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A Legacy of Design: An Historical Survey of the Kansas City, Missouri
Parks and Boulevards System, 1893-1940, edited by David Boutros,
Janice Lee, Charlotte R. White, Deon Wolfenbarge. Kansas City Center for
Design Education and Research and Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Kansas
City, 1995. $25.95, hardcover, 296 pp., 410 photos and maps, 0964806304
Americans contentious relationship with
the natural world has produced some smart trends. Two of these
the City Beautiful of the late-nineteenth century and the
citizen-inspired urban/suburban trails movement have probably done
more to invigorate citizens interactions with everyday nature than
all the outdoor stores in the nation.
Take Kansas City, which was the Plains’ entrée for
Beautiful. Fear, as well as a legitimate concern with city planning, created
the foundation of this movement in Kansas City.
Until the 1880s, despite the wants and needs of the citizens, capital
maximization dominated land-use decisions.
By that time, however, housing
stock outside newer suburbs was in want and the influx of poorer immigrants
frightened the city’s monied classes.
City Beautiful provided the physical and psychological effort to beautify
the city and impetus to clear blight. In 1887, the residents of upscale
Hyde Park hired landscape architect George Kessler to design a development
that incorporated classical features, natural settings and a varied street
Kessler had trained under Frederick Law Olmstead and had been superintendent
of Merriam Park in Johnson County, KS. Kansas City mining and smelter
millionaire George Meyer was impressed with the Hyde Park and contacted
him to help design a parks plan for Kansas City.
Together, Meyer and Kessler authored the 1893 Plan for Parks and Boulevards.
According to the editors of A Legacy of Design, the report outlined a
system of parks and boulevards that serviced all parts of the expanding
city, joining old and new neighborhoods, larger and smaller parks,
and school playgrounds. It also anticipated growth, served residential
areas and found widespread political support.
Most importantly, it was backward-looking in acknowledging the need
for urban renewal: in older areas, acquisitions were made with the intent
to clean up blight, remove slums, reclaim disturbed landscapes and protect
major natural features.
The citys wealthy supported Meyer and Kessler. The City Beautiful
idyll had been used in other cities to clear blight. Kansas City was not
going to be different, particularly with Meyer and William Rockhill Nelson
behind it, and a parks board that included Simeon Armour (meatpacking),
Adriance Van Brunt (architect), Louis Hammerslough (merchant) and William
C. Glass (real estate).
The Board was therefore balanced between business and real estate
interests; idealists and dreamers, the editors of A Legacy of Design
report. Backed by a wealthy Hyde Park elite familiar with Kesslers
work, and a host of construction engineers, architects and landscape designers,
those whose dwellings stood in the way were sure to be swept aside.
Kesslers plan adhered to the precepts of Olmsteads Landscape
architectural vision that the absolutely unnatural look completely
natural in that seemingly natural features were sometimes completely human
manipulated and always in need of human attention in order to remain natural.
With the establishment of parks, parkways and boulevards, the city now
had greenswards and open spaces, but the city forced people out who had
lived in the houses and apartments and ran off businesses that didnt
want to sell.
After the establishment of the city boulevard system, Kansas City prided
itself on having the nations top parks department. But within a
generation, the system became onerous the natural world doesnt
stay put when groomed to look natural. The result of the natural
look of the boulevards and parks needed constant maintenance, and management
know-how and experience, none of which the city was much interested in
When the city had other opportunities, it took them. For example, the
vast West Terrace Park once ran the length of Silk Stocking Ridge from
6th to 17th streets on the west side of downtown. It is now three smaller
pieces: Jarboe Park, on the south, Mulkey Square (north of I-670 at 14th)
and Case Park (downtown).
In the 1950s, I-35 joined Southwest Trafficway and ran across the northwest
edge of Silk Stocking Ridge along what was once West Terrace Park. I-670
then chopped through the entirety of Silk Stocking Ridge, making it look
like a bread loaf with the middle missing. (City hall and the rest of
the city disregarded residents fights against the freeway
chalking one up for progress.)
In the end, City Beautiful was an upper-class movement imposed on a city
from above. But people who liked their parks didnt like paying to
keep them natural. Ultimately, this legacy has inspired a
way to make the present park system more accessible and connected to the
larger region with a series of parkways, walkways and parks that rely
on nature growing wild. This MetroGreen Alliance seems to be an incarnation
of a more general will to have nature and human connected in a way that
allows for the flourishing of both.
The MetroGreen initiative comes out of a larger discussion between city
governments, citizens, businesses and environmental organizations. MetroGreen
will result in 1,144 miles of trails, parkways and walkways in public
and private spaces in the Kansas City metro area (80 percent of which
According to the Mid-America Regional Council, MetroGreen continues
a tradition of valuing green space in the Kansas City area by extending
the parkways and boulevards concept of the 1893 Kessler Plan
for Kansas City, Mo. MetroGreen
a regional network of
greenways that connects many of the areas most valuable natural assets.
More importantly, the MetroGreen trail system will form a net over Jackson,
Platte, Clay and Cass counties in Missouri, and Leavenworth, Wyandotte
and Johnson counties in Kansas, taking a once-elite idea of dreamers
and idealists out of Kansas City and into the communities surrounding
This is not to say that capital is not interested. It is very interested
development, retail and recreation. But the basic design, fixed
assets and ultimately the ways in which people perceive the natural world
are from them
not from a select few hoping to impose their perspectives
on the many.
Importantly, if this citys hundreds of natural acres
of park and boulevard not been here and exacted their needs, a series
of trails like this would never had entered anyones mind. Instead,
the City Beautiful established what wound up being the foundation of a
wider, more democratic move to lessen the distance between the human and
Mid-America Regional Council MetroGreen Web site: http://www.marc.org/metrogreen
Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor
based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine,
His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly,
eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories
have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review,
Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same,
and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at
the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at email@example.com
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