Data Opens the Door for Reform in Kansas City’s Regional Development Process

Author: G. Thomas Kingsley
Date Posted: June 1, 2017

For a more complete case study of this experience, see Metropolitan Kansas City: Creating Sustainable Places, by G. Thomas Kingsley (Washington DC: The Urban Institute, September 2015).

Like most of America’s urban regions, metropolitan Kansas City has long suffered from the costly sprawl, racial/income segregation and environmental deterioration produced under its traditional regional development process. In 2010, the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC—Kansas City’s Metropolitan Planning Organization and NNIP’s local partner in the area) sensed an opportunity to shift the conversation about how regional development should take place. To fund the work, it applied for and received a HUD Sustainable Communities grant for a program it called “Creating Sustainable Places” (CSP).

CSP began with a fact-based information campaign that involved developing and disseminating new reports, direct meetings with many stakeholder groups and a series of media presentations. The findings surprised many locally. It showed, for example, that:

• minorities would account for the most of the region’s future population growth and childless households and others likely to prefer higher-density environments would account for a much larger share of growth than in the past, and
• the traditional approach to land development (low densities on the metropolitan fringe) could “cost the region $1 billion more per year for construction and maintenance than more compact development.”

MARC had posited three main goals up front—social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic development—and its data showed convincingly how the high costs implied by the traditional development system undermined all three.

Like other NNIP partners, MARC has developed and maintains an information system with regularly updated data on neighborhood conditions for its metropolis, which served as the basis for the next stage. Working with local officials, civic leaders, and other stakeholder groups, MARC used the system to identify a set of corridors with good transportation access (mostly in the suburbs) where higher-density development was most likely to be economically feasible. They then formed planning teams in each corridor who used new automated tools to test the effects of alternative redevelopment scenarios. The tools took advantage of the data MARC had assembled and estimate returns-on-investment and other outcomes implied by each of the alternatives).

The analyses indeed showed that higher density mixed-use redevelopment in many of these locations, even some affordable housing, now offered attractive investment opportunities. There were now real market incentives for shifting more of the region’s future growth to locations in and around these corridors, and reducing the share going to low-density tracts on the metropolitan fringe.

MARC later prepared a Fair Housing Equity Assessment (FHEA), analyzing data on all neighborhoods region-wide, classifying some as “racially concentrated areas of poverty” and others as “opportunity areas” and examining differences in characteristics and spatial patterns to identify ways to reduce poverty concentrations. MARC staff believe that the education resulting from their earlier work in the corridors (particularly their demonstration of the market feasibility of higher-density development in suburban locations) led to a more positive reception for their work on the FHEA than it otherwise would have received.

The HUD grant ended in 2013, but there is strong evidence of continued momentum. CSP themes still dominate MARC’s agenda. MARC has since pooled resources from several sources to create a new competitive grants program that has shifted funding toward CSP themes and projects (mostly in the corridors).

Other public and private stakeholders continue to work on implementing corridor plans, albeit some more forcefully than others. A multi-stakeholder equity network established under CSP is focusing on advancing fair housing goals. Toward that end, MARC secured a US Department of Transportation planning grant in 201X that will be devoted to finding ways to improve transit connections between areas of concentrated poverty and areas of jobs and opportunity.

To be sure, MARC’s work has not yet transformed the development process completely, but it has opened conversations that many would not have thought possible even five years ago. From a policy standpoint, probably the most important lesson is the benefit of MARC’s choice to pursue its three CSP goals as part of the same integrated strategy. In so doing, it showed how these goals are mutually supportive and that success with any one depends on success with the other two.

Other lessons, central to the DNA of NNIP, include the advantage of relying on trusted local intermediaries to advance community goals, primarily by using data to support learning by the stakeholders themselves. Often the process changed the conventional wisdom—stakeholders came out of the efforts with a diffrent mindset than they had when they went in.

The key was providing neighborhood-level data and structuring it so as to directly support decision-making. Most often, the facts themselves did the convincing. The work also exemplified NNIP’s emphasis on using data from multiple sources that capture a holistic view of neighborhood conditions and change—a sharp contrast to the kind of planning in topical silos that has frustrated progress so often in the past.

This story was written by staff at the Urban Institute. The Mid-America Regional Council is the Kansas City partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods.

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