Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Environmental Report Fuels Greening Greater Memphis

If the Greening Greater Memphis movement needed any extra boost, it’s come in the form of Memphis’ scores on the Urban Environment Report by the Earth Day Network.

In rating 72 cities on more than 200 environmental health indicators, Memphis finished # 50.

We can thank our water quality for keeping us from sinking lower. In a category where we still have bragging rights (if only about the water, not MLGW), Memphis was 12th in drinking and surface water.

Our second highest rating was substantially lower - # 38 in air quality – and in the other five categories, Memphis ranked from 52 to 60.

Not Easy Being Green

All in all, it underscored the importance of the new alliance unveiled at the Greening Greater Memphis event a few weeks ago at Memphis Botanic Garden. There, dozens of environmental groups and a SRO turnout of more than 1,000 people signed on to a declaration demanding greater public attention to the creation of parks, greenways, waterways, bike paths and more.

The centerpiece for the movement is a green necklace of natural assets, including Shelby Farms Park, Wolf River, the rails-to-trails project for the abandoned CSX Railroad line, and the downtown riverfront.

The good news is that it’s all affordable and doable, and at much less cost than a football stadium, which would serve fewer people and do little to position Memphis positively in the national competition for talent. In fact, when compared to the competitive advantage of outdoor recreational opportunities in the knowledge economy, the stadium is a non-starter.

Safety Valve

The unexpected turnout at the Greening event indicates the untapped and pent-up energy in support of environmental responsibility and for public leaders who understand how to respond to the interests of their citizens.

The Urban Environment Report, released a couple of weeks ago, put an exclamation point on the themes spotlighted at the Greening Greater Memphis event – green spaces strangled by sprawl, disconnected neighborhoods with limited recreational activities, the meager number of bike paths, developer-driven decisions on open spaces and a general insensitivity to the impact of these natural resources in creating a healthy city.

In placing 50th in the list of 72 cities, Memphis’ rankings were:

# 58 – Toxics and Waste

# 38 – Air Quality

# 12 – Drinking and Surface Water

# 52 – Quality of Life

# 60 – Parks and Recreation Opportunities

# 55 – Human and Public Health

# 59 – Global Warming Climate Change

Parking Low

The fact that Memphis’ lowest rating came in parks and recreation is validation for the importance of the Greening event and the focus taken by its sponsors. (In the interest of complete disclosure, we acknowledge that we were a host of the event.)

In ranking cities from 1 (best) to 5 (worst), Memphis got the lowest possible scores in average number of parks per square mile and park programs to assist low-income park users. Unfortunately, in all but one of the other indicators, our city scored 4’s – average area dedicated to parks per square mile, park area per 1000 residents, parkland as percentage of city area, adjusted park spending per resident and total urbanized area percentage.

Even the highest rating for parks – scoring 1 – wasn’t exactly great news, since it was for the collection of data about crime in parks.

Memphis’ overall ranking placed it in the bottom third of the list in the company of cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio. Nashville finished 43rd, Little Rock 37th, Charlotte 25th, Birmingham 61st, Jackson MS, 65th and New Orleans 67th. Detroit was the last place city, and Fargo was top rated.

High And Low

Some measurements where Memphis scored highest are percentage of recycled municipal waste, year-round particle pollution, irrigation in million gallons per day, fresh water consumption, agricultural pollutants, sprawl and urban pollutants, industrial pollutants, total violations, annual congestion delay and fuel cost, cost of utilities and cost of health.

The indicators where Memphis received the worst possible score – 5 – were more numerous, and included cumulative developmental toxicant releases, municipal solid waste generation, percentage of municipal solid waste to energy, high ozone days, percentage of people who walk or bike to work, percentage of people who work at home, cumulative graduate rate, voter turning in 2004 election, volunteering rate, number of small, local, sustainable food sources, Mini-Kyoto participant, greenhouse gas emissions reduction program and green building standards.

In the global warming category, Memphis was dragged down by the lack of state programs to address greenhouse gases, renewable energy and green building standards.


The Washington-based Earth Day Network was founded by organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970, and its mission is to promote environmental citizenship and progressive action worldwide. The Urban Environment Report is the first of its kind, not only because of the quantity of data, but in its use of environment to embrace public health, poverty, education and other quality of life issues, the organization said in its release.

The city-by-city data is at www.earthday.net/UER/report.

By the way, Earth Day is April 22, and if you are looking for a perfect way to spend it, you should be interested in the Hip to be Green Day at Shelby Farms Park. While it is really hip to be the rock group Green Day, on this occasion, it’s hip to be green by attending a gospel service, restoration projects and environmental projects on the 4,500 acres that are the linchpin for the Greening Greater Memphis vision.