Designing and Building a Better Kansas City for the Future

Kansas City needs to focus on designing more for pedestrians and encouraging street life, not simply sterile corridors for moving cars. (Photo by Kevin Klinkenberg)


By Kevin Klinkenberg

Coming back to Kansas City has left me excited about the recent changes. The ship has turned, and there’s a strong sense of optimism in the air.

But as I noted before, the work is far from done. In fact, we have a long, tough mission ahead of us. The mission today is to accelerate our improvement, should we choose to accept it.

Your city and its people depend on your success. What could we do to begin to reverse the decline in all parts of the urban core, and accentuate those that are now desirable?

I’m not writing to say I have all the answers. I don’t. None of us does. But I do hope we can have a deep civic conversation around a set of key challenges.

First, it’s time to prioritize quality of life over fast commuting by car.

The foundation of all planning and design in our city is to make it easy to drive swiftly from long distances at rush hour, and park right at the door of any destination.

The results are unsafe and ugly streets that often destroy value instead of creating it, and copious parking virtually everywhere.

Let’s resolve to plan and design for the full 168 hours per week, and stop planning for the 10 hours per week of rush hour.

Second, let’s legalize the historic, built pattern of Kansas City.

Our city’s urban core was built on the backs of duplexes, four-plexes, small mixed-use buildings and the like. (Photo by Kevin Klinkenberg)

These “missing middle” buildings give the city the kind of Goldilocks density that supports local businesses, makes transit viable, is affordable and builds local wealth.

Yet today, common biases about housing coupled with dozens of well-intentioned, but harmful, ordinances make these types of projects functionally illegal.

Enabling many small changes accommodates immense demand in a humane and equitable fashion. Let’s find a way forward, as some other cities are already doing, to embrace broad, incremental improvement.

Third, let’s embrace the art of urban design.

Urban design, as opposed to planning or policy, looks for coordinated, site-specific solutions that are long-term in nature. We have a fantastic community of creative individuals, and people who work well on “projects.”

But we also need that coordinated vision of how to make one plus one equal three. This holds true whether we are discussing specific concerns, such as parking, parks and public space or even scooters and bikes.

Urban design tries to avoid one-size-fits-all responses for an entire city, and instead tries to solve problems at the scale of the block or the neighborhood.

While not in the immediate, transformative checkbox, we should also start a conversation about architecture and beauty. We won’t all agree, and that’s fine. It’d be boring if we did.

But in any really great city, beauty in architecture and public space is a prime part of what keeps the humans interested.

The skyline view from Liberty Memorial with Union Station are examples of the civic pride that built downtown.

We used to be really good at this. All you have to do is look around and see the legacy from previous eras. Frankly, it’s amazing. We are truly blessed to inherit what others have left to us. But simply having new buildings isn’t good enough.

If we rebuild the city, but fill it with ugliness, this moment in time will fade and the humans will move on to somewhere and something else. As Michael Stern used to say about the Kansas City Symphony, good enough is not good enough.

It’s the accumulation of many, small changes over time that determines whether a city has value or whether it becomes another throw-away place.  It’s a long game.

Doing it well creates great places for humans and a fountain of revenue for local government and the services it must provide.

We are good at dreaming up big, inspiring civic and corporate efforts. That’s a good thing; it shows we have a community that cares and is actively trying to make the future better.

But it would be wise for us to challenge ourselves on some current mindsets, while also striving to do a much better job executing the details.

From that 2003 “Midwest Voices” column I wrote for The Kansas City Star again:

There’s a thousand reasons why we should embrace urbanity – the most important being the future of our metro. We all know that we lack the natural features that attract people to places like Colorado, California or the Sun Belt.

In those places, people will willingly put up with placelessness (at least for a while), as they at least have access to something else that’s compelling. But in Kansas City, we don’t have the luxury of that margin of error.

If we are to not just survive, but thrive, in the 21st Century, we had better learn and apply the rules of great place-making. As we build or renovate each structure in our downtown, we should be asking, “What is the hundred-year plan for downtown?”

Does it look like Paris or London, or Chicago? (why set the bar low?) Or, is it a boring mixture of parking garages, big roads and office towers?

Kevin is an architect, urban designer and Principal of K2 Urban Design & Development. His 25 years of professional experience include leading 180 Urban Design & Architecture for a decade and leading a development authority in Savannah, GA.

He also writes occasionally at Kevin attended the University of Kansas and lived in Midtown KC from 1993-2010.

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  1. As a KC native who’s lived in Chicago the past quarter century, I’m always excited to see how much has changed for the good, and so much has. I lived downtown for five years in the early 90’s and could only dream that it would ever turn around.

    One thing, though, that strikes me as off when I’m back driving around greater downtown, and elsewhere in the core, is how many surface parking lots still exist at intersections, which ruin them. Many intersections I’ve noticed have more than one parking lot and some intersections have them at all four corners. Not that I’m a fan of surface parking lots anywhere in the urban environment.

    To me, a city intersection should convey dignity and permanence, and should provide a continuity that ties the four blocks together and a proper transition from one to the other. Parking lots at intersections, even if just one corner, just make the streetscape feel empty, fragmented and mallish. The Crossroads, for instance, has little cohesiveness form block to block for this reason. It’s more cleaned and built up than when I lived there, but still feels disjointed and dominated by ugly surface lots everywhere.

    I understand these voids known as surface lots are a holdover from downtown’s sorriest hour, and know that many have been filled in and more currently are in the pipeline to do so, which is encouraging. I know that’s also a goal of a lot of city leaders and developers too. I look forward to more of the same.

    Thanks for your essay, and doing what you do. I love to check this site to keep up to date on my beloved hometown.

  2. Well said Kevin. As a lifelong Kansas Citian, and armchair architecture enthusiast, I am both happy that Kansas City’s skyline remains relatively diverse (at least for now) and attractive, especially compared to most skylines of cities to our west. The opportunity is still here to make our city both dynamic and attractive. And aside from downtown, we have several areas of interest in the metro that should absolutely capitalize on their past glory, while incorporating new retail/commercial/residential projects that will still make us proud 25 and 50 years from now. I’m hoping one area in particular-Troost between 31st and Armour- will be one of the cities most important destinations (again) in the relatively near future.

    In regard to your desire for a conversation concerning beauty in architecture, we must, as you implied, make every project count. The tendency to accept anything, regardless of its architectural merit, seems to be the mentality of this sleepy city just spreading it’s wings, after a LONG nap. An example of our willingness to build at the expense of beauty, was the (thankfully!) failed Drury Inn project, to have replaced the old KCMO Public Library/Board of Education building at 12th and McGee. If we can deflect those sorts of low-bid offerings from disaffected, unimaginative, outside developers just looking to pedal the next cookie-cutter box, we might just become the jewel of the Midwest that we long to be.

    Perhaps you would be the person to start a thread addressing this city’s opportunities for architectural excellence, both in the downtown business districts, as well as neighborhood residential/commercial areas. I for one, can’t take a drive around downtown, without my delusions of grandeur gene kicking in. I’m longing for that next level of sophistication, and dreading the thought of this city wasting the “blank canvas” areas of Grand Blvd, Main Street, and Broadway, to name a few.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

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