Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Density And Sustainability Are Linked For A Bright Future

Memphis is # 345 on a list of world cities with the most people.

Memphis is # 70 on a list of world cities with the largest land areas.

Memphis is tied at # 638 on a list of world cities with the highest densities.

A study of sprawl factors concludes that the Memphis region is consuming land two times faster than its population is growing.

In another index of the 50 largest cities in the U.S., Memphis ranked #43 in being prepared for a sustainable future.

All in all, the numbers paint the picture of a community that’s failing to address problems that are much more fundamental than the county’s debt crisis (although one definitely follows the other).

It should be no surprise that unchecked sprawl here is producing more commuting and over greater distances, which creates more unsustainability, particularly when 80 percent of commuters drive to work alone and public transportation is virtually useless if you’re not a domestic worker.

As said in their survey: “Memphis prides itself on being a regional transportation hub. But the average citizen who needs to get from point A to point B usually does so in a car. Commuters rely almost exclusively on the automobile—over 81% drive alone to work (and) another 12% carpool, leaving a smattering of public transportation riders and walkers.

“As for public transportation, the city has invested in retooling its original trolley system in the downtown area and along the riverfront. This has been good for tourism and downtown business development but has had little impact on the transportation habits of the average resident.”

While commuting patterns here were once just the stimulus for editorials about carpooling, they now connect directly to our economic competitiveness, because how well a city is prepared for the deepening oil crisis may decide how successfully it weathers the oil crisis and its continuing sticker shock.

Denver and Destin

Our elected leaders would do well to study the example of Denver where a new commitment to multi-modal public transit is its response to these challenges. Seen as a way to decrease oil dependency, increase real estate values and create a more vital city, the $5 billion plan includes 119 miles of new light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit lines. In leading the passage of the new tax to pay for the system, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper extolled the organic relationship and lifeline that exists between the urban core and the suburbs. In the end, all 31 mayors in the region backed the plan, and it passed with 73 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, at the urging of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, developers in Los Angeles are increasing densities with mid-rise, mixed-use buildings in keeping with the architecture of the courtyard apartments for which L.A. was once known.

Even Destin is addressing sprawl, becoming the first city in Florida to apply for a new program aimed at luring people out of their cars and onto their feet and into public transportation. It calls for sidewalks, crosswalks, trolley routes, bike routes and subsidized apartments, and the alternative, planners say, is more time spent in vehicles covering longer and longer commutes.

Here, we soldier on the current course that begats McMansions; big-box stores that seem to migrate down major thoroughfares like giant insects, leaving desiccated shells in their wake; strip development whose name should more accurately refer to the way it strips away the sense of community; parkways that are too aptly named because of the idling lines of cars backed up there; expanding gas bills and waistlines; and the decline of downtown and the urban center.

Smarter and Cheaper

There’s a smarter way. Public services are less expensive when they are serving high-density areas, and capital costs are almost 50 percent cheaper than low-density sprawl. That’s why the strongest champions for high-density should be our local elected officials. They need to use their bully pulpits to correct public misperceptions that higher density means lower property values; to persuade financial institutions not yet comfortable with funding their construction; and to reinvent the local development standards that often discourage higher densities.

The benefits of this high-density development, according to the Urban Land Institute, are that:

• Density reduces automobile trips, encourages exercise through biking and walking and supports public transit.

• Density adds support for local retail and reduces the need for car-driven errands.

• Density fosters a sense of community the old-fashioned, it-takes-a-village way, because residents are more likely to get to know their neighbors and shop in the area.

• Density fosters greater safety, because it creates walking and biking that are a deterrent to crime.

• Density leaves more open space for parks, trails and other pedestrian-friendly options.

• Density provides greater opportunity for mixed-income housing affordable to households at more income levels.

Forms-based Zoning

One solution to what ails us is forms-based zoning, and fortunately, that’s exactly what’s being written right now for Memphis and Shelby County by nationally recognized consultants hired by the Office of Planning and Development. As the proposed Unified Development Code moves closer and closer to enactment, look for more and more energy invested by developers and builders to block it.

