Ditching City Hall: A Kansas City Development Story
Kansas City has a low population density for a city its size. How low? According to the Census Bureau, Kansas City had a population of around 2 million in 2010, making it the 29th largest city in the United States by metro population. However, in terms of population density, Kansas City had roughly 2,326 residents per square mile, making it the 129th densest city in the country, just ahead of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. (population 670,000).
In terms of population distribution, only around 216,000 residents live less than five miles from city hall, whereas the average city of Kansas City’s metro population has close to 400,000 residents living within the first five miles. Cincinnati, the 27th largest city by total metro population, has more than double the total population density of Kansas City within the first two miles outside of city hall, with just over 316,000 residents living within five miles of its city hall.
Kansas City’s low population near its city hall results in low population density at the city core. Similar to Saint Louis, Kansas City’s average population density is lower within two miles of its city hall than it is slightly further away from downtown, as the map below demonstrates:
Also like Saint Louis, the story of Kansas City’s development is actually one of decreasing density. Aside from the area right around city hall, Kansas City’s core (within eight miles of city hall) lost both population and population density on average between 2000 to 2010. Steady population growth only accrued in the city center and in low-density areas further than eight miles from city hall.
Many individual areas close to downtown are doing well. However, much like Saint Louis, those gains are outweighed by losses in other areas equidistant from Kansas City’s downtown. Furthermore, they are decreasing in precisely the areas where residents most rely on transit.
These types of population movements are not exclusive to Kansas City. City governments (especially Kansas City) often spend hundreds of millions adding amenities and subsidizing development downtown. And while the most visible parts of the city show modest improvement, structural problems in the city’s competitiveness and broad economic forces continue to erode population in traditionally poor, working-class, and middle-class neighborhoods.
Whether city hall can alter these trends is debatable. What is not contested is that, despite some increased density right downtown, Kansas City has a comparatively low population density that shows little evidence of rapid, or for that matter any, increase. When it comes to providing public services that depend on high densities to function efficiently, like transit, if the city plans under the pretense that it is as dense and centralized as, say, Cincinnati, it may end up providing worse service to the vast majority of residents, even as it favors certain sections of the city.