Monday, January 26, 2009

Getting Memphis Into The Shrinking City Movement

Memphis is a shrinking city.

We’re not talking about the slight decrease in the raw population numbers since 2000. Rather, we’re talking about the practical impact of significant population losses in the traditional city – represented by the 1970 Memphis boundaries. It’s these areas whose neighborhoods need to be healthy and whose success is crucial to the future of Memphis.

Because (thankfully) we’re not like most similarly sized cities that are land locked and surrounded by dozens of small towns, it’s easy at times to think that our relatively stable population indicates a city that is doing well.

We’ve masked the fact that we are in truth a shrinking city by annexations that prop up our population numbers and grant us a false sense of security. As a result, we’ve side-stepped the serious discussion that is needed about whether annexation today is actually a boon to the budgets of Memphis city government and whether stretching already faltering public services over a larger area is the sound public policy for our city.

Genesis Of The Exodus

Here’s what we are talking about: the population within the 1970 city limits of Memphis is now 20.2% less than it was then. In other words, 124,348 people within the 217.4 square miles 1970 Memphis borders are no longer there.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the largest exodus took place between 1970 and 1980 when 57,987 people left our city.

No amount of annexation is cosmetic enough to prevent the inescapable conclusion that in our pursuit of new taxes, we may actually have escalated the decline of the urban center. Operating on the theory that annexation areas are the sources of much-needed new property taxes, city government has taken a decidedly optimistic viewpoint of the overall net fiscal effect.

Perhaps, it’s not enough to calculate the costs of the new services to the new area. More to the point, the analysis needs to evaluate carefully and thoroughly what the impact is on services and neighborhoods in the former city limits.

We Need To Be Denser

When the 20th century dawned, Memphis covered an area of 18.5 square miles with a density of 7,125. No one would have expected that Memphis should have stayed that small, but even by 1970, it was only at 217.4 square miles (a doubling of the size of the city in about 20 years since 1950).

Today, the size of Memphis is bigger than the size of New York City – 346 square miles to 305 square miles. The overlay of public services over such a massive area stretches already underfunded services even more, and to us, it suggests to us that our city needs a serious debate over the relationship between the size of the city and the effectiveness and economy of its public services.

Maybe, just maybe, the optimal size for highly efficient public services and the best quality of life is smaller, and if it is, we need to decide that now before Memphis expands to almost 500 square miles under the existing annexation reserve agreements with the other Shelby County towns.

When “annexed out,” Memphis will be the size of Los Angeles.

A New Perspective

Already, the density of Memphis is down to just over 2,000 persons per square mile. That’s down from about 4,000 in 1960, about 3,000 in 1970, and about 2,500 in 1980. Not only are cities more sustainable when they are denser, but public services are easier to deliver economically.

Perhaps, a comprehensive return on investment analysis will show that annexation is the best course of action for city government, but we need to be sure. We need to see the evidence.

And, the evidence must be more than an accounting exercise. More to the point, it must reach conclusions about what the older parts of our city are likely to look like as a result of more annexation, including the needs of these area and the ability of the city to respond to them. Most of all, the analysis should consider investments that would improve Memphis’ ability to compete for 25-34 year-old college-educated workers and middle class families back into Memphis.

Before we begin, we need to set aside the obsession by cities in growing population. Growth at the expense of quality of life means nothing. Growth at the fringe that consumes funds that should be invested in the “old” city is not really growth in its broadest sense.

Getting In The Right Conversation

That’s why we believe that Memphis needs to get involved in the shrinking cities discussions under way by several cities. It’s a field of study just now getting attention, but it will become more and more important in coming years. After all, for every two cities that are growing, three are shrinking.

We may not like the company we will be keeping – Detroit, Dayton, Cleveland and Youngstown, to name but four – but we need to consider that success may not be in celebrating 40 units of housing in a badly deteriorated section of Memphis but in considering how we move people around so our city operates more economically and efficiently.

Cities like Cleveland seem to be failing fast; 115,000 people have left that city in this decade alone, and cities like St. Louis have half the population it had 50 years ago. So, while we need to look at Memphis in new ways, the dimensions of the problems here have not reached the levels of these Rust Belt cities, and that’s why we need to start this conversation now.