The beauty of forms-based codes is that the public is assured of the general compatibility of the project, because the discussion is focused on form, not density. The code, as proposed, includes a number of incentives to increase density, walkable communities and better design, and in reading it, it’s impossible to keep from thinking how different Memphis and Shelby County would look if it had been in place 15 years ago.

If you are wondering what’s the most important thing that we can be doing that fundamentally affects the place where we live, the amount of taxes that we pay and the kind of health that we have, it’s in getting this proposed Unified Development Code passed by city and county governments.


autoegocrat said...

Posts like this are why I love this blog.

Austin said...

And what about the MATATRAC? I haven't heard a word in years. I recently contacted for more information about where the project is today, and like almost every other email I send to a Memphis city or city sponsored employee, I received no response. If I need questions answered around here I have to get my city councilperson involved.

The MATATRAC website is:

LeftWingCracker said...

Well, gawdangit, what am I supposed to do with my QUINT CAB 6000 4X4 truck? You know about them evil cities, whar all that evil stuff happens, that's why i commute from Coldwater!

Seriously, until we have a new city mayor and she/he gets serious about the crime problem, we are going to continue to see BOTH black and white folks fleeing the city for the suburbs.

If we had a public transportation system that could get you from your home to your job in a reasonable amount of time, it would help.

However, the sprawl makes that more difficult.

Larry said...

You have a couple of basic flaws in your reasoning.

You're assuming that the people actually want to live in a higher density environment. As I have pointed out before, this is contrary to what is happening. More people are CHOOSING low density suburbs over high density cities.

More importantly tho, it appears you're assuming that these people in the high density environment won't have cars. In reality they will, so rush hour traffic will be worse, not better.

Please, don't tell me that they would use mass transit. Aside from the fact that mass transit in Memphis is a joke and the proposed LRT extension is boondoogle, Alan Pisarski found that the switch from mass transit is in dense, transit-oriented cities such as New York and San Francisco as much as in the suburbs.

Congestion is not is not solely a sprawl-related phenomenon.

According to Pisarski, 56 percent of the decline in transit usage was in central cities, while only 41 percent was in the suburbs; The largest declines in transit usage were in the transit-intensive Northeastern cities. (Alan Pisarski, Travel Behavior Issues in the 90's (Washington, DC: FHwA, 1992)).

Having said all that, I fully support things like the Broad Ave. Initative for the people who WANT to live in the city. We need to make Memphis a more attractive place to live but at the same time that doesn't mean choking off the current traffic corridors for those who choose not live in Memphis. I wouldn't rush to build any more for them, but I wouldn't choke off the ones we have.

If the citizens of Memphis vote for an additional tax for mass transit, then so be it, but I would oppose one being imposed by the city council. Especially given the current leadership at MATA.

Austin, you won't get a response from MATA. I try to attend the regional rail steering committee meetings otherwise I wouldn't know what is happening. You'd think they would at least post the minutes after they're approved ... but nooooo.

And I'm agreeing with LWC! We need new leadership and a better mass transit system. I've seen a few good ideas on mass transits that doesn't require huge subsidies.

Hopefully the Charter Commission will make a few fundamental changes like term limits. BTW, I'm running for Position 5. There area several changes that could be made which are non-ideological and would gather wide support.

Smart City Consulting said...

Autoegocrat, thanks for the kind words.

Austin and leftwingcracker, when you look at what real public transit looks like - think Portland and Denver - it's so clear that MATA isn't just behind the times, it's unsalvagable. Check out the website for the Portland transit authority if you want to see how one is supposed to be run - actual time and location of buses, directions that take you from your exact location to your final destination, etc. Here, we still tell you to send an email if you need directions and they'll try to get back to you within 24 hours.

Larry, the flaw in your thinking is that the public sector owes it to the low-density developments to subsidize their unsustainable way of living. If they want to live out in east-Jesus, we have no problem with it, but don't expect our property taxes and our county debt to skyrocket to make it possible for you to live in either a McMansion or in one of the those sad, disposable communities that local government has incentivized to happen. The decline in the use of transit in the central city is often precisely because of policies like those in this city that hollow out our urban core at a time when federal and state funding discourages expansions of bus systems into really effective transportation systems with real light rail, not cute trolleys.

