Kansas City's Park System Is 125 Years Old — How Do We Make It Last Another 125? | KCUR

Kansas City's Park System Is 125 Years Old — How Do We Make It Last Another 125?

May 5, 2019

When George Kessler drafted plans in 1893 for a parks and boulevard system in Kansas City, he created a model for cities throughout the world. From Mexico City to Denver and Indianapolis, Kessler had a hand in hundreds of projects.

"I mean, it's the backbone of the city," says Leon Younger, who headed up Jackson County's Parks and Recreation Department from 1983 to 1988. "Across the country that's always been how people talk about the system."

More than 125 years later, Kansas City residents and visitors are still enjoying Kessler's vision. Not only did his framework take advantage of existing stream corridors to help deal with flooding, but it connected neighborhoods, business centers and parks in a way they hadn't been before.

But keeping that system healthy for another 125 isn't a given, says Younger, who has since founded a consulting and planning firm that works with governments and non-profits around the world.

"It takes a really strong commitment by the leadership in the community to want to make parks that special place," he says.

So how best to ensure our parks and boulevards can be enjoyed for years to come?

1. Find A Better Way To Fund Them

Kansas City's parks and boulevards are maintained through a half-percent sales tax approved by voters in 2012. It replaced a tax structure that brought in funds from several vehicle- and property-related taxes.

Leon Younger recieved the 1994 National Park and Recreation Association's Distinguished Professional Award and founded the PROS Consulting, based in Indianapolis.
Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3

"Sales tax is so up and down based on the economy," says Younger, and a healthy system needs consistent investment.

Instead, Younger says, most park systems have a parks-specific levy.

"The best systems in the country have their own dedicated funding source, or they are a special district, so they're not competing with police and fire and other kinds of government components of a city that are hard to compete with," he says.

2. Embrace Partnerships And Conservancies

"Conservancies are the fastest growing partnership organizations within urban park systems in the country," says Younger.

A few exist in Kansas City already, like the Roanoke Park and Penn Valley Park conservancies. Organizations like these advocate for particular parks or projects, and help raise money through grants or donations that can be used to supplement the efforts of the parks department.

Younger compares them to a museum to which people donate, and says Houston's Hermann Park is a great example.

"That entire park is maintained by a conservancy, and they just recently got a grant for $50 million ... to keep that park as one of the signature spaces in Houston," he says.

3. Add To What You Already Have

Kessler's original framework was exactly that: A basic structure on which to build. Younger says the city been mostly succesful at that over the years, and that building broad boulevards with lots of green space is still a good idea.

This photo taken in the 1940s shows the grotto and staircase that once led from West Terrace Park to Kersey Coates Drive. The street was a scenic highway along the bluffs that connected to the city's parks and boulevard system.
Credit Missouri Valley Special Collection, Kansas City Public Library

"The ability to make the city feel like it's all connected under one kind of vision, it has continued value," he says. "You feel like you're in one city versus living in a neighborhood."

Trails, too, "are the No. 1 thing that people want across the United States," says Younger, "because it's usually free and you can run on it, walk on it, or bike on it."

Besides, city dwellers will always long for an escape from the hustle and grime that comes with urban living, so greenspace that transports people has lasting power.

4. Learn To Say "No" Gracefully

You can't please all the people all the time, and a successful parks system has to live within its own means.

"The intent is maintaining well what you already own," says Younger, and it does no good to start a new project that can't be maintained.

"What you end up doing is deplete the system, and less money follows," he says. "The best systems are balanced, where they understand who their constituents are, they understand the experiences that they're capable of providing."

Kansas City's parks and boulevard system, as of 1906
Credit Public domain

With 220 parks and 29 lakes, Kansas City's parks system is larger than most in terms of acres per person, which makes overextension a real concern. But Younger notes that wealth of parkland could end up being a boon.

"You're well set up for the growth of the city, as it continues to grow," he says, "(especially) with the public spaces being already in a preservation state where you actually own them and they can add value to people."

That advantage could be crucial to keeping  Kansas City's parks and boulevards healthy.

"It's easy to take parks for granted because they're always there," says Younger, "but they do cost."

Leon Younger spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.

Luke X. Martin is associate producer of KCUR's Up To Date. Contact him at luke@kcur.org or on Twitter, @lukexmartin.