We admit that the prospects of a downsized city may be bruising to our civic ego, but it is nonetheless essential. Just as the slow food movement started in Europe, so did the slow city movement. Its singular message is that a smaller city does not necessarily mean that it is a failing city. Most are victims of forces beyond their control.

Bipolar Behavior

In this way, the shrinking city movement is about holding two opposing ideas at the same time – hope and despair. It is in embracing contradictory forces that success may be found, and if any city is to do it well, there’s little reason that it shouldn’t be Memphis, because we’ve built a history on our conflicting character – Beale Street in the Bible Belt, flourishing African-American culture in the segregated South, outsiders changing world culture in the midst of hide-bound conservatism.

And yet, the driving force in our history is passion, and that’s why the shrinking city discussion isn’t about despair. It’s not about an academic exercise. It’s about passion, and a belief that we can reimagine a future for Memphis that captures national attention but captures the attention of the toughest audience of all - Memphians.

Next: What Are Other Shrinking Cities Doing?


Anonymous said...

That's why you did it, eh?
Great post no matter what, that is what's so.
Cross your fingers and email, call, go visit, take out to lunch your most effective public servants and get them on hat bandwagon, or, go picket en masse, gotta do something to get the message through.

Save This MG said...

If we want people to move back into the city, 3 things must happen.
1. Taxes must be lowered to match those of the areas around us. How can we be competitive if we're charging twice the price for inferior amenities?

2. We MUST get tough on crime. Lock 'em up and leave them to serve their entire time. I'd bet that 90% of the crime being committed is being done by 20% of the people who are repeat offenders. How many times have we heard lately that so and so robbed /shot/burgled so and so while OUT ON PAROLE??

3. Bring order, safety and excellence back to the schools. Get the trouble making kids out. Put them in their own school so that we give the kids who want to learn a safe place to do it. Hold the teachers AND PARENTS accountable.

In my ever so humble opinion, we won't see population gain until those 3 things happen and it won't happen with the current city mayor in office and I'm not sure it will happen should the current county mayor become the next city mayor. New blood. Bold ideas. Fresh thinking is what will take us forward. Not the folks that holler race every time something goes wrong.

I'm tired of it always being about black or white because it's not. It's about people doing and saying stupid things. We're better than that.

Anonymous said...

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, the largest exodus took place between 1970 and 1980 when 57,987 people left our city."

school busing began in 1973.
population of Bartlett 1970: 1700.
population of Bartlett 1980: 17,000


Anonymous said...

Hey save this MG, you are right about your list and especially #2, it's more than 20%, sadly, but the idea is dead on. Almost every offender you pull up on the jssi websearch has at least 4 prior incidences. That's incidences of assault, domestic violence, drugs, robbery, sometimes sex crimes (all the sex offenders have multiple incidences and almost zero jail time) and that's only the tip of the iceberg!

Schools are already on the improvement! That ones is making progress finally.
There are only a couple of rabid paranoid racists left on city council, finally, but shelby county still needs work.
Dead on about the taxes, but without consolidation that one will kill Memphis we need garlic, silver bullets, steaks, and whatever else works for that vampire (and conspicuous council people who won't step down though they are 100% ineffective at anything but getting paid and hollering racism to prevent any real progress).
Blue Crush can only be effective if the sentencing, bail, and rehabilitation are made effective, otherwise, we'll be swimming in even more felons on the street than we are now.

So, most of it's working, the rest must follow suit.

Maybe you've noticed that the Group Consciousness has changed in Memphis. There is an underground movement and it has absolutely nothing to do with the sometimes way over the top and out of touch with reality MSPJC. I love'em, but, sometimes.

There may be a correlation in those movement stats but any stats from the last ten years are highly suspect for sandbagging in my view.

Don't worry people, we've made excellent progress this last year and there are only a few more things that need to be done to begin getting Memphis on the right path with the right leadership in crucial areas. People are participating more. This is going to work, and there will be a bonus at the end, a big one.