One thing we all agree on and is a given: MATA needs to be shut down and started over.

LeftWingCracker said...

Amen to blowing up MATA!

I think it would help if we had a Portland-like transit system, but Larry is right in that people keep trying to flee to low-density areas.

Since the first Levittowns were built after WWII, the American consciousness has been drilled with the idea that everyone needs SPACE, and that you can have a city job and a country lifestyle.

Well, that may have worked in 1959 (my birth year) when there was only 185 million people in the USA.

Now, with nearly 300 million occupying the same amount of space, this is not a good option.

However, until gas goes to $5/gallon as it is in Europe, people are going to keep moving further out. They're like that idiot in the CA article earlier this week who had fled DeSoto County for Coldwater and then said "well, I'll probably give it ten years and then move to Panola County!"

For people like that, I have two answers: payroll taxes and toll roads!

Anonymous said...

Hey folks,

My name is Chris Jones. I am managing the Lee Harris for Memphis Congressional Campaign.

One of the big issues on Lee's platform is New Urbanism and Smart Growth. We selected and art gallery on South Main for our headquarters insted of the traditional bay in a strip mall to show our support for the redevelopment of neighborhoods.

Check out pics from the grand opening on Lee's site, (
there are quite a few photos on the blog site(just follow the link).

Anyway no other canidate has come out for new urbanism as strongly as Lee has. If you believe that this is the direction that Memphis should take as concerning its inner city nieghborhoods, then Lee Harris is your man.

mike said...

LWC, some flaws in your post.

First, "Levittowns" are actually a pre-war invention! They were originally built on Staten or Long Island. Their success using industrial production methods (rather than the craft construction of homes to that point) led to a need for much larger oned, hence to move out to the country.

"Sprawl" has been with Memphis since the turn of last century. Look at the Parkways! They were built so that the new middle class and rich could get away from the crowding and stink of downtown Memphis. Heck, even building the trolleys back then connected folks way out in the county to the city, making sprawl possible.

As more and more Americans moved off the farm following WWII and into the cities, there was more and more need to put people somewhere. But the factory and manufacturing jobs of the era were paying good enough wages (thanks to liberals like you!) that the workers didn't want to crowd in as they were forced to do in the late 19th and early 20th century, but to also spread out and grab a piece of the American Dream.

Sprawl, in other words, is a reflection of prosperity. Everyone wants a nice, private home with a yard big enough for the kids to safely play in. It's not "drilled in," it's what folks want. Families with kids do not like sharing walls and ceiling/floors with loud, obnoxious boors, nor having to navigate idle, drugged out slackers on their street!

That said, we can definitely do a better job of zoning and controlling the shape of the suburbs.

And speaking as a 20 veteran of the MATA system, let me tell you that it's politics that makes it such a muddle. The North Terminal should NEVER have been built downtown; we should have used a multi-hub approach given how spread out our city is. But the Terminal was built precisely because of folks like SMC (no disprespect intended) wanting a "strong, vibrant downtown."

The idiots who force riders to travel 30 - 40 minutes downtown just to catch the connection they need *going back out* for another 30 - 45 minutes should be made to ride the busses all day for a week. Or forcing riders to wait up to 90 minutes for the next bus on sparse lines, or only having service during morning and evening rush.

Ack, I could go on and on.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike: It's worth remembering that the Parkways were built as part of a plan, which goes back to our seminal point. There is no plan and sprawl is unsustainable as a result. When the Parkways were laid out, it was at a time when Memphis was actually considered a model of the Progressive Era, and its emphasis on quality of life and green space was copied and cited across the country as the exemplar of quality planning. That's what's missing now. The result of past public policies is that the county bank account has been used to subsidize developers building disposable neighborhoods and to provide urban services that are supposed to be in theory the byproducts of annexation. The Parkways within Memphis are the perfect poster child for good planning. What's the comparable in the areas of sprawl - Germantown Parkway? SCM

Anonymous said...

you say 'sprawl' like it was a bad word, or something.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: Let's make sure it doesn't just sound we think sprawl is bad. We know it's bad every time we pay our county property taxes.