Spotlight on Sustainability: South Central Kansas plans for a sustainable future

2549764975_ef828fcbae_bDouglas Avenue in Downtown Wichita during the 2008 Riverfest. Via Flickr user Keith Wondra.

Historically, local jurisdictions in South Central Kansas often competed against each other for jobs and economic growth. But thanks to a Regional Planning grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), they can now focus on working together on a collective vision for their future development, instead of competing with one another.

Wichita, the largest city in Kansas, is the population and economic center of the South Central Kansas region; a region that includes Butler, Harvey, Reno, Sedgwick and Sumner counties. In February 2012, the region’s council of governments, the Regional Economic Area Partnership (REAP), received a three year, $1.5 million grant from HUD to create a long-term regional plan for ensuring the health and productivity of the local economy – a plan now known as the South Central Kansas Prosperity Plan.

The more than 30 city and county government bodies that make up REAP started a process of regional coordination and collaboration on issues of sustainability, growth and economic development nearly two decades ago that would not be fully realized until receiving the grant from HUD. “Even though we had REAP as a convening entity, the jurisdictions within our five-county area were not coming together to talk about all of the topics relevant to our region, “says Paula Downs, Project Director for the South Central Kansas Prosperity Plan. “The fact of the matter is, we had been really, really far behind in bringing together those voices.”

Once the voices of local governments began to come together in the regional planning process, a wide-range of community organizations, businesses and non-profits joined in as well. Workgroups were then formed based on the priority areas for the region moving forward that included water, natural resources, transportation, workforce and business development, built environment and healthy community design.

Each workgroup was tasked with putting together the best practices, strategies and implementation guidelines on their topic area to include in a comprehensive guidebook available to local governments interested in advancing sustainability in the region. A town interested in a Complete Streets policy, for example, could access all of the necessary resources to aid in developing a strategy, crafting a policy, and implementing that policy in their community.

In addition to creating policy guidelines for interested communities, the Workforce and Business Development Workgroup is creating tools to market the region to potential businesses, guided by the principle that “what comes to one county is good for the whole region.” One of those tools, an asset map, highlights the strengths of the region that could persuade a business to come to South Central Kansas and highlights the region’s unique attributes.

The plan has not been without its opponents, however. “Early on, there were a few loud voices that put the scare out, but what we have learned is that it’s about how you define sustainability for different people,” says Downs. “ We have one county focused on gas and petroleum production, another on wind energy, and another on agriculture, so talking about sustainability means talking about what’s important to different communities.” Despite the initial apprehension, many of the communities did not realize that they had already started to think about and improve issues related to sustainability.

Once she was able to overcome what she calls the “language barrier,” Downs says that focusing on issues that everyone is concerned about, namely population decline in the younger generation, has been an effective way to talk about a sustainable future. The region, as a whole, is losing 23% of its young professionals every year to other states and regions. Downs tells the community that they are not getting their value back – they invest a lot of money in education, but still lose much of their top talent to other regions. In order to reverse the trend, Wichita and its neighbors have realized that something needs to change.

REAP has strived to show how sustainable, smart growth policies are important in attracting and keeping the young, innovative talent in their region. “I don’t want to take away your cars, I want to think about adding in the choice of other options,” says Downs. “We don’t have enough housing and we need different kinds of housing. If we think about it from that perspective, people will start to see the benefits.”

Learning to relate to the needs of each county and group and individual citizen has been a challenge, especially in a region where neighboring jurisdictions had been particularly competitive with each other. Now that cooperation and collaboration has improved, Downs says, “We can appreciate how much we can learn from each other.”

As the workgroups continue to develop their strategies and best practices to guide the future growth of South Central Kansas, REAP and its member organizations will continue their active community engagement to seek out the best projects and policies for the future. Without the HUD Regional Planning Grant, Downs says she does not know if they would have ever motivated themselves to talk about these issues on a regional level. Now the groundwork for a sustainable future has been laid, and the future of South Central Kansas is looking bright.

The grant for the South Central Kansas Prosperity Plan was made possible through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to help communities improve access to affordable housing, increase transportation options, and lower transportation costs while promoting sustainable practices.

Want to see more projects like the South Central Kansas Prosperity Plan? Tell your members of Congress to support these programs today