Once we leave the desert and enter the building of the new Memphis, there will be no going back.
That should be exciting for all Memphians.

Anonymous said...

I'd almost bet that if those politicians do step aside that Memphis could be the first Phoenix to rise from this countrywide downturn.

Anonymous said...

why not?

Phoenix and memphis can get in a race to the foreclosure bottom.

packrat said...

The tax issue; our biggest "competitor" is Desoto County, and the tax burden there is no lower overall than it is in Memphis. People who move there are looking at lower crime and better schools. Fayette County, yes, taxes are much lower there, but services are almost nil, schools there stink as well. If you're older, have money, no school-age kids, and want a huge estate lot, maybe that works. The city of Memphis should continue to shed funding obligations, such as schools and health, that are cosntitutionally the responsibility of Shelby County and thereby lower the city tax rate to be competitive with other Shelby municipalities like Germantown, Bartlett, etc.

Anonymous said...

i agree 100% with your post. the shrinking city should begin with frayser. if the county, city, state and federal governments are spending money to maintain a largely decreasing population, with high foreclosure rates. part of the stimulus package is going to groups that will rehab and rebuild in neighborhoods noone wants to live in. it makes sense, to me, to explore buying these homes and leveling them. frayser and raleigh both have some of the most scenic views anywhere in the city. by returning these abandoned and vacant housing back to green space we save police, education, fire and safety resources.

antisocialist said...

Until the City of Memphis can provide a product that is competitive with the surrounding municipalities, people will continue to thumb their noses at Memphis and leave. This is obviously regardless if some socialist "feels" is isn't fair for investment to be directed outside the core of Memphis.

Anonymous said...

You make some good points but you do not look at the entire picture. First of all, how are cities that have annexed or consolidated done? How have Houston, Jacksonville, and Oklahoma City faired? Also, you fail to mention the strangling effect of Tennessee's tax restrictions that favor wealthly communities and place poor communities at a disadvantage.

If Memphis had not annexed, we would have less revenue and less influence in the County commission and the State legislature. It's easy to box the less affluent into a City and point your fingers at them and tell them that they need to do this and that. So far we've not seen enough of the type of leadership that examines the whole area and approaches it as one community regardless of political borders.

All in all, we are better off with the annexations rather than doing nothing at all.

Anonymous said...

Hey, aim low get low.

Anonymous said...

I've waited a long time to hear somebody else say this. The point is not just to be the biggest city, but the right-sized city, where our geographic size matches our ability to effectively provide urban services. We're now stretched too thin geographically to be efficient, and the constant rush to expand outwardly has led to miles and miles of throwaway sprawl-villes that just aren't going to come back. Much of what lies beyond the 240 loop (Airport/Hickory Hill area is a good example)looks so economically dead it feels post-apocalyptic. Turn off the utilities, relocate the last few homeowners into new developments in the city, bulldoze the vacant neighborhoods, and surround Memphis with a greenbelt instead of draining city resources to keep these neighborhoods on life support forever.

Shrinking cities isn't about admitting defeat, and maybe we shouldn't look at Youngstown and Detroit as our peers so much as Richmond, Va. This is a city that hasn't annexed in 20 years and it's reinventing itself as a smaller, cooler, more progressive place. And it's working.

Save This MG said...

The re-arrest rate won't drop until our politicians grow a set and pass tougher sentencing laws, get rid of parole and early release and stop allowing bonds on certain arrests. Keep them in jail. For those that holler speedy trial, I'd argue that if we started getting tougher on some of the criminals then the number of cases in court would drop. As it is, you have 1 person that has 5 cases pending. Jeez.

It was mentioned about lower taxes in the outer cities. The irony is that as more people move to those areas the need for higher taxes to support the infrastructure goes up until it's no longer cost effective to move. However, until they catch up, we need to lower our taxes to compete. Get back to basics. Crime. Education. Taxes.

Anonymous said...

That's a fact MG

Midtowner said...

Best article I've seen to argue against consolidation!

Memphis needs to take care of Memphis ... even de-annex if necessary!

Anonymous said...

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