By KEVIN COLLISON
This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on August 31, 2004.
Recently, I wrote a column about a talk here by Fred Kent of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces ( www.pps.org) on what makes a successful place.
Kent measured the success of a place by how much it’s used and enjoyed by ordinary people. He emphasized that planners and architects need to think about designing projects that will provide activities and opportunities for people to shop, browse, play or just hang out.
“We’re kind of repressed,” he told an audience at the new downtown Kansas City Public Library. “We’re afraid to allow unpredictable spaces. We have designed out human activities from a lot of our buildings and public spaces.”
Shortly after I heard Kent, I had the opportunity to find out just how true his observations were.
On one of those incredibly nice weekends we’ve been enjoying, a Sunday afternoon of mild sunshine and low humidity, I explored the $80 million Brush Creek walkway that starts by the Country Club Plaza. The plan was to walk along the creek, visit the adjacent Ewing and Muriel Kauffman Memorial Garden and then stroll from there to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art sculpture garden.
First, the very good news.
Every leg of my approximately two-mile walk was absolutely world-class when it comes to design and appearance. The walkway along the creek, which opened in 1995, was wide and well-kept, the rebuilt bridges it passed beneath were attractive, the fountains in and along the creek were soothing and the landscaping was in relatively good shape.
Even better was the Kauffman Memorial Garden. Having lived near the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario for a number of years, I had been spoiled by the Canadians’ love of gardening. Well, this place would be quite at home there or at any other tourism destination. Its flowers, fountains and private walks were enchanting and a wonderful tribute to their donors.
Leaving the garden, the broad green lawn sloping up toward the columned facade of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art beckoned. Except for a lack of a pedestrian crossing at Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, it was a very pleasant walk.
Wandering through the Henry Moore Sculpture Garden and seeing the other artworks, including Rodin’s masterpiece “The Thinker,” was a serendipitous holiday.
In summary, this city has created some public spaces that any city in the world would be proud of.
Now, for the bad news and the reference to Fred Kent.
I enjoyed all these places practically alone. And it’s not hard to understand why.
I met one other pedestrian the entire walk along Brush Creek and encountered a father and his little boy feeding wild geese at the point where I left the path for the Kauffman Garden. At the garden itself, fewer than 20 people were there at 3 p.m. on this perfect day.
Along my route up the great lawn to the Nelson, there was a couple sitting on a bench, three art students tossing a flying disc near one of the Shuttlecocks, another few people scattered here and there on blankets, but overall, the huge lawn felt empty.
And oh yes, I hear that if I had walked a little farther east along Brush Creek, I would have come upon the Discovery Center. It’s a 3-year-old complex with an amphitheater, aquarium, interactive exhibits and other conservation displays. I understand it hasn’t drawn near the crowds its patrons expected.
It wasn’t that there weren’t people out on this great day. On the walk back to my car through the Plaza there were hundreds of people on its sidewalks. Some gathered to listen to the free live music playing at a couple of sites, some just people-watching and many seriously shopping to take advantage of the tax-free weekend to buy back-to-school clothes.
So what gives? Well, first off, I have a hunch that if I asked most of these people on the Plaza whether they even knew about the nearby Brush Creek walkway and fountains, or the Kauffman Memorial Garden or maybe even the Nelson sculpture garden, they wouldn’t have had a clue.
There is not a single sign or map in or near the Plaza that informs people about this string of attractions just a few steps away.
Even if you do find the Brush Creek walkway, which is visible from the sidewalk along Ward Parkway, there’s nothing along its route that tells you what other attractions are ahead.
There’s nothing to do, either. The tour boat operator who started in 1998 closed shop after losing $20,000 last year. All that’s left is a wood dock and empty ticket booth. There’s no place to buy a drink or food, rent a paddleboat or canoe or toy sailboat – no vendors of any sort.
Go to most European cities and some in the United States and a walkway like this would be lined with booths selling posters, inexpensive art or souvenirs and there would perhaps be a flea market. Street musicians, acrobats or comedians would be magnets for clusters of people, and others would be sitting in folding chairs, reading.
The Kauffman Memorial Garden would be a wonderful location for a jazz, bluegrass or chamber music series, and the Nelson lawn is a good site for a children’s carnival, art fair or concert. With all the apartments and condos in the area, these places are within walking distance or short drive for thousands of people.
Here’s a challenge to the city, local corporations, foundations and anyone else concerned about adding life to Kansas City.
Establish a conservancy or nonprofit organization with the sole job of encouraging activity in this zone that borders Brush Creek. The physical place is outstanding; the only thing missing is people.
Speaking of bringing life to places, the Downtown Council will have its last free outdoor concert of the summer at 8:30 p.m. Friday in the Crossroads area.
A section of 20th Street between Baltimore Avenue and Wyandotte Street will be closed for the show that will feature the Samples.
The concert will coincide with First Fridays, a monthly event in which many area art galleries are open and thousands show up to see and be seen. Fred Kent would be proud.