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Trail City USA

The Kansas City region has always been trail-wise. From the early 1800s when a restless population of immigrants migrated west across the American frontier, all trails led to Kansas City.

Near the end of the 19th century, George Kessler, a talented landscape designer and engineer, turned the area's trails vision inward.He worked to create a network of corridors that defined the Kansas City landscape and guided its urban destiny. Kessler's hundred-year plan provided the city with a unique identity that linked function with beauty.

Throughout the 1900s, farsighted city leaders fine-tuned the Kessler open-space plan. In 1991, the local chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) created a new vision that built upon the concepts Kessler introduced — a vision that would connect communities in the greater Kansas City region by a system of trails, open space and parklands. That vision became a core concept in the creation of a broader and more ambitious greenprint for the Kansas City region, MetroGreen.

Trails West

From its beginning, Kansas City embraced diversity. French fur trappers packed precious pelts and trekked Missouri's Boonslick Trail west to the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers where trade among Indian tribes and European merchants flourished. Pioneers from the east left Virginia for Kentucky where they booked passage on river craft and eventually landed on the banks of the river city.

In 1804 explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to find a trade route over water to the Pacific, camped in Platte County and found the woodland, water and rolling prairie rich with wildlife and ripe with promise. Near the junction of the great rivers the Santa Fe Trail branched southeast, the California Trail winded west and the Oregon Trail ventured north. Rivers and trails created a teeming crossroads society, the bedrock of a great American city.

Nineteenth-century Kansas City was a bustling society. Steamships traveled the rivers bringing goods to market and providing household necessities. River traffic and trailways produced a thriving mercantile economy. Farmers discovered what the Kansa and Osage Indians had long known, that rich river bottom land is among the world's most fertile, and they planted America's agricultural heartland in the wide river valleys.

Settlers began to put down roots in this crossroads community, and by the end of the 19th century, "Trails City USA" had begun to turn its vision inward, beginning efforts to connect the riverfront, city, isolated communities and inner-city neighborhoods via a network of boulevards, trails and parklands that would create a unique environment among American metropolitan areas.

The Kessler Connection

George Kessler

Kansas City was primed for progress when in 1892 a young German landscape architect and engineer named George Kessler (pictured at right) authored a corridor plan that had its roots in the City Beautiful movement sweeping America. A disciple of the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Kessler envisioned interconnected parks and boulevards that married aesthetics and function.

Kessler presented his plan to Kansas City's Parks and Recreation Commission, and in 1893 the city approved the plan and began its implementation. The Kessler Plan, as it became known, brought together the disciplines of architecture, planning, landscape architecture and urban design to produce a greenprint that would guide the city's growth and development for the next 100 years.

Throughout a 20th century interrupted by two world wars and a Great Depression, the city continued to build upon an enhanced Kessler Plan. In the 1920s, Kansas City area native President Harry Truman, then serving as Jackson County's presiding commissioner, was a member of the Greater Kansas City Plan Association. The Kessler plan continued to guide elements of city planning through the rampant growth and progress following World War II.

Photo courtesy of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis

A New Vision

In 1991 the American Society of Landscape Architects held its annual meeting in Kansas City. Over the next 10 years, the society's local Prairie Gateway Chapter worked on the Community Assistance Team Project which would become MetroGreen.

The Mid-America Regional Council has served as steward and supporter of the MetroGreen vision since its inception and local communities began to implement elements of the plan. With growing community interest in trails and increased concerns about regional stormwater and water quality, MARC launched an effort in 2001 to expand the initial 1991 plan.

MetroGreen 2002 defines the critical relationship between environmental stewardship and urban growth management. The plan also articulates a future development strategy based on the cooperative efforts of the seven counties and the municipal governments included within the plan.

MetroGreen builds upon Kessler's greenprint and the 1991 ASLA vision, adding connections leading from existing city boulevards, trails and greenways to parks and historic, cultural and recreational centers.

Among goals the plan outlines, MetroGreen:

  • proposes alternative travel options for area residents commuting from home to work or school
  • heightens awareness of recreational facilities throughout the region and improves access to them
  • unifies the seven counties in the metro
  • connects economic, cultural and historic destinations throughout the region