The mid-sized city of Joplin is one of nine cities in Missouri to pass a top ranking Complete Streets policy in this report. To get there, a committee of city staff relied on support from every level—from a diverse set of local advocates, to statewide Complete Streets champions, to national technical assistance programs.
Parents, children, and dogs gather at a community engagement event on Joplin’s Main Street. Photo courtesy of the City of Joplin.
Read the full report and other case studies at smartgrowthamerica.org/best-complete-streets
Click here to view the policy text.
Part I: Background
Joplin is a mid-sized, steadily growing, and predominantly white (84 percent) Missouri city that is nestled between three neighboring states: Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Like nearby cities, the City of Joplin has recently made investments to help attract and retain residents and bring in more tourism. These efforts include revitalizing their Main Street, downtown, and city parks. However, active transportation has been on city planners’ minds for over a decade, as advocates have called for more opportunities to bike and walk. Efforts to provide safe, equitable travel options included extending walking and biking trails and repairing or replacing ADA ramps, but more action was needed.
In 2018, Joplin’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation Plan cited a need for travel options outside of a car to better serve low-income residents (17.6 percent of Joplin’s population is low-income), people with disabilities (nearly 14 percent of Joplin residents under the age of 65 have a disability), and older adults (18 percent of Joplin’s residents are 65 years or older). These residents were less likely to own a car or be able to drive one. In public engagement activities, the community called for safer options to bike and walk that would better connect all residents to essential destinations.
A year later, in 2019, Joplin city staff and officials joined the National Complete Streets Coalition’s Complete Streets Consortium, which they participated in through 2020 and 2021. Designed to help communities identify and overcome barriers to implementing activity-friendly routes to everyday destinations, the consortium gave Joplin city staff and city council members the opportunity to learn from the efforts of nearby communities along with two other Missouri consortium participants, Eastern Jackson County (in the Kansas City area) and Kirkwood (near St. Louis).
“The cross-sector collaboration from leaders across the state of Missouri was integral to the success of this program and the work in the communities. We literally saw issues that seemed like insurmountable barriers being resolved in real time during these sessions by talking across sectors and connecting folks with the information and know-how they need to get things done.”
—Emily Schweninger, former Director of Thriving Communities at Smart Growth America
In 2020, armed with new knowledge and resources, plus strengthened relationships, the City of Joplin began making progress on its goal to better connect the community, attract new residents, and boost the local economy by providing more opportunities to safely bike, walk, and roll.
Part II: Road to adoption
Funding to pursue more active transportation options came in 2020, when Joplin received a Livable Community Initiative grant from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to enhance the livability of their community through transportation. Joplin formed a committee to explore the best way to use these funds to advance the community’s priorities. The committee, spearheaded by Taylor Cunningham (a former transportation planner at the City of Joplin), decided the best use of the funding was to create a Complete Streets policy. After a long, 18-month process of drafting, revising, and garnering support, the policy would finally pass in 2022.
Two aspects of a strong Complete Streets policy were on the Joplin team’s mind from the very beginning. They wanted to establish a strong commitment and vision that would guide future transportation projects towards safety, equity, and livability. They also wanted to create a policy that would apply to all transportation projects and phases. To write a strong policy that checked these boxes (and others from the Complete Streets Policy Framework), Cunningham collaborated with Complete Streets advocates Ron Bentch, project director of Missourians for Responsible Transportation, and Michael Kelley, policy director at BikeWalkKC.
An internal team of planners and engineers met to make edits and raise concerns about the draft, and the committee collaborated with planners and engineers throughout the state to further strengthen their policy. They wrote four drafts before putting the policy up for adoption.
In their efforts to raise support for the policy, the committee found that everyone supports making streets safer and more accessible in theory, but city staff voiced fears about cost and concerns about making changes that wouldn’t align with community context.
When issues arose, the committee found it was most helpful to explain that Complete Streets are, by definition, context- specific, and highlight how they would make financial sense in the long run. They also benefited from the vocal support of local advocates who wanted more opportunities to safely bike and walk in the city.
Some city council members were persuaded to adopt the policy by learning about the demand for Complete Streets, and how implementing them could be a part of attracting new residents and tourists. At the same time, the committee was able to point to significant existing demand from current Joplin residents, and they highlighted the need for more travel options for low-income residents.
COVID impacted the momentum of the policy, as city priorities shifted to the pandemic. However, the city’s commitment to Complete Streets remained strong, thanks to the previous efforts of the committee and local advocates. Since multiple city council members had participated in the Complete Streets Consortium, the benefits for Complete Streets were fresh in their minds, helping the committee make its case for a strong policy.
