In Kansas City, It’s All About People

Creating a Livable City Starts with Equity

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Dennis Murphey is chief environmental officer for the city of Kansas City, Mo.

Lara Isch is water quality educator with KC Water in Kansas City, Mo.

Gerald (Bo) Williams is lead planner for the Kansas City Planning and Development Department.

Gerald (Jerry) Shechter is sustainability coordinator in Kansas City’s Office of Environmental Quality.

Posted: Wednesday, July 13, 2016 11:15 am

Yes, sustainability is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yes it’s about saving energy and managing stormwater. Yes, it’s about green building and transit-oriented development.

But, for Dennis Murphey, chief environmental officer for the city of Kansas City, Mo., those are all just means to an end. For him, the end game is creating a city that works for ALL its people.

He says sustainability is ultimately about making sure the city’s most vulnerable people have access to nutritious food, quality healthcare, affordable housing, education and employment opportunities, safe neighborhoods and amenities like trails, parks and green spaces that promote a healthy lifestyle.

“We’re beginning to recognize that the impacts of climate change will not be experienced equally across the community and that some of the folks in our community will be disproportionally affected and are least able to respond,” Murphey said. “We need to figure out ways that we can be a better resource to help them.”

How Stormwater Management Impacts Livability

Kansas City has plenty of water – sometimes way too much of it. The city's water and sewer utility, KC Water, maintains 260 square miles of separate sewer systems, and 58 square miles of combined sewer systems. The combined sewers, some more than 150 years old, are located in the oldest and most economically distressed neighborhoods of Kansas City.

“During high storm events, which are becoming more frequent and more intense as a result of ongoing climate change, (combined sewer overflows) become a real problem,” Murphey said. He said about seven billion gallons of contaminated stormwater overflows into local waterways each year. Dealing with that problem is expected to cost about $5 billion over 25 years. The solution – a mixture of green and gray infrastructure – will be the most expensive public works project in the city’s history.

As in many cities across the nation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is mandating changes to Kansas City’s stormwater management systems to bring combined sewer overflows under control.

Kansas City’s consent decree with the EPA, signed in 2010, requires the city to develop systems that will capture and treat 88 percent of combined sewer overflows and eliminate sanitary sewer overflows during a five-year rain event. Kansas City was the first city in the nation to include green infrastructure in an EPA consent decree, and the first to be given 25 years to execute the plan – an extra five years to allow the native plants used in green infrastructure to reach their full potential and see just how much they could reduce the overflows before final decisions are made on the size and scope of the vastly more expensive gray infrastructure investments.

Collateral Benefits

Kansas City began making investments in green infrastructure in 2013 when it launched its $2.3 million Middle Blue River Basin Green Solutions Pilot Project, a system of more than 150 different green infrastructure units including 133 rain gardens, said Lara Isch, water quality educator with KC Water.

“Overall, the project has been very successful,” Isch said. “We ended up with 36 percent reduced peak volume at our sewer outlet, 76 percent reduced peak flow, and we have about 360,000 gallons of constructed storage in that area. And, that was only in our first 100-acre pilot.”

What the city learned during this pilot project was that green infrastructure appeals to people on a cerebral level. When done right, it brings neighborhoods together, improves aesthetics and increases property values. Curb extensions calm traffic and beautify streetscapes. Trees provide shade and reduce the heat island effect. When sidewalks are added to accommodate the surrounding stormwater systems, neighborhoods become more walkable and inviting, which improves public health and reduces crime. Even air quality is improved when horticulture, agriculture and street trees are introduced in large enough quantities to transform the urban landscape.

But, Isch said another lesson learned in the Marlborough project was that small rain gardens in the public right-of-way require too much maintenance to be sustained on a larger scale. She said future projects, including two in the remaining 644-acre Middle Blue River watershed, will focus on larger retention facilities, turning blighted areas into neighborhood green spaces with nature trails and other amenities.

Urban Agriculture

Murphey said the benefits of green infrastructure, which have proven to extend far beyond stormwater management, has the city riding a wave of support for all kinds of green and healthy initiatives, including locally grown foods. He said the city has changed its development code to make it easier for citizens to practice urban agriculture. And recently, the city began developing its 400-acre “Municipal Farm,” a site that in the early 1900s was an inmate farm for the local jail on what was then the outskirts of town. Parts of the property were also used at various times as a landfill, a household hazardous waste repository, a police firing range, and storage facilities for several municipal departments.

Today, the property is well within the city limits, located near Arrowhead Stadium, home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, and Kauffman Stadium, home to the Kansas City Royals. The inmate farm closed in the early 1970s and the jail was closed on 2009 and demolished in 2010, after which the property fell into disuse. After securing a brownfield grant from the EPA in 2010, the city completed an environmental analysis, cleaned up the property and developed a “sustainable reuse plan,” according to Gerald (Bo) Williams, lead planner for the Kansas City Planning and Development Department.

Williams said the farm is being converted into a showcase for a variety of sustainability initiatives including community gardens, commercial greenhouses, a solar field, some public recreational trails and some green infrastructure projects. A habitat restoration project is also under way in the western half of the property, he said.

“One of the first things we did was to establish a community garden. We got some funding from the city; we got a partner, Kansas City Community Gardens, and we built a community garden that they now operate,” Williams said. He said plans are to nearly double the size of the garden in the near future.

Part of the property has been leased to Bright Farms, a local-foods company that plans to build two 120,000 sq. ft. greenhouses in partnership with a local grocery store chain.

