Last week I toured the Ivanhoe neighborhood in Kansas City, MO with colleagues from the federal government. The stories I heard from folks in the neighborhood and the places I saw reminded me of the untapped potential of so many similar communities across the country. This is a place that had been overlooked and underserved for decades, and was held together by neighborhood residents who refused to give up.
Our visit to Kansas City is part of the White House Office of Urban Affairs’ tour called the National Conversation on the Future of Cities and Metros. At this stop we explored a "place based initiative" called the Green Impact Zone — an ambitious plan to invest in a specific area to address a variety of challenges. Over the last year, a public-private partnership led by Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, that included neighborhood leaders, the Mid America Regional Council (MARC), Kansas City Power & Light and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, designed an innovative plan to weatherize every home in a 150-block area, train local residents in green jobs, deploy a "smart" electricity grid in the Zone, and develop a green bus-rapid-transit system to connect this community to opportunities in the city and region.
HUD Secretary Donovan and Transportation Deputy Secretary Porcari joined our White House delegation to learn more about the challenges these partners overcame to plan for the Green Impact Zone, and the critical catalytic role the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act played in spurring this on. The Zone is comprised of six neighborhoods and is known as the area "East of Troost Avenue." It has historically been plagued by high rates of unemployment and poverty. A major element of the Green Impact Zone plan is to link residents to resources like the jobs that will be created through the home weatherization efforts.
We had the opportunity to tour the Zone with Margaret May, Director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Community Center and David Warm, Executive Director of the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). We stopped at the home of Ida Dockery whose home was recently weatherized. Ida was very happy to know she will save a lot on her utilities. She spoke about the transformation of the neighborhood that began with a few neighbors getting together to clean up their blocks and enlisting many neighbors and finally the help of the city.
Right after the neighborhood tour, we helped to cut the ribbon at the grand opening of the Green Impact Zone Community Assistance Center. Led by Anita Maltbia, Director of the new center, this office will deploy organizers to work with the community on green projects and serve as a one-stop-shop for accessing federal resources to redevelop the Zone.
When you visit Kansas City you must have lunch at Gates BBQ. Folks in Kansas City are rightfully proud of their barbecue culinary tradition. So, in keeping with local tradition we had a great lunch at Gates BBQ, while we engaged in a rigorous policy discussion on the elements of the Green Impact Zone and how it might be replicated around the country. Make sure you follow your lunch with coffe if you intend to continue a day of work, as we did.
The stakeholders who were part of this discussion agreed to help the federal government identify barriers (statutory and regulatory) to smart investments and innovations that serve communities. Mark Huffer of the Kansas City Area Transit Authority explained that one barrier to transit development is finding qualified transit operators. He urged that we develop opportunities for training prospective operators in the urban core. Deputy Secretary John Porcari noted that the Department of Transportation has to "beat to fit"that is, "beat federal policy to fit the needs of the communities we serve." DOT, as well as all federal agencies, are working with us to explore methods of providing more flexibility in funding to help local leaders better address the needs of their communities.
Our day ended with a robust discussion about the future of Kansas City and the Green Impact Zone with local leaders and members of the community. Manheim Neighborhood Association President Rodney Knott shared his vision for building more green homes and training neighborhood folks in construction, so they are able to rehabilitate abandoned properties in the area. Mr. Knott said, "A great man once called on us and challenged the nation to put a man on the moon, and we did, another great man has challenged us to realize energy independence and invest in human capital. The Green Impact Zone is evidence that we can meet this challenge." HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan applauded Knott’s efforts and noted that HUD has proposed to set aside $150 million in funding for sustainable development at the regional, city and neighborhood levels.
I believe the smart investment being made in Kansas City’s Green Impact Zone will prove to be a ground-breaking approach to neighborhood revitalization. This is the kind of inter-agency, interdisciplinary strategy we need to apply in hundreds of communities around the country. As I told the crowd gathered, "national policy should be driven by smart local plans."
Bravo Kansas City!
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Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President