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Kansas City Launches Open Streets Permitting (Contributed)

Using a collaborative, fast-paced development process, the city’s public works created a way for residents to open up neighborhood streets for safe and healthy exercising while maintaining social distancing.

open streets photo 1
Like many other communities, the city of Kansas City, Mo., has faced significant challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 24, 2020, Kansas City entered into a stay-at-home order that required city staff to work remotely through an emergency telecommuting program, institute social distancing requirements, close down operations of non-essential businesses and even implement rules around outdoor activities such as the closing of dog parks and playgrounds, while keeping public health and safety at the forefront of every decision.

The city took note of how other cities experimented with creating bicycle and pedestrian-only thoroughfares, quick-build micromobility projects, and launching various open street initiatives to build more space so people could get outside and exercise while maintaining safe social distancing. Thanks to early conversations with community organizations and local advocates, city staff had several ideas for starting a similar program and knew a multifaceted and flexible approach would be most successful.

Through a fast-paced, cross-departmental effort, with external partnership support and a city council sponsored resolution, Kansas City officially launched its Open Streets Program on April 23, 2020. The program consists of several parts:

  1. Neighborhood open streets permit (more on this below) 
  2. Implementing automatic pedestrian crossings at over 100 intersections in high-pedestrian areas
  3. Four longer “local traffic only” corridor closures sponsored by the city 
  4. Roadway closures in some city parks
The most innovative piece of the program is the Neighborhood Open Streets permit. Kansas City Public Works collaborated remotely with the IT Department and the citywide permitting system, Compass KC, to create a new permit for anyone to obtain in the city’s neighborhoods. The permit was set up in our system in a matter of days and by the end of the second week, we had received over 20 permit applications.

The Neighborhood Open Streets permit is based on an existing permit format that waives several requirements including fees, neighborhood signatures and design drawings, and puts the onus on the applicant to provide barricades and signage. Our criteria for approving these permits includes streets with low traffic volumes and low speeds, limited to one block, and streets with no other city or utility work in the area. Additionally, each location must maintain access for local traffic, as well as emergency and delivery vehicles.

With any new, rapid implementation project there are success stories and lessons learned. Looping in key staff across the organization ensures everyone is on the same page. This includes staff from the police, fire and IT departments along with maintenance crews and field inspectors. We have also learned the importance of leveraging external partnerships to bridge a resource gap. Kansas City Public Works was not able to provide cones and barricades for the neighborhood permit closures. Instead, we partnered with the National Better Block Foundation, Spin Scooter, Mobility Design Development and Construction (a small local business), and BikeWalkKC (a local advocacy organization) to provide additional resources, including the KCMO Neighborhood Open Streets “How-To” Guide, signage and cones to help permit applicants enhance their neighborhood open streets. 

As we look forward with uncertainty over the next several months, Kansas City remains flexible, excited, and motivated to not only continue these efforts, but also look at ways to expand this network, create even more outdoor space for residents, businesses and restaurants through things like easing requirements for sidewalk cafes and parklets, and even look at making some of these temporary solutions permanent. 

Maggie Green is the public information officer for Public Works in Kansas City, Mo.

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