Sunday, March 22, 2009
The Memphis Mandate: Just Do It
It’s easy to understand the general frustration that exists about one more plan being undertaken downtown, this one about the future of Mud Island.
We often seem so obsessed in Memphis with studying and planning and less committed to implementing and executing. And an idea like the skate park on the south tip of Mud Island – a source of animation, a magnet for families, a repositioning of the park as a vibrant, dynamic hub of activity and a use that can bring all sides of the controversy over the future of our riverfront together – just seems too good to pass up.
As for our addiction to plans, in roughly the past decade, our public and quasi-public sectors have conducted roughly 175 plans. If they averaged just one-fourth of the current Mud Island plan, that would add up to $17,500,000, and we think that’s an exceedingly conservative number.
Equally consistent with our seeming belief that master planning something is the same as doing something, most studies have been conducted in the customary silos and most recommendations remain unaddressed. We're not suggesting that this is the case with the current plan about Mud Island, or that any of our opinions applies to it, but if you're looking for an applause line in a speech, just mention our multitude of plans.
Plenty Of Plans
The truth is that the purpose of too many studies is to give the appearance of leadership without the threat of having to make a tough decision, to build a foundation for a preconceived “answer” or agenda or to short-circuit a controversy by promising to study it in hopes that the public’s short attention span would shift to something else.
Unfortunately, Memphis doesn’t have time for studies any more. We have to change our city’s trajectory now. We have to shake up things. We have to start taking dramatic actions. We have to act differently.
That’s why we would welcome some leaders and organizations starting something, taking action, moving ahead. We can self-correct as we go, but at least we’ll be under way. We just don’t have months and months to contemplate our navel.
We have about 175 studies and plans. Maybe moving ahead could be as simple as synthesizing them into a compelling vision, a community narrative and a plan that we can act on now. Best of all, it would require us to abandon our lack of self-worth, to kick to the curb our personality conflicts and political pettiness and to adopt a new, get-out-the-way brand of activism that is needed.
Changing The Wiring
If other cities can do it, we just don’t know why we can’t. In many other cities, there’s such a predilection for action. They are simply hard-wired to action and to doing something.
We think that Memphis may save a great deal of time by emphasizing data-driven decisions more and master plans less, because they consume so much of our time. And in today’s highly competitive global economy and with our dire economic indicators, time is the only thing we don’t have enough of.
Let’s decide on three things we need to do and go do them. When we’re done, we’ll pick three more and work on them.
There seems to be a pervasive common sense understanding of what we need to be doing. You could hear it at the UrbanNexus event at Stax on Thursday that focused on civic engagement and you could hear it Saturday at the Coalition for Livable Communities’ program at Shelby Farms Park about the impact of I-269 on our region (more on this later this week).
The Truth Is Out There
You hear it from the public. You hear it from the planners. You hear it from the grassroots organizations where so much wisdom resides. However, there are barriers that routinely block these common sense answers and the shared sense of urgency from percolating into the halls of government and the boardrooms of major organizations that make up the “power structure” of Memphis.
A symptom of this is seen in the fact that although we have just short of 200 studies completed in the last decade, only a handful are available on-line. It’s enough to raise suspicions that the largely dysfunctional websites of city and county governments are intentionally aimed at thwarting public interest and information.
Surely, that’s not the case, but it’s time to quit talking about making decision-making more transparent and do something about it. It’s time to quit talking about making government more accountable and demand it. It’s time to quit talking about studying issues and do something about them.
For example, for 20 years, we’ve doled out tax freezes on the basis that our workforce has too few skills to compete on a level playing field. And yet, in those two decades, the entire country of China transformed itself from a third-world nation to a global economic powerhouse.
Tapping Into The Energy
Surely, we can move on the strategies that can increase the number of college-educated people, that can move people out of poverty and into the economic mainstream, that can reform our unsustainable transportation system, that can treat 104,000 students in Memphis City Schools as assets rather than problems and that can revive our moribund civic spirit.
It is obvious to us that the answers are out there. The challenge is to channel them into processes where strategies are being formed and funded. For that to happen, the public and quasi-public organizations need to lower the walls that separate them from the people who are seeking information, input and a voice.
There’s little question that the energy in Memphis is coming from our neighborhoods and at our grassroots. The new thinking is coming from the same places. The problem is that all of these bright people are too often talking to each other, because the public sector still looks like a byzantine empire on the other side of the moat.
Perhaps, it’s not only time to drain the swamp, but to begin by draining the moat between the people and the government and agencies that they pay for.
The Case In Favor
As for the idea of a skatepark for Mud Island, here’s the reasonable justification advanced by its proponents:
1) A skatepark has a high repeat participant base
2) Poor access does not deter participants or visitors from getting to skateparks
3) Skaters are a large and diverse demographic
4) A Mud Island skatepark fills a large recreation void in Memphis. While other cities (see Louisville’s skate park above) are investing in these low-cost solutions to lethargic locations, Memphis still as not even one.
Skateboarding is among the top four outdoor activities of Americans with 64 outings per participant, according to information gathered by Skatelife Memphis. Meanwhile, they are willing to travel 10 or more miles to their favorite skate parks, and it’s hard to imagine one more favorite than one on the banks of the America’s greatest river.
Low Cost, High Impact
By number of participants, skateboarding has now passed baseball, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers, and Sports Illustrated has called it “the great influence on American youth culture in the 20th century.”
In other words, the $3 million cost of an 80,000 square foot skatepark feels like a low-cost way to reactivate the park with several hundred thousand of skate boarding families. One of our major competitors, Louisville, is doing so much right these days, and one of the things they tout the most is that it is ranked as the top city for skateboarding families in the U.S., and the skatepark is a frequent stop for the mayor in tours showing off his city.
So far, the Mud Island study is notable in its lack of context and framework, and hopefully, that will change soon. It would be useful to know before the hearings begin things like whether commercial options are an option, if they are limited to a specific area and if the tip of the island will be retained for public use.
We suspect that the tip of the park – the physical equivalent of the city’s toes in the water – is to be set aside for a public purpose, and it’s hard for us to think of a better one than the skate park.