“We also have Boys Grow, a local non-profit that teaches 12- to 14-year-old boys about agriculture, ...and they have a small farm that they’re currently building on the Municipal Farm property,” Williams said. He said the project is attempting to blend urban agriculture with some ecosystem restoration. “We’re even going to try using some Missouri native plants that are food producing, as an experiment in the edible forest concept,” he said.

On a different tract of land at the Municipal Farm, the city is negotiating with another local non-profit group to make 2-acre “farmlets” available to participants as a training ground before moving on to bigger farms, Williams said.

Transit-Oriented Development

Murphey said brownfield redevelopment, removing blighted vacant buildings, installing green infrastructure and investing in transit-oriented development are all intended to transform the city into a community where residents can live and work without owning a car – a lifestyle attractive to millennials. Planned projects that will install 600 miles of bike trails and 220 miles of pedestrian trails are more than half complete.

“The city is also in the process of electrifying its transportation system,” Murphey said. In May, the non-profit Kansas City Streetcar Authority (KCSA) opened the first line of its new free streetcar system. The Downtown KC Streetcar starter line is said to be the first step in a longer-range plan to create a regional, integrated transit system to connect the Greater Kansas City area. Murphey said the Kansas City Power & Light electric utility is in the process of installing the largest electric vehicle charging infrastructure system of any investor-owned utility in the country, and the city has plans to add electric buses to its rapid bus transit fleet.

“We’re also expanding our express bus service,” Murphey said. “We’re providing additional access to public transit to neighborhoods that have been the subject of economic disinvestment over the years, …and we’re trying to create a situation where our public transit system will more readily be able to provide access to places with living wage jobs for all people in our community so that folks who can’t afford to own a car will still be able to get to and from work,” he said.

“There’s a lot of focus on increasing the amount of housing opportunities, particularly in the downtown area,” he said. In the River Market area of Kansas City, just north of downtown, one young developer is creating the largest passive house designed apartment complex in the country, which will use 90 percent less energy than a traditional building. Murphey said 25 percent of the 270 housing units in the development will be leased at “workforce” rates, and the complex will be located directly on the city’s new streetcar line to give residents easy access to the downtown area.

About four blocks away, another housing project is renovating a former Commerce Bank building into a 27-story “vertical neighborhood” that will include a mixture of office and residential units, a preschool, an elementary school, an indoor playground and dog park and a small amount of retail space. Two floors will be dedicated to a local university.

“The developer himself will actually be living and sending his kids to school in that building, which is also on the new streetcar line,” Murphey said. “The new streetcar project has already spurred almost a billion dollars in private development projects along the 2.2 miles of streetcar line, and we’ve seen the ridership on that line exceed initial expectations,” he said.

Building Energy

“Energy has been a high priority in our city for a number of years, both in our own operations and community wide,” Murphey said, “and that’s where we get the biggest impact in terms of greenhouse gas reductions.” He said the city’s latest greenhouse gas inventory showed city operations have reduced their emissions by 25 percent between 2000 and 2013.

Effective this year, the city’s new “Energy Empowerment Ordinance” begins taking effect, requiring the owners of the city’s largest buildings to benchmark and annually report water and energy consumption. Over the next three years, smaller buildings down to 50,000 sq. ft. will be phased in, Murphey said.

“All told, that will be information from about 1,500 buildings, which will represent about three percent of our non-single family residential buildings in the city, but about 60 percent of the total floor space of non-single family residential buildings,” he said. “So, by focusing on the largest buildings, we can target our efforts to provide technical assistance and training to the owners and operators of these large buildings.”

He said Kansas City has had two Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing programs for commercial buildings since 2013 and will soon have a similar program for residential property owners.

Public Health and Safety

In 2015, Kansas City was one of eight U.S. cities to be recognized with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health Prize for innovative efforts to reduce health inequities and increase life expectancy. Among the programs specifically recognized was the Kansas City Health Department’s AIM4Peace initiative, which uses health workers to interrupt violence in targeted neighborhoods, resulting in a 70 percent reduction in homicides in those “intervention zones” and a 24 percent reduction citywide.

The foundation also recognized the city, its school district and more than 50 local organizations for their efforts to promote early childhood literacy, a project that Murphey said is one of Kansas City Mayor Sylvester “Sly” James’ top priorities. Reach Out and Read Kansas City provides about 76,500 books per year to almost 30,000 low income children under the age of 6, building a 15-book library for each child.

A Supportive Political Climate

Gerald (Jerry) Shechter, sustainability coordinator, said Kansas City’s Office of Environmental Quality, which is structurally part of City Manager Troy Schulte’s office, has enjoyed a tremendous amount of support from local elected officials and citizens.

“Almost every bit of legislation that we’ve brought to the mayor and city council in the last 10 years has passed unanimously,” including the 2008 climate protection plan, he said. “It’s just amazing, given some of the other things that have been going on around the Midwest. We’re one of the few cities, at least in this part of the Midwest, that can openly talk about climate change in our political setting.”

Shechter said the city’s sustainability initiatives also get strong support from citizens. He said several non-profit environmental and sustainability groups are very active in the Kansas City area. Three specifically are Bridging the Gap, a sustainability group with more than 1,000 volunteers, the Metropolitan Energy Center, a group that has advocated for energy efficiency in the Kansas City region for more than 25 years, and two area chapters of the Sierra Club.

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