Turning Mean Streets Into Green Streets

>In Kansas City, Missouri, 150 blocks of downtown real estate have been in decline for more than four decades. One out of four properties is a vacant lot and one out of six is an abandoned structure. Unemployment, now 11.7 percent citywide, is estimated to be as high as 50 percent in this area. Few homes are owned by the people who live in them. Those who do own homes face a nearly 20 percent delinquency rate on mortgages, despite the fact that median home prices are under $30,000.

There's new hope in this urban core with the Green Impact Zone, a project fueled by community engagement, environmental initiatives, and $50 million in stimulus funds. The project aims to turn a depressed area into a thriving and sustainable community by introducing coordinated policing, offering employment and training programs, promoting home weatherization, and installing a smart energy grid.

Anita Maltbia, the former assistant city manager for Kansas City, is the director of the project. She spoke with The Atlantic about changing the way downtown dwellers live, work, and consume energy.

anita maltbiaWhat is Kansas City's definition of green?

We define green in its broadest sense, as a symbol of verdancy. We're working with the residents in these 150 square blocks in the core of Kansas City, helping them raise the quality of their lives. And at the same time, we're drawing on the whole energy and environmental revolution that's occurring in our country.

What do these 150 square blocks look like?

They're mostly residential, but there are some commercial areas. Some large streets run through the area. It's suffered disinvestment for almost 40 years, so it doesn't have the level of commercial support you would expect for an area of this size. There have been a lot businesses leaving over the years.

Whose idea was this project? Where did the funding coming from?

It was an interesting alignment of the planets. The architect for the project is Emanuel Cleaver II, a U.S. Congressman for the fifth district in Missouri. He had been a city council person and a mayor, so he had intimate knowledge of the history of this area. A new administration had come in and tried to pump money into the communities, and there was the emerging notion that you do have to embrace energy conservation. It was Cleaver's suggestion that we capitalize on the stimulus funds.

The Green Impact Zone is also part of a grant that was awarded about three weeks ago. It's an energy-efficiency conservation block grant from the Department of Energy, and it will provide people with funding for energy retrofits on their homes. We're also retrofitting an old building in one of our communities that will become a neighborhood center and energy contractor incubator, providing office space and training offerings for energy contractors. And we're part of the TIGER transportation grant--we're going to be using $26-plus million for infrastructure improvements and $24 million for transportation improvements.

What are the goals of the Green Impact Zone project?

The goal is to raise the quality of Kansas City residents' lives. But when you have a big overarching goal like that, you have to do some very measurable, achievable things in order to know whether or not you're making improvements. We do have some very tangible goals. Home weatherization not only deals with energy conservation; it results in people having more income to use toward other things.

Another goal is job training and job acquisition. When people are able to feed themselves, then of course their quality of life is improved. And the green revolution means there are a lot of new businesses and jobs opening up around energy conservation. We're part of the Kansas City Power and Light Smart Grid grant. That's going to introduce people to energy conservation in a very tangible way.

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