Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Sprawl Makes Road To Sustainability Long And Hard

The burgeoning green ethos that’s bubbling up from grassroots Memphis is gaining ground, and it can’t come too soon.

The downturn in gas prices may lull our city into a false sense of security, but we’re confident that the various forces for change – the evolution of cycling from a group of enthusiasts into a community of activists, the ambitious agenda of Sustainable Shelby attacking sustainability on all fronts, and the mushrooming of community-based programs like Green Fork, Green Hope, Clean Memphis, Grow Memphis and more – will not allow us to lapse into lethargy.

The actions of county government that drove up the public debt paid by all of us to about $2 billion and effectively put millions of dollars into the pockets of politically-connected, influential developers and homebuilders produced a pattern of sprawl that will require Herculean efforts to reverse.

The Numbers

Here’s the tale of the tape:

• Of the world’s largest cities by population, Memphis is #159.

• In land area, it is #69 in the world.

• In population density, it is #168.

It would be bad enough to contend with the consequences of sprawl in terms of the financial costs, but the social costs are even more. The warren of houses stamped out on small lots on parallel streets make finding an address in many suburban areas as difficult as finding an address in Venice (where the street names change every block).

Digging Out Of A Hole

Worst of all, the problems that characterize Hickory Hill are destined to be repeated in other areas where the design ethic, the inferior construction and the inattention to creating neighborhoods have been recreated. In other words, there is little question that like Hickory Hill, these sad developments will require homeowners to invest significant money in their houses before the first mortgage is even paid off.

Despite the temporary respite from gas prices, it is likely that there will remain increased interest by many suburbanites in moving westward to reduce their commuting. If we can reduce the average mileage driven by motorists by just one mile, it produces $250 million in additional income.

Sadly, we have to dig out of a really deep hole if we are to create a more sustainable community. Most surveys of green behavior find us on the wrong end of the rankings.

It’s Pretty Rank

Of the largest 50 metros in the U.S., Memphis ranked #45 in city preparedness for an oil crisis. The top 10 cities were unsurprising: 1) San Francisco; 2) New York; 3) Washington, D.C.; 4) Seattle; 5) Oakland; 6) Chicago; 7) Portland, Oregon; 8) Philadelphia; 9) Baltimore; and 10) Boston.

Ranking highest, according to the survey by Common Current, are cities with strong public transit system ridership (which we suspect is tied to delivery of a quality product, the crux of the problem here), well-organized and relatively dense city centers, a high degree of mixed real estate uses (retail, office and residential) and medium-to-high city population density.

Memphis’ ranking in various categories is revealing and points to the areas where we need to concentrate our efforts:

Carpooling: #13

Telecommuting Rate: #50 (dead last)

City Resident Public Transit Commute Use: #36

City Resident Walk/Bike Commute Rate: #38

Metro Area Overall Per Capita Public Transit Ridership: #39

Metro Area Sprawl: #35 (of 46 cities)

Trouble In River City

In stating the obvious, “clearly, the way in which cities and metro areas are planned and developed also has a measurable impact on fuel use, household transportation expenses as well as the degree of dependence on auto transport,” the report might as well have been commenting on Memphis.

A recent survey by BusinessWeek identified the 20 cities where Americans would most like to live and where they would least like to live. Memphis wasn’t on either list. The magazine observed how important it is to attract talent these days, and we’ve repeatedly pointed out the particular challenge facing Memphis when it comes to 25-34 year-olds – the most mobile, most entrepreneurial and best educated generation in history – and the precise group we need to retain and attract.

From 2000-2006, Memphis lost 14,508 people in this demographic, speeding up a skid that began in the 1990’s with a decrease of 6,814. It’s a troubling trend, particularly at a time when Memphis is struggling to compete in a knowledge-based economy. Past public policies, especially tax freezes given to companies that don’t pay living wages and that subsidized industries offering low-wage, low-skill jobs that relegate Memphis to the bottom rungs of economic growth in the future.

Selling Memphis At A Discount

By the way, already, the dismal job creation rate in Memphis and the weak record of capital investments are producing a Greek chorus calling for weakening the PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) program of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board little more than a year after some of the most liberal policies in the U.S. were reformed.

The mantra from developers and economic development types is that we need to loosen up the public cash register once again because we can’t compete with Desoto County unless we do it.

First off, our challenge isn’t to compete with DeSoto County. That’s part of our problem. We’ve got the question all wrong: we’re competing with cities in Asia and India. And frankly, we’d just as soon see some of the low-wage, low-skill jobs move to DeSoto County so their taxpayers can pay for the social services that they need as a result of not receiving living wages.

Freezing Tax Freezes

If we are going to loosen up the regulations for tax freezes, we sure don’t need to return to business as usual and the over-reliance on tax freezes. As we were the first to point out three years ago, in a 10-year period in which Nashville only stamped approved on 5 tax freezes, Memphis/Shelby County approved 415 tax freezes which waived $60 million a year in taxes (we gave more tax freezes than the other 94 Tennessee combined).

If the IDB returns to the good old days, there would be one of those rare outcries that will reverberate loudly in the halls of government. That said, and this was why we brought up tax freezes in the first place, if the IDB is going to shift from perpetuating Memphis’ non-competitiveness in the knowledge economy to being a vehicle to create the kind of community that we need to compete in the future, it needs to tie its incentives to the objectives and strategies of Sustainable Shelby and to the overall sustainability programs that are creating a buzz about cities today.

And if you don’t think that is important, let us quote BusinessWeek: “Perception is a big deal when it comes to places. Everybody has preconceived notions.”

On A Bubble

Here’s the thing: we don’t have the margin for error that many cities have. We have to get things right, and we have to make the most of every investment, every program and every opportunity.

That’s why Sustainable Shelby is so crucial. It institutionalizes sustainability as a core principle and a core business of the public sector, and that’s an important beginning. There is so much to do, and we are blessed right now by the presence of so many people – especially young, creative ones – who are prepared to do what it takes.

Tomorrow: Bikes as vehicles for change


Anonymous said...

bait shop in the pyramid.

Target at the fairgrounds.

new big houses in SW memphis in the mayuhs hood.

new convention center, somewheres.

nearly a dozen new houses built inside the city limits this year.

what problem you referring to?
developmint look fine to me

Anonymous said...

Combat sprawl with pay as you go tax system. Taxe vehicles by their weight/fuel effiecency/miles driven. Eliminate the flat wheel tax. If you work in Memphis/Shelby county but live outside, make them register their car and tax them only on their weight and fuel effiecency. At least you will get some tax revenue and encourage people to get smaller, lighter, high mileage cars.

antisocialist said...

Hehehe. The last three words in the title for this post made me chuckle.

Anonymous said...

Sprawl is a clear sign of corrupt council and government, bad planning, and no interest in doing anything but taking money under the table for construction permits in the wrong places.
Maybe you haven't noticed that's what the country at large is doing to fund the economy for the last twenty years?
Taxing people into buying cars that are largely unavailable is tyranny!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot, now that there is a clear conviction of Thompson, you can bring a civil suit for the damage to the city and county that he has caused. How bout it?
Any lawyers got balls?

Anonymous said...

its really nice blog
Entertainment at one stop