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Restoration of Urban Habitats:
Tools for Designing With Nature

Students participating in installation of a rain garden at their inner urban high school.

Development patterns within the 3000 square mile Kansas City metropolitan area are greatly impacting the existence and function of natural systems. This article will focus on how communities throughout the Kansas City region are stepping up to the challenge of understanding, protecting, and incorporating natural resources into development and stormwater management. By including natural resources within the development process with the same weight as infrastructure planning, communities will be better able to reach a balance between the economic, social, and environmental aspects of growth management. Stream inventories like the Kansas City Stream Asset Inventory Phase I, used in conjunction with other regional initiatives (Kansas City Metropolitan Natural Resources Inventory and the Kansas City Region Green Infrastructure), will provide planners with the tools and strategies critical to successfully manage stormwater, prevent flooding, and provide healthy communities in the future.

Impacts of Urbanization
Watersheds in urban areas commonly suffer changes in their hydrology due to development. These changes include: decreased water quality; increased water quantity whereby flows reach higher stages more quickly; total runoff is increased; dry-season base flows are reduced; channel instability; channel migration; loss of connections among landscape features; and loss of native vegetation and wildlife habitat. As a result, small changes in topography can lead to dramatic changes in habitat features, while changes in hydrology can negatively impact plant and wildlife species that are dependent upon the critical timing and duration of flooding. Hydrologic changes (changes in natural pulsations of water by dams, drainage, channelization or other influences) can result in species composition shifts within plant and wildlife communities as: bottomland species are replaced by upland species; large wide ranging species are lost; genetic integrity is lost when habitats are too small and isolated to support viable populations; populations of interior species that can only reproduce in large tracts are lost; and as numbers of predators, competitors, and parasite species tolerant of disturbed environments increase. Historical data can be useful in correlating changes in stream geometry with land use changes and watershed protection efforts.

For the same level of urbanization, streams with intact riparian woodlands have been found to have higher biotic diversity than those that do not. Stream degradation and channel instability due to more frequent bank-full flooding, higher peak discharge rates, lower dry-weather stream flows, and loss of instream (pools & riffles) and streambank habitat structures, can occur at levels of imperviousness as low as 10%. At levels of imperviousness of 25% or more, few if any streams can support diverse aquatic insect communities due to increased turbidity, toxicity, salinity, and decreased dissolved O2 (Wenger, 1999).

KC Community Initiative
An integrative, three-tiered approach (Inventory, Prioritization, and Protection) has been developed for conducting stream asset inventories and deriving planning tools and strategies necessary to achieve successful long-term growth and stability within the Kansas City community. The goals of this approach are:

  • Improving stormwater management and water quality while preventing flooding;
  • Integrating and prioritizing economic, environmental, and social resources;
  • Increasing base knowledge of existing resources;
  • Making ecologically sound land use decisions; and
  • Decreasing infrastructure costs and maintenance.

All of the steps within this three-tiered system are critical to providing planners and other decision makers with the necessary strategies and tools to integrate the natural environment and the human environment in a healthy and balanced manner. By implementing short-term and long-term guidelines for resource protection, the biological health and function of streams, rivers and other natural resources will be maintained and improved throughout the region.

The Line Creek Watershed north of the Missouri River and Stadium/Park East Planning Area south of the river, were the two areas selected for this study. Initial selection was based upon location, past, present, and proposed development patterns, and stormwater issues.

KC Inventory Process
The Line Creek Watershed north of the Missouri River and Stadium/Park East Planning Area south of the river, were the two areas selected for this study. Initial selection was based upon location, past, present, and proposed development patterns, and stormwater issues. As part of the Inventory process, the project team verified and expanded in-house information provided by City staff. Current aerial photographs were used to determine the optimal number and location of field sample sites. Sample sites were chosen based on a variety of positive and negative land use conditions. Criteria used in selecting sample sites includes:

  • Geography - physical location;
  • Geology and topography - soils, steepness, length, and shape of slopes;
  • Hydrology - water sources and drainage patterns;
  • Land cover – vegetation;
  • Land use - rural/urban, undeveloped/ developed, older/newer development; and
  • Project budget.

