Kansas City’s Fateful Suburban Experiment

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By Daniel Herriges

We are living in the aftermath of an unprecedented experiment in how we build and inhabit cities.

Most people alive in the United States today have only ever known post-World War II development patterns. Most of us have never experienced an era without commuter suburbs outside major cities, or without freeways ringing downtown. We may visit or even live in neighborhoods that were built in the 1920s or the 1890s or even earlier, but postwar suburbia is familiar and normal to all of us. Thus, it’s easy to forget just what a titanic and consequential shift occurred in the years that followed the Great Depression and World War II.

Kansas City, Missouri is in many ways a poster child for this shift. A data-driven look at its growth over time, and its history of annexing land on its outskirts, helps make clear the magnitude of the transformation that this city, and so many others, underwent. It is a transformation whose painful consequences haunt us today.

From “Paris on the Plains” to Freeway Capital of America

In 1853, the town that would become Kansas City, Missouri, was founded at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers, long a strategic trading post and a hub for westward expansion. By half a century later, it had grown to be a metropolis on the prairie, a place not only of great wealth but of the cultural bounty that tends to follow great wealth, embodied in the city’s rich jazz and Vaudeville scenes. Kansas City was also a place of carefully cultivated beauty in the form of elegant parks and grand civic buildings, a showpiece for the City Beautiful movement that earned nicknames like “Paris of the Plains” and “City of Fountains.”

Kansas City in the early 20th century was a city to be proud of. It was in many ways a model of the power of the traditional development pattern to produce a place of lasting wealth by building on a simple yet timeless template.

In the era immediately following World War II, Kansas City undertook—along with nearly the entire North American continent—a radical experiment in city building. Under this Suburban Experiment, we built freeways and subsidized new home purchases, jump-starting suburban growth and unleashing a sort of geographic hyper-expansion even as the population of cities like Kansas City stagnated, and many of their older, inner neighborhoods fell into decline. Today, the Kansas City metro area, spanning parts of two states, has more freeway lane-miles per capita than any other major U.S. metro.

The Suburban Experiment can be described, using this illustration by Léon Krier, as a sudden shift from the model of growth depicted on the left—organic expansion through duplication of an existing development pattern based on multi-purpose complete neighborhoods—to the model depicted on the right—horizontal hyper-growth, with the rise of a skyscraper district in the core dependent on suburban commuting:

In 2019, geoanalytics firm Urban3 conducted a detailed survey of Kansas City’s fiscal geography: its sources of tax revenue and its major expenses, its street network and its historical development patterns. Throughout 2020, we will be publishing a series of articles using Urban3’s data and maps to tell stories of Kansas City’s past, present, and future financial productivity; its sources of enduring wealth and resilience; and some of the planning mistakes from which the city is still working to recover.

Let’s start with a look at Kansas City’s trajectory of growth, one which makes it nearly a poster child for the Suburban Experiment.

Pre-war Kansas City: A Compact, Incrementally Intensifying City

The era in which the frontier city grew to maturity was, in many ways, a golden age of American city-building. The rapid growth of Kansas City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—along with peers such as Chicago, Indianapolis, and the Twin Cities—was made possible by a fusion of centuries-old European architectural and placemaking traditions, coupled with new technology and the adaptable template of the rectilinear street grid, a uniquely American invention.

The neighborhoods that sprang up in this time were compact places filled with a variety of housing types from standalone homes to duplexes to apartment buildings, interspersed with neighborhood stores so that you could meet many needs by walking. The new (at the time) technology of the electric streetcar heavily shaped the development of such neighborhoods. Kansas City’s steepest population growth in its entire history occurred in the period from about 1900 to 1930. This period coincides with a “filling out” of the city along streetcar lines, and a “thickening up” of existing neighborhoods: the city did not actually expand its geographic borders one bit between the years 1910 and 1946, yet its population doubled. By 1946, Kansas City had 434,000 inhabitants spread over an area of about 60 square miles, giving it a population density slightly less than that of Philadelphia or Chicago today.

