In 1997, Kansas City, Missouri, had an estimated population of 435,000. In the years since, the city’s population has grown in numbers and become more diverse. Parts of the city, particularly the Northland, exploded in residential and commercial growth.
That year marked the last time Kansas City crafted its comprehensive plan, a sweeping document of the priorities to guide the city’s development over the next two decades. The 1997 plan defined Kansas City as a “people-centered community.” Some of the priorities included expanding the city communications office to serve residents, creating cultural facilities and amenities downtown and expanding public transit along the city’s main streets.
Today, the city has a population of about 495,000. The city now streams all city council meetings online, has a text message alert system for residents and built a hub of city data accessible to the public. The downtown area is now a major commercial and entertainment hub. And the Kansas City Streetcar takes riders from Union Station downtown to the River Market, and will be expanded to connect neighborhoods south of downtown.
Now, over 20 years later, that comprehensive plan – called the KC Spirit Playbook – is due for a renewal.
“This is an opportunity for us to look at everything holistically,” said Jeffrey Williams, director of the Department of Planning and Development in Kansas City, Missouri. His office is overseeing the playbook. “And to talk about systems and things from a city-wide perspective.”
Putting together the comprehensive plan is a multi-year process that began in 2019. The planning department is currently in the engagement process, soliciting input from residents. The final step — city council adopting the finished plan — is set to take place in mid-2022.
As the city’s planning department continues putting together the KC Spirit Playbook, here’s what you need to know about a comprehensive plan, its overarching themes, the role it’ll play in decision making at City Hall and how you can give feedback.
What is a comprehensive plan? Why does it matter?
It’s common for U.S. cities to develop long-term planning documents to help set priorities and goals for the city’s future and guide development decisions based on community input
In its initial planning stages, the planning and development department identified four overarching themes for the KC Spirit Playbook:
Here’s how the topics break down.
Mobility: This covers public transportation, streets and, generally, how people get around Kansas City. Some of the feedback the city has received so far include a desire to improve the quality and efficiency of public transportation options, make it more available to neighborhoods that lack transit options, extending the streetcar line and better connecting sidewalks and trail systems.
Michael Kelley, policy director of BikeWalkKC, a local nonprofit advocating for safe streets, wants the plan to treat walking and biking as forms of transportation rather than simply recreational activities. Recent data from BikeWalkKC shows a rise in bike ridership in Kansas City in recent years.
“We really want the plan to draw clear connections between transportation and some of the other big issues, be it land use, be it density, be it affordable housing,” Kelley said. “These are things that are also impacted by the transportation choices we make.”
Serviceability: This encompasses city infrastructure, city services and sustainable development. Resident feedback so far has highlighted concerns with incentives for developers, an issue that has garnered more criticism in the past year over the city’s practice of providing tax breaks for expensive development projects. A recent Beacon story examining the impact of development incentives found that the practice disproportionately impacted the taxes received by Kansas City Public Schools.
Other priorities include maintaining public infrastructure like streets and sidewalks, preparing the city to withstand the impacts of climate change and supporting small, start-up businesses in Kansas City.
Julie Stutterheim, a member of the local Sierra Club chapter, said some of the priorities she and the group would like to see in the KC Spirit Playbook include land conservation, maintaining water and air quality, and environmental justice.
“We want to really make sure that when we talk about the climate and the environment, it’s not a planet issue, it’s like a people issue,” she said.
Livability: This includes focusing on housing affordability, development and the health of neighborhoods in Kansas City. Resident feedback so far has highlighted the need to increase the availability and affordability of housing stock, promote policies that do not lead to the displacement of residents, preserve and update existing housing and clean up blighted neighborhoods.
This is a particular problem in Kansas City: a recent Beacon investigation found the city has about 360 properties on its dangerous buildings list, often lying dormant and falling into disrepair. The Beacon found that a majority of these buildings are located in neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue, where more people of color live.
Visibility: This includes taking care of public spaces, urban planning and preservation efforts.
“Visibility is really talking about the quality and character of the built environment,” Williams said. “So quality architecture, historic preservation. It also talks about the quality and character of our open spaces and common spaces.”
How binding is the document?
Though not a legally binding document, the comprehensive plan is used to guide decision making and evaluate proposals introduced to elected officials. The plan can inform policies made around public improvement and public investment funding.
“The adopted comprehensive plan has to be a document that every person in Kansas City can take a look at, and then feel that the recommendations in the plan implemented are going to provide them with some individual empowerment or greater empowerment,” Williams said.
Williams describes it as a document that will create a foundation for the city’s physical development over the next 20 years.
“Anything that requires city planning commission approval or approval by the City Council, our staff role was to use that comprehensive plan as a foundation to judge and to give evaluation on physical development,” Williams said.
The 1997 comprehensive plan came together from community input and resulted in 12 policy building blocks for the city’s development. It included improving multi-modal transportation, building up city life and entertainment and creating quality places to live and work.
From that plan, Kansas City’s downtown area has evolved into a major commercial and entertainment hub, with the Power and Light District and the Crossroads area becoming centers of business, entertainment and art. The development of the KC Streetcar also reflects the 1997 plan’s intentions to improve public transit in the city’s busiest hubs.
Kelley from BikeWalkKC sees the plan as a document that can inform actual policy decisions and goals for issues like housing or public transit.
“I think that a lot of what it’s doing is kind of setting the tone at kind of a 30,000-foot level,” he said. “In terms of prescriptive policies, that’s going to come out of various parts of it over time, that were kind of initial recommendations. I don’t think it’s going to be quite as detailed in terms of what it tells the city it needs to do.”
How can I give input?
Information about the comprehensive plan update can be found at playbook.kcmo.gov. Residents can provide feedback by completing surveys and online question prompts.
To complete a survey or answer a prompt, you have to complete the online registration form on the KC Spirit Playbook website. The form will ask for your name, email address and your ZIP code. Once you register, you can complete any survey or participate in any message board to offer your feedback.
Kelley said it’s important to be involved with the process as an opportunity to drive the conversation about how Kansas City evolves over the next two decades.
“This is meant to address every issue you care about,” he said. “So even if you don’t necessarily think the plan is important, I’m sure there’s something that you care about, whether it be affordable housing, or sustainability or economic opportunity. This plan is intended to help guide Kansas City and determine what it should prioritize in those areas.”
Disclosure: In 2019, Jennifer Hack Wolf facilitated a work session and provided a community engagement report for City Planning staff designing for the Comprehensive Plan. She now works as The Beacon’s audience development manager and was not involved in this story.