Pretty, Polished Cities: They Don’t Happen Without Caring Communities

By Kathleen Fenton

One of the greatest thrills of environmental and sustainability work is the completed project. Often times, a project can take years to complete. Recently, I attended the Mid-America Regional Council’s (MARC’s) ninth annual Sustainable Success Stories event where we learned about some of the end results. It revealed to me just how clever and resourceful community leaders are.

Smart Growth Program LogoAt the MARC event, more than 100 city planners, nonprofits, investors, federal, state and city partners from the Kansas City metro area gathered to hear about smart growth projects that have made a significant difference socially, economically and/or environmentally – the “three legs of the sustainability stool.”

sustainability stoolWe heard about eight 2016 honorees who spearheaded projects across the metro area, from Mission, Kan., to Grandview, Mo., and from Kansas City, Kan., (KCK) to its sister city across the river, Kansas City, Mo. (KCMO).

These projects ranged from stormwater management, a new public transit system, land and streetscape beautifications to the building of new rental and single-family homes in the Ivanhoe District of KCMO. These homes, some built from the ashes of a school burned down by an arsonist, gave new purpose to vacant lots by providing affordable housing to Ivanhoe residents, including cottages designed specifically for low-income seniors. Another project led to the creation of beautiful new walking paths for KCK residents, where nine new walking clubs have started.

Speakers at the event focused on the importance of community-based planning, described their tenacious leaders, and discussed the need for constant, open communication channels between citizens, planners and construction crews.

They emphasized the professional skill it takes to research and collect the various appropriate types of funding for sustainability projects. This is a chore unto itself! I was pleased that EPA Region 7 staff had a seat at many of these planning tables, and were given a shout-out as a partner representing our Brownfield Technical Assessment funding, stormwater management work, and Environmental Justice small grants, just to name a few of our available planning and funding resources.

Cyclist on bike path

Winter cyclist on bicycle path

City planners also spoke about many of their trials and tribulations. Measuring the impact of these changes isn’t always clear or simple, immediately following the completion of these projects. But noticeable improvements and successes can already be seen.

More buildings are now being constructed in the planning areas, and additional dollars have been spent upgrading others. Not only is there an increased number of families moving back into the inner cities, but there are waiting lists to gain access to inner city housing.

Summer art festivals feature newly-constructed sidewalks compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and bicycle paths are safely marked for fun and transportation. Now these areas are teeming with crowds during weekends and summer events.

But when these partners described their completed projects, what rang out was the overwhelming community support and appreciation of everyone’s hard work. The love and dedication to their jobs and to their communities was crystal clear. Now all of them move on to their next projects, ones that will continue to improve the quality of life in our cities.

Pollinator garden

Pollinator garden

Our cities, just like our homes, will always need constant attention and maintenance. What these success stories prove to me is how prepared, practical and stalwart many public servants must be to keep our cities not only pretty and polished, but also functional, thrifty and forward-thinking.

So the next time you ride on that new bike path, walk in a well-designed park, visit a pollinator garden, purchase a new home in a revitalized neighborhood, or wonder why your downtown doesn’t flood anymore, you might ask yourself, “How did this happen? Who did this?”

The answer is often not just one, but many community leaders, public servants, investors, and concerned citizens who care about their communities and want to leave them just a little bit better for future generations.

For More Information:

Resources for Local Officials and Community Members
EPA Region 7 Communities Information Digest

About the Author: Kathleen L. Fenton serves as the environmental education program coordinator in EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. She has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

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