In this third report in the MidtownKC Walks series, the various reasons sidewalks are becoming more important to people in Midtown. In the first story, Kansas City residents, especially those in Midtown, said they are more dissatisfied with the condition of sidewalks than almost any other city service. Yesterday, residents said they are surprised to learn that responsibility for sidewalk maintenance lies with individual property owners. As the series continues this week, we’ll learn what other cities are doing, and what could be in Kansas City’s future.
MidtownKC Walks Project is a joint project of the Midtown KC Post, BikeWalkKC and The Whole Person. Join a conversation about sidewalks on the Midtown KC Walks page or comment on these stories. We also have a survey about your experiences walking in Midtown and a map where you can mark sidewalk problems you encounter. Join the MidtownKC Walks mailing list for updates on the project.
Sidewalks are a key to independent living for people with disabilities. Candice Minear, an independent living advocate at The Whole Person, sees it every day in her own life and the lives of people she helps through her job.
“For people who can’t afford a vehicle, sidewalks are sort of their lifeline,” Minear says.
Minear didn’t have a car when she first moved to Westport and began learning to maneuver the city sidewalks in a wheelchair. A simple act many people take for granted became incredibly complex: sometimes plants or trees block the path, wheelchairs can get stuck in large cracks, and some corners don’t have curb cuts that allow her to get over the curb from the street.
And that’s in Westport, listed as one of the most walkable neighborhoods in Kansas City.
The space between the fronts of buildings and the street is jammed with more than sidewalks, especially in commercial areas. Trees, telephone poles, utility boxes, overhanging landscape plants, sandwich board signs, delivery vehicles, and even sidewalk cafes all complete for space and add to the difficulty of using sidewalks.
When people grow older or have children, they often become more aware of the condition of sidewalks they had previously taken for granted.
“Ever since I had a kid and started pushing him around in a stroller, I’ve become even more hyperaware of how hard it is to get to parks and other places,” says Eric Bunch, an Old Hyde Park resident and Director of Policy and Education at BikeWalkKC, which advocates for walkable neighborhoods.
Bunch says he not only values walkable neighborhoods, but he and others of his generation demand them.
“Millennials want this. They want to raise their families in a place that values the ability of their kids to walk to school or themselves to walk to a bar,” he says. “If city leaders are really interested in attracting the creative class, they need to fix this problem.”
While he works to change city sidewalk policy, Bunch says he may ultimately vote with his feet. He is considering moving to a more walkable city if Kansas City doesn’t catch up with other urban areas that are enhancing walkability.
There’s other evidence of the value people place on walkable neighborhoods. The growing desire for sidewalks translates into increased real estate values. A 2009 study sponsored by CEOs for Cities, a national consortium of civic and business leaders, found that homes in neighborhoods with good walkability are more valuable than similar homes in neighborhoods where residents have to drive to get to amenities.
Prospective buyers also increasingly check the Walk Score of a neighborhood before buying. According to the Walk Score organization, the Midtown Heart of Westport and Plaza Westport neighborhoods are the most walkable in Kansas City. It lists Kansas City as the 40th most walkable city in the United States. (Walk Scores measure how close residents are to amenities like coffee shops, schools and parks but do not include sidewalk conditions in their ratings).
For the past decade, planners and local citizens alike have been calling for “complete streets.” According to the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation, 83 percent of all Americans support increased funding for biking and walking,
A Complete Street is one that is designed with all users in mind–motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users, the elderly, and the disabled. Making streets usable for everyone promotes sustainable transportation, active lifestyles, and safer access to jobs and school. It directly impacts problems like childhood diabetes, obesity, simple justice (freedom of movement for everyone), air quality, water quality, and climate protection., It a helps make communities vibrant, healthy, economically strong, and appealing to residents, visitors, and employers. Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation
They cite a number of reasons why cities should put less emphasis on the use of cars, including a basic issue of fairness. Advocates of complete streets argue streets and sidewalks are the most important public spaces and should benefit everyone, not just those who usually travel by car. They point out that low-income residents are more likely to reply on walking and public transportation than those who can afford cars.
They also point to the public health benefits of making it easier for people to walk, which could help to combat obesity.
Kansas City adopted a Complete Streets Resolution in 2011. It has also adopted a walkability plan and a bike plan, yet satisfaction with sidewalks among Midtown residents has not abated. Sheila Styron, a certified ADA coordinator at The Whole Person, says the plans are good, but the problem isn’t solved.
“Many jurisdictions including Kansas City have adopted livable streets and communities policies which if followed, would create environments where pedestrians, (including people with disabilities) drivers and transit riders would all have their needs met. Only problem is, hardly anyone is implementing their good intentions,” she says.
Recent posts on the Midtown KC Post’s Facebook page give a sample of the type of comments Midtowers have about the current state of sidewalks:
“the sidewalks are crazy uneven. makes walking especially tricky when sidewalks are covered in leaves and snow. when walking my dog I almost wipe out frequently. i don’t know how people with strollers or wheelchairs navigate the sidewalks. – Andrea Leigh, comment on the Midtown KC Post Facebook page
But for a growing number of people, including BikeWalkKC’s Bunch, the time has come to take sidewalks more seriously.
“Sidewalks are a basic public service. Kansas City is doing a really really bad job of maintaining them,” he says.
Tomorrow as ou MidtownKC Walks series continues, we’ll find out what other cities are doing to change sidewalk policy.