This time-lapse video shows the expansion of Kansas City, MO’s municipal boundaries over time. Note the huge increase in annexation after World War II.

Postwar Kansas City: Explosive Growth Through Annexation

In the postwar era, Kansas City adopted a very different trajectory: explosive horizontal expansion.

In some metropolitan areas, this common experience occurred through the growth of suburbs that incorporated themselves as independent cities. In others, the core city used annexation to gobble up huge amounts of new land within its borders. The Kansas City metro area reflects a hybrid of both growth strategies: there are many separate suburbs, but the city itself also grew its borders dramatically to incorporate a large amount of the former farmland that was rapidly being carved up into subdivisions and strip malls.

This makes it possible to treat Kansas City—the municipality itself—as a case study in the effects of rapid outward growth on the city’s basic financial productivity.

It’s important to separate two questions here: that of population growth from that of physical growth of the city. Two simple numbers convey how these two things diverged from one another:

From 1946 to 1964, the city’s population grew from 434,000 to about 486,000—an increase of 12%.

At the same time, the city’s land area grew from 60 square miles to 314 square miles—an increase of 423%.

The adjoining map contrasts Kansas City’s 1910 border (outlined in black) with the post-1910 city (everything outside that outline). Most of the land annexed in the 1950s and 1960s, shown in green, was undeveloped at the time: farmland or woods. But today, it is largely suburban-style development: residential enclaves and commercial strip malls along major roads. It is full of roads that must be kept paved and sewer and water service that must be maintained.

Let’s look at what this explosive growth has done to Kansas City’s infrastructure obligations. Here is its effect on the extent of the road network—a 169% increase in road miles:

We can also examine how population density has changed. Notably, Kansas City proper has added very few people since the mid-20th century. Growth in its fringes has been largely counterbalanced by the relative depopulation of some inner-city neighborhoods, and by shrinking household sizes even in city neighborhoods that remained middle-class or wealthy.

In total, the city in 1946 had 434,000 people in 60 square miles. Today’s city has an additional 58,000 people, but has added 259 square miles—a much lower population density corresponding to greater infrastructure and service obligations per capita. In 1946, Kansas City had 12 feet of road per capita. Since 1946, on the other hand, the city has added a staggering 148 feet of road for every added resident:

This spreading out might be justified if it were accompanied by a commensurate increase in wealth and financial means. But it has not been. Where, in modern day Kansas City, is real-estate value most concentrated? We need only map the tax value per acre of properties within city limits to see that Kansas City’s highest-value land uses lie overwhelmingly within the 1910 borders:

There is a powerful lesson expressed in these maps and charts. The traditional development approach followed by Kansas City prior to World War II built a place of enduring value. This approach was simple and tested by thousands of years of experience around the world:

Build little by little, without accruing large amounts of debt.

Build by replicating and tweaking existing templates, not by radically overhauling existing land use and transportation patterns.

Build by the work of many hands—allow a large number of citizens to participate in the physical development of the city.

Kansas City succumbed to annexation mania in the postwar years. It was far from alone in this decision: many other cities similarly tacked on large amounts of suburban and rural land to their borders, obtaining a surge of short-term cash flow in exchange for long-term liabilities. The leaders who made these decisions were not stupid or malicious. They were largely operating according to the best theories and practices of the time. Unfortunately, history has proven those theories misguided.

The newer, annexed sections of Kansas City are now a fiscal albatross, imposing disproportionate liability upon the municipal government for maintenance of roads and pipes while providing a disproportionately small share of tax revenue. The people who live in these areas are as important as any other citizens, of course, and do not deserve to be abandoned. But Kansas City, if it wishes to provide a high quality of life for all of its citizens, needs to reckon with the basic productivity of its development pattern.

Continue to follow this series for more insight into what such a reckoning looks like. One thing is for certain: for a city that was once famed as the elegant “Paris of the Plains,” the past holds more than a few lessons the future would be wise to heed.

Daniel Herriges (Twitter: @DanielStrTowns) serves as Senior Editor for Strong Towns, and has been a regular contributor since 2015. He is also a founding member of the organization.

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