Learn the strategies for a rising city: Memphis Boot Camp

Sprawl, burdensome regulations, rising property taxes, and decreasing levels of municipal services – these challenges are the focus of the inaugural Strong Towns Boot Camp happening in Memphis this week. At these events our local leaders are being immersed in out-of-the-box civic planning that can save a fragile city with shrinking resources and growing demands – and you can learn along with them.

On Tuesday, the Mayor's Innovation Delivery Team and its partners gathered together some of Memphis’s biggest developers, business and civic leaders, philanthropy groups and investors to suggest they do one thing: think small.

The mantra is "tactical urbanism," and it's a focus of the three-day workshop Boot Camp Memphis, led by the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns. In town to speak to a nearly full auditorium at the Memphis Bioworks Foundation were Chuck Marohn, President of Strong Towns, and Mike Lydon, Principal of the Brooklyn-based The Street Plans Collaborative.

Participating partners include the Urban Land Institute, the Chairman's Circle of the Greater Memphis Chamber, Community LIFT, Livable Memphis, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and the Hyde Family Foundations.

After remarks by Mayor A C Wharton, Marohn opened the executive session by asking the audience whether or not government should try to make a profit and likened a city's investment versus return exchange to that of any business. He walked through the first life cycles of post-World War II growth and the development of sprawl that began in many cities as developers moved further and further out. Such growth created an "illusion of wealth" yet left cities destitute during the second life cycle, when the infrastructure built to facilitate such growth came due for maintenance.

"We've been doing everything right, we've been doing everything by the book, we've been doing everything that the experts told us to do and we've been creating growth," Marohn said. "The problem is it's not long-term--it's an illusion, and that's what we're struggling with today. This is what governments around the country are struggling with today."

The idea of Boot Camp Memphis is to find answers to the problem of sprawl and solve how to create opportunity in neighborhoods to facilitate action that might lead to improved communities.

According to Lydon, the process is three-fold: Build. Measure. Learn.

It's this method that has worked for Binghampton and the Broad Avenue Arts District, a model now studied nationally: Think small and invest minimal capital in an idea, see whether or not that idea works and why and then implement it on a larger scale.

Lydon presented examples of just this sort of successful process from around the country, including efforts to lessen car traffic in New York City's Times Square and to make the destination more pedestrian friendly. He also offered the example of a large-scale construction site in Brooklyn that was shelved after the 2008 recession. That site was later "pre-vitalized" with pop-up shops and cafes in an effort to showcase what its unseen potentials might be, much the same way the Tennessee Brewery: Untapped event, beginning this week, hopes to do for that Downtown Memphis landmark.

"This comes down to social capital, people working together," Lydon said. "There's a process being used here that can be transferred to any neighborhood once you start to find the people who are interested in bringing change together--not from the top down, but together from the bottom up."

Tactical urbanism is the idea that citizens can come together to participate in low-risk, high-reward approaches to instigate change in their communities. Mike Todd, longtime business owner and developer in Memphis' Edge District, the neighborhood to the west of the Medical District that has been slated by the Mayor's Office as the Innovation District, was in the audience to learn what the planners might suggest when it comes to urban renewal.

"I guess I've been a tactical urbanist for 15 or 20 years and didn't know it," Todd said after the presentations. He has bought and renovated properties up and down Monroe and Madison avenues, leasing some and selling others, over the years while seeking to unite his neighbors for the common good of the neighborhood. "What I want to learn is how to take the kind of things that we've done and try to help them have a larger impact ... I would really like to learn how to leverage what we do more."

Jeffrey Higgs felt validated as well, to learn that what he and his organization, the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Development Corporation, have been doing since 1999 is a model that has worked nationwide.

"This is so important to us--this has to become part of our culture if we're really serious about it," Higgs said. "That's what brought me here, was 'how do we really make this an everyday event'" instead of an occasional happening, such as an infrequent MEMFix or MEMShop?

Higgs has seen the fruits of tactical urbanism labor in South Memphis in the past 15 years, saying that "there's been almost $200 million worth of investments and grants and program and activity in probably one of the lowest-income census tracts in this county, and that's amazing."

The attendees hope to learn more over the coming days of how this idea of thinking small to realize big changes might work for their organizations and their communities. The workshop continues Wednesday and Thursday with breakout sessions during the days and debriefing sessions at night. For more information on these free sessions, please visit www.memphis2014.com.

Read more articles by Richard J. Alley.

A freelance writer since 2008, Richard’s work has appeared in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Magazine, Oxford American, The Memphis Flyer, River Times Magazine, Rhodes Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, and MBQ magazine among others, and in syndication through the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service. He is the editor of Development News for High Ground. Contact Richard.
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