What smart cities can learn from Memphis

High Ground

March 12, 2014

What smart cities can learn from Memphis

With recent successes in battling urban sprawl, Memphis is demonstrating creative ways to foster neighborhood revitalization. Memphis now has lessons to share with others on urban planning, neighborhood involvement and ‘bootstrapping.’

The story of sprawl in Memphis begins as early as the 1950s and with one of the first suburban shopping centers in the country, Poplar Plaza, built at the edge of the city’s eastern limit. The sprawl continued in earnest throughout the ‘70s, cutting into the surrounding county with the deliberateness and tenacity of a Mississippi River current as developers gobbled up land further and further east. An interstate loop was built around the city, then another. Eventually a third offshoot would break off to wend its way around single family homes, malls, soccer fields, movie multiplexes and car sale lots.

While the city hasn’t actively worked to abort the sprawl, the flow is beginning to abate as more and more entrepreneurs, planners, consumers, families and government itself looks inward, back to the city and its neighborhoods.

This is We mural on Broad Ave. Photo by Andrew J. Breig

This is We mural on Broad Ave.
Photo by Andrew J. Breig

The idea that other smart cities may have something to learn from Memphis is a new one, a radical one, yet completely plausible given recent successes.

The first such lesson is to not let the rigidity often associated with planning get in the way of progress.

“Local government here is learning to be flexible, learning to be nimble, learning to reorient and be able to respond more quickly to these neighborhood-driven efforts,” says Tommy Pacello, project manager for the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team. Incidentally, another lesson for cities might be to get yourself such a team. This one, funded by the Bloomberg Foundations beginning in 2012, has worked to reduce gun violence and restore economic vitality to core neighborhoods within the city.

Giving in to Community-Driven Growth

The neighborhood efforts Pacello references are epitomized by the creation of theBroad Avenue Arts District along a once-forgotten street in the nearly forgotten neighborhood of Binghampton in Midtown. The district is a half-mile revitalization project realized by a few key players in the neighborhood. Through a series of festivals, pop-up markets and the unwavering dedication of a handful of restauranteurs and retailers – and one gutsy action of citizens hand-painting bicycle lanes and head-in parking spaces along the street – the stakeholders proved to the city what could be done and made clear what it was they wanted to see in their neighborhood.

And, to its credit, the city listened. Not only listened but, with the adoption of the 500-page Unified Development Code in 2010, “there is now a codified process by which the neighborhood associations are brought into the discussion sooner and the goal is … that if we bring in the neighborhood sooner, then they can be more instrumental on the design of the project,” says Josh Whitehead, planning director for the Memphis & Shelby County Office of Planning and Development. “What they wanted it (the UDC) to be is more flexible to allow, and to make easier, redevelopment inside the city.”

“They’re thinking about creative placemaking, and thinking about this concept of lean urbanism, which is this whole idea essentially about how do we build great places out of baling wire and twine and not thinking about over-engineering projects,” says Pacello.

As counterintuitive as it may seem coming from a planner, long-range planning may not be in the best interest of a city. Whitehead, instead, makes the case for looser land use control and points to Portland, Oregon, as example. That progressive city has a state-implemented “urban growth boundary,” a line in the sand dictating that no development occurs outside that line until the density within reaches a certain threshold.

It is an effective impediment to urban sprawl. But in an older area of town, industrial makers and manufacturers are being encroached upon by residential and commercial retail concerns, Whitehead says. “Only the city of Portland can rezone your property and they do that comprehensively as a big neighborhood … it’s so restrictive.”

His suggestion: “The language of code needs to be as freewheeling as possible.”

Thinking small in the beginning, starting off manageably with pop-up shops and temporary green spaces or street festivals, solidifies a neighborhood’s vested interest in its area of town. The analogy is of a parent and child. The child decides she wants to play trombone but, instead of rushing out and paying hundreds of dollars for an instrument that may be left behind in short order, the parent rents one. The budding musician gets a feel for the instrument, shows a willingness to practice and the responsibility of it. Once the parent is convinced, something more permanent is considered.

And once it’s considered, the parent – or city – must act quickly and in similar, responsible fashion. This may include reworking sewers, adding or doing away with street lights, or knitting those neighborhoods together through pedestrian and bike-friendly right of ways, as is the goal of the Mid-South Complete Streets and the Mid-South Regional Greenprint initiatives. Both work to, in essence, bring the city together through a network and patchwork of pedestrian-friendly streets, roadways, pathways and green spaces . . . (read more)