The rapid stream assessment methodology used for this project has progressed through a development and testing process initiated with the City of Lenexa’s Stream Assessment and Natural Resource Inventory Project (December 2001). Methodology for future stream asset inventories will further refine data collection by integrating GPS units. Preliminary field reconnaissance consists of the following characterizations:

  • Streambank and streambed characterization is used to determine the physical stability of the stream channel;
  • Erosion characterization including overland runoff, water turbulence, tree fall disturbance, natural debris, stream channel constriction, toe erosion, streambank slippage, and agricultural use;
  • Stream flow rate;
  • Identification of vegetation types, diversity, and condition of are important factors in determining the condition of the riparian corridor and its ability to protect the stream;
  • Prominent aquatic invertebrates (damsel fly larvae, dragonfly larvae, snails, crayfish, etc.) present are identified to the family level and grouped into a general water quality category;
  • Site photographs; and
  • General observations of stream conditions.

Field data collected is downloaded into an Excel spreadsheet for scoring and analysis. The stream characterization factors described above are given numeric scores based on USDA scoring methods. The score values are then weighted using the professional knowledge and judgment of field biologists involved in this project. The numeric score then provides the basis for classifying the stream segments into one of the following types.

Type 1 - Generally described as the highest quality naturally occurring stream with little negative impact. Erosion and sedimentation is low, water quality indicators are positive and the surrounding riparian zone is a healthy, mature, succession woodland or other high-quality environment.

Type 2 - This type of high quality stream may have some down or side-cutting, however, bank and bed composition (bedrock) assist in keeping the impact low. Water quality is generally good and the riparian zone is largely intact, although vegetation may be altered from that of a typical native plant association.

Stream segments are classified by type as to their overall quality.

Type 3 - The riparian corridor is still restorable although deterioration is much more noticeable. While some remnant plant associations may be present, overall vegetative canopy cover is comprised of immature tree species. The potential for restoration exists although erosion and sedimentation can be greater than desirable.

Type 4 - Impacts are greater on this low quality stream type with significant indicators of bank erosion and sedimentation present. The adjoining riparian corridor may be intact but vegetation is not representative of a native plant association.

Type 5 - The channel in this type is the most changed and of the lowest quality. The riparian corridor is impaired to the point of providing little protection or benefit, and erosion and sedimentation indicators are significant. Water quality is questionable with noticeable phosphate and nitrate loading (large algae blooms).

KC Inventory Results
Although many of the conditions and impacts noted during the field survey were common to both study areas, the streams within these two study areas are in distinctly different phases of their evolutionary cycle. One note of particular interest is that neither study area contains any stream reaches of highest (Type 1) or lowest (Type 5) quality. Streams within the Line Creek Watershed exhibit a greater diversity of conditions within adjoining stream reaches, however, many are showing evidence of damaging influences from increasing development within the watershed. The majority of streams within the Stadium/Park East Planning Area are in moderate to good condition, appearing to be reaching a level of stability associated with the absence of new development. Development within this area reached its peak many years ago, and left undisturbed, the streams are returning to a level of relative equilibrium.

Studies show that a disproportionate amount of damage is done to stream quality during the relatively short period of active site development. Field observations indicate the existence of turbidity and sediment plumes attributable to development within the watershed. Cumulative downstream impacts of sediments and other pollutants are a significant contributor to water quality degradation in the study area. Unless proper erosion and sediment control practices are enforced as development occurs within the watershed, these cumulative impacts will increase the negative impacts on water quality and aquatic systems.

KC Inventory Recommendations
Recommendations for the two study areas reflect major differences in existing resources, development age, structure and type, and the potential for implementation of “greener” solutions in future developments. Development potential within the Stadium/Park East area is primarily limited to vacant lots, while there is substantial open space within the Line Creek Watershed that has potential for development. Pressure to develop the remaining open space is placing a considerable burden on City staff to make quick decisions without enough base information regarding resources present to assist them with these decisions. Recommendations for this watershed focus on protecting the high quality stream reaches within Line Creek through vegetated buffers, parkways and open space, cluster development, relocating the proposed Community Mixed Use Center, and realigning a few proposed streets and intersections.

Students learning about water quality and aquatic life.

City Planning staff plays a pivotal role in protecting the city’s natural resources in that they are the “first line of defense” in making land use recommendations and then reviewing development proposals on a site-by-site basis. The information contained here will guide the preservation thought process so that the most effort is spent protecting the most valuable assets. This information should be shared with the development community as early as possible in the design process so the private sector becomes a partner in preservation with the City.