Part III: What makes Joplin’s policy great
With a 100 out of 100 available points, there’s not much about the Joplin policy that’s not top-notch. But a few specific points are still worth highlighting. The Joplin Complete Streets policy set a goal in its vision and intent to prioritize underinvested and underserved communities: “While this ordinance applies throughout the community, Joplin shall develop plans and set goals to prioritize and ensure the successful implementation of Complete Streets in neighborhoods which have experienced historic underinvestment.”
One strategy to accomplish this goal was including equity in the project selection criteria, ensuring the prioritization of projects that will provide more transportation options to historically disconnected neighborhoods to help boost residents’ access to everyday destinations.
To measure their progress on implementation, Joplin will collect data on the number of other city policies that have been updated to comply with the Complete Streets policy, the number of exemptions granted, personnel trainings, community engagement activities, the locations and quantity of crashes and serious injuries on roadways, the number of users (new and existing), and a breakdown of users by mode (cycling, walking, driving, etc.). The results will be distributed online through social media to encourage transparency and accountability to the community advocates who fought so hard for the policy’s adoption.
Part IV: Putting the policy into practice
The final element of a strong policy is a concrete plan for implementation. How will you make the paradigm shift required to institutionalize this new approach? Like many cities, limited capacity in Joplin’s city government has impacted the speed of implementation, but some aspects are already underway.
While creating the 2018 Active Transportation Plan, city personnel prioritized engagement with underserved and low-income communities. To solicit feedback, they met people where they already were, holding meetings in a local theater in the historically Black neighborhood of East Town, as well as sending out surveys through free school lunches. The information in this plan will ultimately help identify specific corridors to prioritize for Complete Streets projects.
A group of children take a bike bus to school. Photos courtesy of the City of Joplin.
To allow for coordination among all the different departments and stakeholders that will influence Complete Streets projects, a Complete Streets Committee will be formed to guide the implementation process. This committee includes representatives from the Department of Public Works; the Department of Planning, Development and Neighborhood Services; the Department of Parks and Recreation; the Joplin Police Department; the Department of Health; the Convention and Visitors Bureau; the Joplin Trails Coalition; and the Trails and Connectivity Working Group. Four representatives from the general public will also serve on the committee, including two from neighborhoods that have experienced underinvestment, poor health outcomes, or are otherwise categorized as low-income neighborhoods.
The policy requires proactive land-use planning, including revising existing land-use policies, plans, and zoning ordinances. As a result, Joplin’s new zoning and development code will set minimum standards to enhance roadway safety, like 10 feet widths for multi-use paths.
As Joplin’s Complete Streets Committee makes progress on implementation, more policies and standards like these will be updated. The Complete Streets policy will be at the heart of the city’s plans and investments for the future. For example, Joplin’s capital improvement plan is going up for vote soon, and the new Complete Streets policy should steer the plan towards more active transportation and safe streets projects.
Part V: Lessons learned
The story of Joplin’s Complete Streets policy always comes back to the people. This top-ranking Complete Streets policy would have never been possible without the hard work and dedication of Complete Streets advocates, city staff and leadership, and the numerous connections they built along the way.
There are resources out there to help you meet the moment. Creating the case for a strong Complete Streets policy required funding and knowledge. The Joplin team benefited from funding from the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services and technical assistance programs like Smart Growth America’s Complete Streets Consortium, where they tapped into broader advocacy networks and strengthened relationships with policymakers. These resources helped the committee draft a top-ranking policy and develop strategies to get it passed.
The conversation doesn’t end after adoption. At every stage of the process, the Joplin team relied on input from partners and stakeholders in and outside of their community. Complete Streets Champions like Michael Kelley helped create a strong policy draft, while Joplin residents and city council members helped advocate for change. As Joplin moves into their committee-led implementation process, coordination between the City and advocates will continue to be key to the project’s success.
Complete Streets are for transportation. But they also provide space for recreation. The Complete Streets policy will help attract new residents, tourists, and economic development—selling points that helped the Joplin team make the case for adoption. However, the policy focuses on prioritizing projects that will better connect current residents to safe, active transportation options. Their focus on equity will help ensure that Complete Streets truly benefit all of Joplin.
Thank you to Troy Bolander, Director of Planning, Development and Neighborhood Services at the City of Joplin, Taylor Cunningham, Transportation Planner at the Mid-America Regional Council, and Michael Kelley, Policy Director at BikeWalkKC for their time and expertise in producing this case study.
Michael Kelley has helped nine communities across Missouri adopt Complete Streets policies. Read a separate Q&A with Michael here >>