system that has kept businesses and neighborhoods mostly dry for decades is a lot more than the big earth mounds that line the water. And that’s where things get complicated.

Asking for trouble?

Tucked along the riverside are hundreds of pumping stations, gravity drains and relief wells. This complex network is why storms like the ones that drenched the Kansas City area this spring don’t send people running for high ground.

The heads of the Fairfax and Kaw Valley Drainage Districts declined to speak on the record, but at his office in Armourdale, Bundy Jenkins of Kaw Valley said opening the levee is asking for trouble, an invitation for people to vandalize or damage the drainage systems.

Credit Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor
Heartland Health Monitor
Kaw Point, where the Kansas and Missouri rivers meet, offers a natural retreat amid industrial sites.

Unlike the Lawrence, Kansas, levee 50 miles upriver, which has been opened as a trail, the KCK levees must protect a dense area of businesses, factories, railyards and neighborhoods. And the districts can’t risk doing anything that would make them vulnerable to flooding.

Trail supporters like Rick Behrens, on the other hand, say just the opposite is the case.

“I think one of the basic tenets of urban theory is that the more eyes and the more bodies you have around something, the safer it is,” Behrens says.

He says the levees and equipment are already accessible to anyone inclined to clamber into a ditch or hop a retaining wall. Opening access, he says, would actually make the levees less vulnerable to vandalism.

Credit John Hornbeck / Nonprofits Helpdesk
Nonprofits Helpdesk
Pedestrians walking the mile-and-a-half section of levee in Kansas that's already opened to the public.

Although advocates first raised the idea of a levee trail 25 years ago as part of a metro-wide trail plan, the matter has mostly sat dormant. But recently, trail supporters have begun to see signs of hope.

Towards compromise

Last weekend, trail advocates threw a party to get residents out to see a mile-and-a-half section of trail that advocates managed to get opened, at least on a trial basis, two years ago.

Maria Mendias, who came out with her daughter, Giselle, says she didn’t know where the trail was located before the event. But she’s now excited about it.

“I would like to come with my family, exercise and have fun for a little bit,” Mendias said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter.

Along with music, food and games, the event featured an appearance by Mayor Mark Holland of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. Holland has been a leader in the growing coalition of groups working to develop parks and trails in the area as a way to improve community health.

They’re now focusing their energy on the levee trail.

“We have to remember these levees were built with federal money,” Holland says. “These levees were built with taxpayer dollars and they belong to the taxpayers.”

Although disagreement remains about the risks of opening up the levees, discussions are underway on what extra security measures might make it more acceptable to the drainage districts.

There’s talk of fences, signs, possibly security guards. Holland says that will add to the costs for the Unified Government, but security is already part of running a parks system.

Advocates are optimistic that a solution is on the horizon. Behrens is hopeful more sections of the levee will be open by the end of next year.

For Mayor Holland, the levee plan that was once a pipe dream of trail nerds a generation ago is now a top priority.

“I will not rest until every trail on every levee is open is open for hike and bike,” he says. “Manhattan; Topeka; Lawrence; Kansas City, Missouri; Parkville; Riverside: You go down the list, we’re the only group in the metropolitan area that doesn’t allow hike and bike on our levees.”

Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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