City decisions impact stream stability and water quality in three primary ways; land use planning/regulation, site development regulations, and design standards for public infrastructure. Recommended resource protection strategies relate to each of these areas with the primary goal of allowing development while retaining the existing, working natural systems. This goal can be achieved through protecting and retaining high quality natural resources, using natural systems such as vegetation to return stormwater to the soil rather than continuing to rely on structural storm drainage solutions, and managing precipitation as close to where it falls as is physically and economically possible. Improving stormwater management is often seen as a site issue rather than a larger scale planning issue. When the objective is to protect and retain high quality natural resources, however, the process begins with conservation– sensitive land use planning. There is a direct relationship between land use intensity and resource degradation.

KC Regional Initiatives
The Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) through sponsorship of the Metropolitan Kansas City Natural Resource Inventory Project, aims to implement the first of a multiple phase, collaborative, community-based initiative to document, map, and ultimately conserve natural resources within the Kansas City metropolitan region. The development of a comprehensive inventory and assessment of natural resources is a critical first step toward solid environmental planning at the local level, and a systems-based framework for watershed management, resource conservation, and restoration at the regional level. Cities, counties, agencies, and developers will be able to reference local and regional resource conditions. The project will provide an inventory of critical ecosystems and valuable natural resources throughout the region in order to meet 5 key goals:

  • Provide a current assessment of the state of ecological resources within the bi-state region as an initial step toward broader watershed management and ecosystem protection in the future;
  • Compile a consistent set of baseline information in a usable GIS format to provide base information to local governments that can be used in the local planning process;
  • Support identification and implementation of high priority MetroGreen trail segments around the region. MetroGreen is a proposed 1000-mile regional greenway system centered largely along the region’s stream networks that has been strongly endorsed by the region’s elected and civic leadership;
  • Offer multiple opportunities to educate targeted audiences about the value of sound environmental planning; and
  • Create a regional framework for an interconnected, landscape scale conservation and restoration plan.

This plan will form a key component of all local and regional planning efforts related to such factors as land use, economic development, transportation, water resources and air quality. Over the long term, beyond the scope of this grant, project goals would expand to create a regional framework for an interconnected, landscape scale conservation and restoration.

The Kansas City Region Green Infrastructure Project is another regional initiative sponsored by MARC. The vision of this initiative is to create and implement cost-effective green planning and design. Increasingly, communities have begun to reevaluate the ways in which they develop. They simply cannot resort to conventional approaches and expect different results. Communities have long understood the need for infrastructure, like water and sewer lines, power lines and roadways. With strong support for “MetroGreen” in the Kansas City region, communities now recognize the value of open and green spaces. Many communities increasingly appreciate the importance of “green infrastructure,” - a planned, managed, interconnected network of natural areas like waterways, wetlands and forests; conservation lands like greenways and parks; and adjacent working lands like farms, ranches and corporate lands. The primary goals of this project are to improve stormwater management through the use of natural systems while creating successful partnerships across political boundaries. Promising designs and management strategies are being demonstrated on selected sites within the metropolitan region through large-scale municipal and county level projects and smaller scale educational demonstration projects.

Development patterns are altering the habitats of both wildlife and people. Urban development does not just present issues for our past; it also prompts issues within our present and our future. Conservation of our natural resources takes all of us learning and working together to create a greener, healthier future for our communities. Knowledge gained from conducting the stream inventory and integrating regional initiatives includes:

  • The necessity of providing decision makers with tools and strategies for protecting natural resources;
  • The importance of these tools to integrating planning and development of the human and natural environment;
  • Stream Assessment methodology must be user friendly, easy to understand and implement, and reasonable to enforce;
  • Development of a comprehensive inventory of natural resources within the region is a critical first step toward environmental planning at the local level;
  • The regional conservation plan is a key component to all local and regional efforts; and
  • Community involvement and education are the foundations of successful planning and implementation.

The Stream Asset Inventory project was funded through the City of Kansas City Planning and Development Department, using the consultant team of Patti Banks Associates (prime), Applied Ecological Services, Inc., Taliaferro & Browne, and Tetra Tech EMI, Inc. (subs).

For more information, contact Laurie Brown, Conservation Ecologist, Patti Banks Associates, The Waterworks Building, 201 Main, Suite 201, Kansas City, Missouri 64105, Ph: (816)756-5690, Fax: (816)756-1606, Email: lbrown@pbassociates.com