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Kansas City is swapping flashy annual plants for native perennials to make sustainable roadways

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
A row of native plants sit on the Mamie Hughes Bridge, waiting to be planted. Behind them, KC Parks and Rec Environmental Manager, Stephen Van Rhein, pulls weeds that have taken over the flower bed.

KC Parks and Rec says replacing annuals and grass with native plants can help conserve water and other resources. It's one of several initiatives by the city to combat climate change.

Kansas City Parks and Recreation employees and volunteers spent all morning Sunday pulling weeds on the Mamie Hughes Bridge to make way for native plants. It’s part of a city-wide initiative to replace annual plants along roadways and in parks with native perennials to increase sustainability.

KC Parks and Rec Environmental Manager, Stephen Van Rhein, said native plants are important for many reasons. Perennial plants only need to be planted once, versus an annual plant that needs to be replaced every season. And after they’ve established roots, native plants are low maintenance, making them more environmentally friendly.

Unlike annuals, which are usually bred specifically to look pretty, native plants aren’t always very attractive — especially in the beginning. Van Rhein said most native species take about 1-2 years to establish roots and fully bloom. But he says their value is about so much more than just aesthetics.

“A lot of these different plants have really interesting smelling leaves, or the flowers smell really, really nicely,” said Van Rhein. "So there's just multiple layers of ways to interact with the native landscape as opposed to the annual plants, which pretty much only have one layer to interact with, which is typically just [that] they have a showy flower and then they're gone after the year.”

The native plants project at Mamie Hughes Bridge started late last summer and other city departments also have ongoing native plant initiatives, but Van Rhein said they have a long way to go. He said he would like to replace almost every boulevard and parkway green space with native plants, but Kansas City’s expansive system of parks and roadways makes that a challenge.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
Michael Jenkins, a Cookingham-Noll Management fellow for the city pulls weeds at the Mamie Hughes Bridge Sunday.

Taking care of a “city within a park”

Kansas City’s elaborate system of boulevards and parks dates back to the late 1800s, when the city hired landscape architect George E. Kessler to create a master plan for the city’s green spaces. Kessler’s “city within a park,” resulted in more than 200 parks and nearly 150 miles of paved boulevards and parkways — all of which KC Parks and Rec has to maintain.

KC Parks and Rec Resident Engagement Officer Kelly Jander said while having so many park options and greenery is great, caring for it is a monumental task. Jander said it takes a community-wide effort to be successful.

“A lot of times we hear people say, you know, ‘It's the city's job to pick up that trash. It's the city's job to do X, Y, and Z.' Well, all of that comes at a cost,” said Jander. “So if we all care for our shared spaces together, we can stay out ahead of it — we're not in reactive mode all the time. So the challenge that comes with this ‘city within a park’ feel is that everyone has to do their part to help maintain it and keep it green and safe.”

Jander said volunteers are always needed at KC Parks and Rec. People who want to get involved in caring for the city’s green spaces or planting native plants can attend community clean up days or become a volunteer park ambassador. More information can be found on the Parks and Rec website.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
After hours spent weeding, Jenkins plants a native perennial on the Mamie Hughes Bridge.

Fighting climate change by planting trees  

In addition to conserving resources like water by planting native gardens across the city, officials are also trying to cool the city down by planting more trees. Trees — and the shade they provide — play a vital role in reducing the effects of climate change, but many of Kansas City’s trees are aging, dying of disease, or deteriorating from limited management.

Kansas City’s Urban Forest Master Plan, published in 2018, found that 60% of existing trees are in fair or worse condition, putting the city’s tree canopy at risk. The plan said Kansas City’s tree canopy was at 31%, but to keep up with trees that will be lost, the canopy needs to increase to 35%.

Van Rhein said KC Parks and Rec is partnering with the Heartland Tree Alliance by Bridging the Gap to plant more trees. He said preserving and planting trees helps improve the quality of life for Kansas Citians and also brings the city closer to its climate goals.

“Our urban tree canopy is extremely important for reducing the heat island effects, stormwater management, clean air, and they also provide a great deal of habitat,” said Van Rhein.

Van Rhein added that it’s important to be mindful of what types of trees are planted. He said in the past, a single type of tree would be planted along entire streets, making it easier for them to be wiped out by diseases or insects.

A person wearing a ballcap and bright orange safety vest sits in on the ground and pulls weeds from a garden along a street median.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
KCUR 89.3
KC Parks and Rec volunteer Lucy Fletcher pulls weeds before planting native plants along the Mamie Hughes Bridge.

Ian Leahy is vice president of Urban Forestry at American Forests, a national nonprofit conservation organization. He said urban forests, in Kansas City and nationwide, are more important than ever before.

“A lot of us grew up with trees as, like, background, you know, they're kind of nice to have,” said Leahy. “But as the climate and cities in particular are heating up, they've really pivoted into a critical infrastructure. We use the phrase, ‘a life-saving infrastructure.’”

Leahy said tree maintenance and planning needs to be in city budgets.

A draft of the Kansas City Climate Protection and Resiliency Plan released in March calls to increase the city’s urban tree canopy. Flatland reports that the Kansas City Council could adopt the plan as early as next month.

In the meantime, to engage in creating sustainable landscapes, Van Rhein said people can plant native species in their own yards or take advantage of Bridging the Gap’s free tree program, which provides Kansas Citians with a free tree.

“Even just adding a few native plants into your flower beds, you don't have to convert your entire yard, but just looking to use more natives in your landscaping is greatly beneficial,” said Van Rhein. “And if enough people did, it could lead to a really, almost a landscape level change and how much we have available for insects to feed on.”

Crysta Henthorne
KCUR 89.3

This story is part of a series on climate change in the Kansas City region produced by the KC Media Collective, an initiative designed to support and enhance local journalism. Members of the KC Media Collective include Kansas City PBS/Flatland, KCUR 89.3, Missouri Business Alert, Startland News, The Kansas City Beacon and American Public Square.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
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