Urban planner Whitehead drawn to city lights

The Memphis Daily News/The Memphis News

Dec. 6, 2013

As planning director for the Memphis & Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, Josh Whitehead wears the hat of a mediator – a facilitator of wishes among government, private business, developers and citizens.

It’s work that has seen plenty of coverage and plenty of controversy lately with the rejection of a proposed McDonald’s in the University District and the planning of a new concept restaurant, Truck Stop, at the corner of Cooper Street and Central Avenue in Midtown.

“I think that’s what OPD’s job is, to help an applicant hit a level of compromise,” Whitehead said.

He pinpoints his interest in community planning to a pecan pie. As a boy growing up in Plano, Texas, he’d made his way uninvited through the dessert. His mother told him she’d need a bottle of Karo syrup to whip up another pie and that he was responsible for going to the store for it.

“Plano was, and still is, such an auto-centric environment (that) some seemingly simple task like going to get a bottle of Karo syrup from the supermarket, it was terrifying to me,” he said. “I didn’t do it. I rode my bike who knows how many miles to get to the major arterial, and then it was straight down the major road to get to the shopping center where the grocery store was. It was such a terrifying experience for a child on a bike on that road.”

It was an experience that stuck with him and is a reason he’s sought out urban environments in which to live – and one that began him on his path to planning. It was a path that would ultimately begin in Memphis, where he had moved with his parents and attended Houston High School. He began college at Christian Brothers University, eventually graduating from the University of Memphis with a bachelor’s degree in geography with a concentration in urban planning.

A natural fascination with older, pre-war, original cities found him looking in the Rust Belt for graduate school and enrolling in the University of Cincinnati for a Master of Community Planning . . . (read more)