A new comprehensive plan led by a newly created Office of Comprehensive Planning will direct the city’s future.
Contrary to common belief, city plans aren’t meant to sit high on a shelf collecting dust.
In fact, plans are meant to be used, guiding the growth of a community five, 10 or 20 years into the future.
The city of Memphis is in the pre-planning phase of organizing a team that will create a comprehensive plan to lead the city’s future for the next 20 years and beyond. A series of meetings in the coming months – if not years – will steer the direction. This two-year process will lead to a comprehensive plan for the future of Memphis.
A newly created Office of Comprehensive Planning will lead the process, one that will include gaining input from citizens in all corners of the city to learn more about neighborhoods, industries and more. The city soon will hire an administrator to lead the office, which will be staffed by current municipal employees.
“Building on the public input piece, that is the process that will differentiate this plan from others,” said Paul Young, Director of City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development. “We want to use different types of mediums from technology to in-person five-minute conversations with residents. As much as the plan is about land use, it’s about the opportunities in this city and how can we maximize our potential as a city. So we want to connect needs and desires. We want to communicate the vision of what we want to be.”
Most cities have comprehensive plans on the books that guide the future decisions of where investments are made and growth will occur. Those 20- and 25-year plans usually come with periodic check-ins every five years or so.
In the city of Memphis’ case, the last plan – Memphis 2020 – was adopted in 1981.
“In the 35 years since that plan was done the median age of the city is 33 so the majority of the city wasn’t alive when that plan was done,” said John Zeanah, Deputy Director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development. “People have asked us talking about the plan how effective was it if we haven’t done anything with it. But look at the urban growth boundary that set future growth of the city. It looks like what the city border looks like so in a sense we did follow it.”
But in hindsight, Zeanah said, the city grew outward in accordance with that plan and the population hasn’t grown to match it. There are some 650,000 people who live in a roughly 325-square-mile city, which is about the same population as in 1970 with nearly three times the amount of land.
“It’s a great moment in time for the city to harness the energy and passion for planning for the future,” Zeanah said. “The leadership of Mayor (Jim) Strickland and his interest in thinking about his focus on being brilliant at the basics and pivoting to building for the future. A comprehensive plan is a great way to think about the future but weave in the basics as well.”
In one of Strickland’s periodic email updates that was sent in late June he discussed the two-year process to shape the plan.
“The comprehensive planning process will draw in deep input from all corners of our city to envision plans for every community,” he said in the email. “By weaving together many of the existing initiatives underway in our city with a bold, common vision for growth and prosperity, neighborhood improvement, connectivity, quality of life and opportunity, this comprehensive plan has the potential to transform our entire city for generations to come.”
So how does a city plan for what it wants to be years down the road while executing the day-to-day tasks of operating a municipality, specifically over a 20-year period? One of the current missions is to build the team that will drive the process. That should be complete sometime this fall.
“From there we have to get into the community and make it visible that this is taking place,” Zeanah said. “More than the city saying to the public we’re doing this and here’s why it’s important, we want to say this is happening and you tell me what’s important. We’ll get on that track soon.”
The process will include the alignment of the city’s various programs and neighborhood plans, from South City and Soulsville USA to the Mid-South Greenprint and Aerotropolis. Some of those plans are more focused on a neighborhood; Soulsville USA, for example, might look at bringing a restaurant or certain type of business to a specific street corner. The city plan will be much broader while helping neighborhoods achieve detailed goals.
“In each of those cases there have been community members who have dedicated time and thought to those plans,” Zeanah said. “We don’t want to throw them away. But we have to ask how does that document influence decisions that might be made in a comprehensive plan in thinking about things.”
It’s important to note that everything in a plan doesn’t have to come to fruition during that set time period.
“The work starts now and we build toward it,” Zeanah said. “There will be things five years from now that we didn’t see when we started. In five years there will be things we have no way of predicting.”
Discussion will occur across the city. Neighborhood associations will be engaged in conversations to better understand local needs. People in transit centers and grocery stores will be asked questions. Zeanah said strategies will be framed around personal interactions rather than meetings with large groups of people that might only provide the opportunity for a few to be heard.
Zeanah and Young were involved in the Mid-South Regional Greenprint. Early in that process their philosophy was to go with what works, fix what’s fixable and pivot away from what isn’t. That same philosophy will lead the city’s comprehensive plan.
What also worked for the Greenprint was having something like the development of the Shelby Farms Greenline that minimized many of the negative opinions that existed prior to its opening. For the comprehensive plan, the idea is to find the visionary developments that have worked in the city – Overton Square and Broad Avenue, for example – and use those to build on.
“There are different homegrown examples and we’ll try to pull from other cities,” Young said. “We have a lot locally that positions us well to make it an effective initiative.”