During a recent ULI webinar hosted by ULI Kansas City titled “Equity in Parks,” experts in their fields discussed the recent report released by the Institute’s Advisory Services program, Parks and Boulevard System—Kansas City, Missouri: Providing a More Equitable Approach to Investing in Parks and Recreation, and shared their perspectives on how to make Kansas City a better place through the creation of an equitable park system. One of the conclusions of the report was that the city must establish a more equitable process for parks and recreation investment in hopes of tackling racial divisions. 

“Equity in Parks” is one of many webinars in the “ULI Kansas City: Making a City We Can Afford” webinar series focused on identifying solutions for making Kansas City more equitable and affordable. The webinar “ULI Kansas City: Equity in Parks” is available for both ULI members and nonmembers to access on demand on Knowledge Finder. 

“Kansas City and the entire country have been awakened to the challenges of structural racism and how policies have created, in essence, two Americas: one Black and one white. The observations and process recommendations contained in this report may not only point the way forward in Kansas City but may also inform the creation of a blueprint for other communities around the country that believe in a future in which the entire community thrives equitably together,” said panel chairman and webinar panelist Carlton Brown, CEO and partner, Direct Invest Development.

Cities cannot begin to build an equitable park systemone that works for the benefit of all residents without recognizing and addressing the factors contributing to the inequalities present throughout their city. For Kansas City, this can be traced back to the systematic racial inequities perpetuated by restrictive covenants used by developers including J.C. Nichols and Kroh Bros. as well as the planning and development of the boulevard and interstate systemall of which have left a long-lasting impact on the fabric of the city’s communities and quality of life for its residents.

Webinar and report panelist Emeka Moneme, senior vice president and managing director at the Menkiti Group, reiterated the role that the Kansas City parks and boulevard system has played in creating “two Kansas Cities”one of economic opportunity and one of concentrated poverty. Moneme noted that the decisions made years ago were “expressions of the values of the time.”

However, the lasting impacts of those decisions, including a lack of investment in infrastructure such as schools, public spaces, and neighborhoods, are not something that can be undone overnight. By recognizing and addressing history, Kansas City, and other communities around the country, can begin to pave the way for thriving, equitable cities.

Parks play an essential role in the physical, environmental, and economic health of people and communities. “When done well, they are the intersection where all classes and races come together. It is a neutral ground where people can exchange ideas and come together to understand each other. In Kansas City, they were designed specifically to separate and isolate,” said Brown.

Brown continued, “Look at great parks around the world. Most of them are activated by higher-density living on all sides of the park. In many cases, like in Kansas City, you have a unique opportunity to plan for it.”

Land use and planning, when done responsibly, allow for the creation of more equitable communities because you can change zoning density, make requirements for affordability and inclusion, and to create an equitable fabric for those parks, Brown noted.

Throughout the panel’s tours of Kansas City, the disparities between amenities across the city was apparent. One recommendation was to explore and look at examples of public/private partnership models in other cities. Adopting a similar model could help the Kansas City Parks Department unload some of the burdens that do not align with its core missionequitable development being at the center of its mission.

Another key recommendation provided by the Advisory Services panel was to establish a network of friend organizations, which is crucial in solving the problem of vibrancy and vitality through the programming of parks.

“Every city and every neighborhood are different in terms of the interested parties that organically emerge to take stakeholder interest in the parks,” said webinar and report panelist Allison Schapker, senior director capital projects, Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Schapker used Philadelphia as an examplea city with a network of 141 “parks friend groups” made up of neighbors who have self-selected to invest their time, talent, and treasure into parks. She noted that these groups support neighborhoods and structures around their friend groups so that they can broker efficient relationships to improve the quality of the parks in their neighborhoods.

“In Kansas City, we saw very strong trail organizations, cultural organizations, organizations investing in events, and sports and athletics. The piece we felt was missing was capacity building and support around neighbors and friends of the parks to give them the platform to influence the programming and improvements to the parks,” Schapker continued.

Moneme and Schapker both emphasized the role that community engagement plays in the development of parks. When equity is a consideration, without the input-feedback loops and community engagement, third-party services delivered by intermediaries tend to reinforce longstanding Kansas City class and racial divisions due to their lack of knowledge of the neighborhood’s priorities. “The city is getting the order wrong and it is not reflecting where the community’s need is in that given moment,” said Schapker.

Through briefings, public receptions and interviews, background information, and expertise, the panel analyzed many factors contributing to an inequitable park system and provided recommendations extending beyond what was discussed throughout the webinar. The comprehensive list of recommendations includes the following:

  • Mission clarity and intragovernmental functional relationship. The governance and organization structure of Kansas City Parks limits the ability of the organization to develop a clear mission that can be effectively executed within the constraints of the organization’s budget.
  • Shared public-sector vision. Kansas City Parks operates at the bottom of a volunteer and government administrative pyramid. At the top of the pyramid are the city manager, the mayor, and the City Council, and then further down the pyramid, the commissioners, before getting to the Kansas City Parks director under whom the rest of the organization functions.
  • Expanding liabilities. Kansas City Parks is accruing undocumented infrastructure liabilities that will become due as net capital investments mature over the next 20 years and prior maintenance obligations become current. Neither past nor current capital projects have been structured with a reserve fund to cover escalating maintenance and replacement costs.
  • Flat revenues. Sixty-one percent of Kansas City Parks revenues come from the half-cent sales tax. Sales tax tends to grow in sync with metro population growth and spending. Kansas City, Missouri, is not a high-growth metro area, and because the city sits on the state line, some of the city’s sales tax expansion occurs on the Kansas side of the state line. Consequently, revenue growth for Kansas City Parks is restricted.
  • Public Improvement Advisory Committee (PIAC) funding. The process should be more transparent to the public and to agencies and be more equitable.
  • Development regulatory guidelines. Guidelines should be promoted to spur holistic and inclusive development.
  • Community engagement. Kansas City Parks has no “structured” community infrastructure or process for the community to review, comment on, or approve any of the department’s decisions about services to customers. The decision-making process is completely opaque to the community.
  • A Kansas City Parks and Recreation Conservancy and neighborhood friends park network should be formed to raise money, garner community support, and provide a high-quality product for its customers.

To learn more about recommendations provided to the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department on the creation of an equitable park system, watch the webinar “Equity in Parks and read the report Parks and Boulevard System—Kansas City, Missouri: Providing a More Equitable Approach to Investing in Parks and Recreation now on Knowledge Finder.