The intersection of art and urban planning makes Memphis 3.0 a multimedia strategy

Memphis 3.0, the city’s master plan in progress, is using art to engage the community in the planning process by embedding local artists in disinvested areas.


It’s been four decades since Memphis created a comprehensive development plan, and the previous plan focused on the suburbs and neglected to include citizen input.


Memphis 3.0 is the initiative leading the way to create a plan for great neighborhoods through smart land use, improved connectivity and better opportunities and improved quality of life for all residents.

And the planning process meets residents where they are in their own neighborhoods. Starting in late 2017, the city’s Memphis 3.0 organizers launched a series of meetings in the city’s 14 districts to give the public opportunities to voice their opinions on the city’s mega-plan.

Although citizens are participating in neighborhood meetings, as well as online surveys, in-person surveys and one-on-one interviews, the embedding of the three Memphis-based artists selected by partner UrbanArt Commission for the arts element of Memphis 3.0 digs deeper beyond the data. 


Engaging people through art can help inform city planners about what issues are most relevant to residents and what changes and areas of growth they want to see in their communities. This will impact the short and long-term strategies to improve the quality of life for residents that will be laid out in the final comprehensive plan.

Yancy Villa: Memphis 3.0 Artist from High Ground News on Vimeo.


UrbanArt Commission received about 30 applications from Memphis artists, who submitted work samples and were asked to describe their community and artistic interests and the neighborhoods and organizations with which they had connections. The 14 planning districts included in Memphis 3.0 are divided among the three selected artists, which means each covers a lot of ground.

Neili Jones, an artist working with Memphis 3.0 urban planners. (Houston Cofield)

“A huge goal in the selection process was for there to be a diversity of perspectives and communities being brought to the table — and also media,” said Lauren Kennedy, executive director of UrbanArt Commission. Kennedy had previously followed the progress of planning initiatives in cities such as Minneapolis and Calgary, Canada, where artists were embedded to work on projects in residency opportunities.


Artists like Frayser native Neili Jones, who works in mediums that include everything from sculpture to fiber arts to watercolors to photography, are given freedom to engage with residents in a unique way.


Jones, an alumna of Savannah College of Art & Design’s Atlanta campus whose art often centers on social justice issues in underserved communities, returned to Memphis with the intention of harnessing her art to address social issues in the city.


“When I came here [to UrbanArt Commission], the call for artists seemed to be the same thing — bringing that voice of people who are underserved or overlooked to the surface,” she said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I came home for.’”


Jones is currently embedded in Frayser working on a project called “Frayser Through A Community Lens,” which combines several mediums and focuses on word, space and people and is based on the conversations she’s having with residents. She wants to create a place at the table for everyone, bringing it all together in a mixed media installation that visually tells their stories.


“My goal is to collaborate with community artists, including students of the MLK Success Zone and Knowledge Quest, young adults and high school students and ex-convicts who are re-entering society,” she said.


Jones’ one-on-one neighborhood interviews that shape her art reflect the issues Memphis 3.0 is highlighting such as land use and connectivity.


“Collecting the information is the ongoing process. That’s how I’m really connecting with the residents,” she said. “Under all the complaining and all the gripes, there’s so much pride in and love for this city.”

Artist Alex Greene is making field recordings of various sounds throughout neighborhoods in Memphis. (Houston Cofield)

Artist and musician Alex Greene is also a Memphis native — of Memphis, Nebraska, where he grew up in a farm on the outskirts of town. He first arrived in Memphis, Tennessee in 1988 after studying computer music and anthropology in New York, and he’s been living here off and on ever since.


Greene has played a wide range of music, from garage rock to jazz, and with artists such as Tav Falco and Alex Chilton. Over the past decade, he’s returned to his roots as a synthesizer musician, composing soundtracks for documentaries and indie films and combining that passion with art through ambient sound installations.


His Memphis 3.0 project, Remix Memphis, involves loading field recordings of ambient sounds from neighborhoods throughout the city onto an iPad and then asking Memphians to listen to the sounds while he registers their reactions. Those reactions help inform a proposal for what residents want in a thriving neighborhood.


Those conversation-staring audio snippets include everything from leaf blowers to FedEx jets to jazz music being played from a porch — sounds that spark a variety of thoughts and emotions that vary distinctly from one resident to the next.


Greene said engaging people through familiar non-visual cues, as opposed to more abstract mediums, prompts them to think more about their day-to-day life experience.


“I’m trying to engage people in a nonvisual way … it’s kind of an exercise in power over your environment because you can just hit a button and that sound goes away, unlike in real life,” he said.


Greene said he’s also crowdsourcing for his final Memphis 3.0 installation by soliciting recordings from people around the city. People can record sounds on their smartphones and email the files to [email protected].


He’s hoping to collaborate with a visual or multimedia artist to create an interactive map that Memphians can touch to hear those sounds collected from around the city.


“The final project will be where I take all of the field recordings and create a kind of sound collage experience,” Greene said.


The project’s third artist, Yancy Villa-Calvo, recently closed her installation, “Barrier Free,” at Memphis City Hall, after it had traveled to cities around the county.


“That has created a wonderful environment to listen to everyone’s barriers,” said Villa, who came to Memphis from Mexico 23 years ago to study at Christian Brothers University. “It’s not only about immigrants, but it’s about refugees, LGBT rights, mass incarceration — any barriers that are separating families. So that experience working in the communities has been amazing — just to see how art opens up the possibilities of dialogue. I believe listening to individual stories can change your mind and give a human face to a legal issue.”
Yancy Villa-Calvo, an artist working with Memphis 3.0 urban planners. (Houston Cofield)
As a psychology major at CBU, Villa-Calvo discovered her love for art after taking an acrylic painting class. Concerned about whether she could make a living as an artist, she earned an MBA, but continued taking art classes on the side. Some years later, Villa-Calvo returned to university, completed a BFA in painting, and began networking with other local artists while immersing herself in Memphis’ art community.


“I was really excited about having the opportunity to collaborate with artists, with the communities, with the nonprofit sector — everything that’s intersecting in Memphis 3.0,” she said.


Villa-Calvo is using a series of maps highlighting the city’s gems — not only its landmarks and amenities but its people —and particularly those in Memphis’ immigrant communities.


To uncover these community’s unique identities, her eye-catching “gem-mobile” travels the city to engage residents by asking them what elements of their neighborhoods instill pride and what their dreams are for the future.


“You are the most important part of the city, so let’s highlight the stories of the neighborhood, the positive things that are happening, and the less polished gems that need to be polished and uncovering the ones who do not have a voice,” she said.


Being an English- and Spanish-speaking artist makes Villa-Calvo a tremendous asset in sparking this type of dialogue, and she’s now working to translate her efforts in Arabic and Vietnamese to engage more immigrant populations who are contributing to Memphis but have often been ignored in planning processes.


“My goal is to help city planners get information,” she said. “So, instead of presenting a computer survey or pages of questions, this is my survey ... we’re talking about transportation, sustainability, livability, and all of these fancy terms about city planning. It’s huge, so how do you narrow it down? It’s been really a challenge for all of us.”


A culminating showcase for all the artists’ work across all the districts is planned for the end of 2018.

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Read more articles by Aisling Maki.

Aisling Maki is a writer and editor with awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and Public Relations Society of America. Her work has appeared in publications in more than 20 countries and she has written locally for more than a dozen publications, including The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Flyer and Memphis Parent Magazine. She previously worked as a digital producer and weekend reporter for Action News 5, Memphis correspondent for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) and staff reporter for Memphis Daily News.