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Discover Mid-America — January 2005

A good idea never gets old

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 the City
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 plan.
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 city’s 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 Kessler’s work, and a host of construction engineers, architects and landscape designers, those whose dwellings stood in the way were sure to be swept aside.

Kessler’s plan adhered to the precepts of Olmstead’s 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 didn’t want to sell.

After the establishment of the city boulevard system, Kansas City prided itself on having the nation’s top parks department. But within a generation, the system became onerous — the natural world doesn’t 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 paying for.

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 didn’t 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 are completed).
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…(forms)…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 it.

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 city’s 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 anyone’s 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 natural worlds.

Mid-America Regional Council MetroGreen Web site:

Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. 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 or

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