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.

The This is We mural was created on Broad Avenue during its revitalization project.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 the Broad 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.

The Big Impact of Small Investment

In 2010, Memphis was deemed one of the worst cities for cycling. Two years and 50 miles of dedicated bike lanes later, it was one of the most-improved. Most of those lanes are within the city limits and many connect the revitalized areas of Cooper-Young, Overton Square, Broad Ave. and Downtown through a system of white lines and crosswalks.
Memphis is one of only a few cities nationwide to have had this sort of success grown from the bottom up, says Sarah Newstok, program manager for Livable Memphis, a driving force behind such initiatives. “We made policy happen,” she says about the community. “It was a true grassroots effort.”

While the city appears committed to safe pedestrian culture, and striping a street already scheduled for paving is a relatively low investment, there are other investments that show the government’s dedication to a neighborhood’s desires. In Overton Square, a vibrant entertainment district of the 1960s and ‘70s that saw storefronts and restaurants abandoned years later, the needs of the district’s revitalization were met in the form of a $12 million investment in a new 451-space parking garage with an underground water retention basin to alleviate potential flooding of the area from nearby Lick Creek.

The garage was the last piece of a puzzle begun by local entrepreneurs, developers and live theatres expanding into the area.

Across Midtown, another puzzle is the redevelopment of the 1.5 million sq. ft. Sears retail and distribution center. Vacated in 1993, it has sat empty since and, with it, surrounding streets and homes have deteriorated as well. Once private money was in place, the final piece needed was $15 million from the city for easements. With the chance at neighborhood revitalization and the private investments committed, the city could hardly say no to the relatively small ask once the interest was made apparent and private funding guaranteed.

“The way that redevelopment has taken place, cities around the country are learning from (it),” says Pacello. “What they did there was really clever because they went in and they spent a couple of years learning the neighborhood, understanding the neighborhood, highlighting why this area was valuable and kind of uncovering the hidden value of the neighborhood.”

If allowed to organically change and adapt, the result can be a neighborhood as vibrant as Cooper-Young with its many shops, restaurants, eclectic homes and residents, and a festival that draws over 100,000 every year.

The Power of 'Bootstrapping'

A smart city must play to its strengths, leverage its assets for future success. Such assets can be readymade, such as a commanding view from the high ground overlooking the Mississippi River or an already burgeoning arts and culture scene in walkable neighborhoods such as Overton Square and Cooper-Young. The nascent Innovation District has the advantage of being sandwiched between a world-renowned medical and biosciences district and Memphis’s historic and reinvigorated Downtown.

One advantage of Broad Ave., says Pacello, are the mid-century buildings of relatively manageable size. “They were the size building an end user could step into, and doesn’t have any redevelopment experience, and figure out how to renovate it.”

The renovation possibilities are easily imagined and explained, simply realized. The growth has been “bootstrapped” Pacello says, with a community-driven, micro-investment of $20,000 and the “New Face for an Old Broad” campaign, realizing $20 million in private investment, 25 new businesses open and several art installations popping up in the area.

“An interesting thing about Broad Ave. is that none of those things are over a million dollars, it’s just all been totally bootstrapped,” Pacello says.The%20developers%20of%20the%20Sears%20Crosstown%20revitalization%20project%20received%20support%20from%20healthcare%20and%20educational%20groups.

Nearby, at Sears Crosstown, the very opposite was true of the space and therefore the challenge more complex. Instead of relying on smaller entrepreneurs, the developers called upon the vast community of healthcare and educational resources in the city, finding interest for the future space in the Church Health Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Rhodes College, the Memphis Teacher Residency Program, Gestalt charter high school and others.

Newstok’s message to other cities looking to become smarter is to not give up, that persistence pays off. She works with neighborhood associations to realize dreams and she realizes that many of those dreams take time. But she also knows that the desires of a community will be heard if its voice is loud enough and if those dreams are viable.

“We might not have a lot of resources,” she says, “but it is sheer will making all of this happen.”
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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.