Standing at the meeting point of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, you still can get a glimpse of what Lewis and Clark might have seen when they camped here 212 years ago: vast skies, tall trees, wide, shimmering rivers, even the occasional eagle.
Rick Behrens, pastor of Grandview Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Kan., said the rivers are hidden gems.
“It’s really a unique slice of nature in the middle of our cities that’s pretty amazing and a great opportunity for people to get away from the city, in a sense, right in the middle of the city,” Behrens said.
Behrens and other cycling and fitness advocates want the community to be able to take advantage of the rivers and surrounding nature. They’re trying to open public access to the levees in Kansas City, Kan., for cycling, walking and running.
To do so, however, they’ll have to overcome circumstances that have shaped this part of the city for decades.
No man’s land
After their early development, the two Kansas Cities gradually turned their backs on the rivers, and now they’re surrounded by industrial sites, railyards, highways and the Kansas City, Mo., downtown airport.
These developments have been great for jobs and the local economy, but they’ve cut people off from the water. Today, many people who live nearby have few places to go for activities in a natural environment.
“There isn’t the opportunity or encouragement for people to get out and walk, bike, hike, exercise,” Behrens said.
Advocates want to open the levees in stages along the north side of the Kansas River and the west side of the Missouri and create what eventually could be a 10-mile trail linking with other trails and bike routes.
It would open up a part of the city that has become something of a no man’s land.
Behrens admits it’s an ambitious proposal for an area that has struggled, but he thinks it’s something residents deserve.
“We’ve lived with so little for so long in areas like this that people don’t even know it’s possible, so we don’t even ask for it,” Behrens said.
But the levee system that has kept businesses and neighborhoods mostly dry for decades is a lot more than the big earth mounds that line the water. And that’s where things get complicated.
Asking for trouble?
Tucked along the riverside are hundreds of pumping stations, gravity drains and relief wells. This complex network is why storms like the ones that drenched the Kansas City area this spring don’t send people running for high ground.
The heads of the Fairfax and Kaw Valley Drainage Districts declined to speak on the record, but at his office in Armourdale, Bundy Jenkins of Kaw Valley said opening the levee is asking for trouble, an invitation for people to vandalize or damage the drainage systems.
Unlike the Lawrence levee 50 miles upriver, which has been opened as a trail, the KCK levees must protect a dense area of businesses, factories, railyards and neighborhoods. And the districts can’t risk doing anything that would make them vulnerable to flooding.
Trail supporters like Behrens, on the other hand, say just the opposite is the case.
“One of the basic tenets of urban theory is that the more eyes and the more bodies you have around something, the safer it is,” Behrens said.
He said the levees and equipment are already accessible to anyone inclined to clamber into a ditch or hop a retaining wall. Opening access, he said, would actually make the levees less vulnerable to vandalism.
Although advocates first raised the idea of a levee trail 25 years ago as part of a metro-wide trail plan, the matter has mostly sat dormant. But recently, trail supporters have begun to see signs of hope.
Last weekend, trail advocates threw a party to get residents out to see a mile-and-a-half section of trail that advocates managed to get opened, at least on a trial basis, two years ago.
Maria Mendias, who came out with her daughter, Giselle, said she didn’t know where the trail was before the event. But she’s now excited about it.
“I would like to come with my family, exercise and have fun for a little bit,” Mendias said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter.
Along with music, food and games, the event featured an appearance by Mayor Mark Holland of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan. Holland has been a leader in the growing coalition of groups working to develop parks and trails in the area as a way to improve community health.
They’re now focusing their energy on the levee trail.
“We have to remember these levees were built with federal money,” Holland said. “These levees were built with taxpayer dollars, and they belong to the taxpayers.”
Although disagreement remains about the risks of opening the levees, discussions are under way on what extra security measures might make it more acceptable to the drainage districts.
There’s talk of fences, signs, possibly security guards. Holland said that will add to the costs for the Unified Government, but security is already part of running a parks system.
Advocates are optimistic that a solution is on the horizon. Behrens is hopeful more sections of the levee will be open by the end of next year.
For Holland, the levee plan that was once a pipe dream of trail nerds a generation ago is now a top priority.
“I will not rest until every trail on every levee is open is open for hike and bike,” he said. “Manhattan, Topeka, Lawrence, Kansas City, Mo., Parkville, Riverside: You go down the list, we’re the only group in the metropolitan area that doesn’t allow hike and bike on our levees.”
— Alex Smith is a reporter for KCUR, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.