Tuesday, April 28, 2009

No Reason To Shrink From The Facts

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 The Conversation Right

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.

9 comments:

Allen said...

The exodus will continue until Memphis takes care of two things: Crime and Schools. Until those are addressed parents like myself will not live within the City limits. A shame as Memphis has so much to offer in all other ways.
Politicians in the City seem only concerned with making themselves look good, not caring one iota for the health of the city.

Zippy the giver said...

You said it. I would add poverty and rehabilitation.

antisocialist said...

Talk about the law of unintended consequences. How'd that court mandated busing work out?

Anonymous said...

DANG ANTI-YOU BEAT ME TO IT.
mcs class of '74.

Anonymous said...

And all this is made worse by the folks we keep electing to office. Unfortunately, those who show up get to make the decisions, and for the most part, the wrong people are showing up. We need some group, some one, some blog even, to organize people who care about the issues addressed routinely on this blog to run for local state and federal office and to get those folks elected. Whose up for it?

Anonymous said...

Good post. Memphis is not unique in this area. Most American cities are surrounded by miles and miles of suburburan and exurban development. While I would agree with all the comments, that crime, poverty, poor public schools, and yes, court mandated busing have accelerated middle class flight from cities, I would argue that this process began at least two decades before court mandated busing in the 70's. Two factors: cheap oil and gas and the Eisenhower Interstate System made it economically feasible for middle class workers to move further and further from their places of employment in American cities. Except for a few exceptions - the OPEC oil embargo of the late 70's and last years escalating oil prices - this remains the case today. As long as gas remains $3 per gallon or less, it is economically feasible to live in Arlington, TN or Hernando, MS and commute 30-40 miles round trip to your job in the city limits. People have the right to live where they want, but what I rarely hear in these debates about city v. suburb is any discussion about how vulnerable we are to fluctuating energy prices. I think we got a taste of this last summer when gas approached the $4 mark. What happens to us if, heaven forbid, a terrorist attack on a Saudi oil field reduces our oil imports enough to send gas to $6-$7 per gallon? Is the American city/suburban complex sustainable without cheap oil? I don't think so and while I would agree that denser cities would put us in a much better position to weather such realities, I don't see how you get people to move back considering the deplorable conditions of most of our cities today for the reasons pointed out in the previous comments.

Anonymous said...

The negative impact of the Memphis geographic growth is exacerbated even more by the fact that we are able to stretch in only two directions, north and east, due to the state boundaries to the west and south. That means Memphis’ land growth is disproportionately farther from the city center that a city that can grow outward in all directions. The best prescription for Memphis is to get over the fever for growth through annexation and fix with is already in the boundaries. Clean it up (crime and corruption) and clear the air with mass transit. And, most of all, stop the ridiculous growth of the school systems. Even more than a community itself, smaller school systems are more efficient and effective.

Chuck said...

Anon 1:20 PM
Actually the decentralization begin much earlier when A)Richmond, VA created the first city wide electric streetcar system in 1888 and B)when state legislatures in 1920s halted annexation (in rust belt cities), and people moved beyond the line to avoid the immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

Anon 8:03
America has been trying to clean up its central cities since the industrial revolution and beginning after the civil war a series of movements appeared: the Progressive Era until WWI; the New Deal programs of 1930s (the 1934 & 1937 Housing Acts had unintended consequencies); Urban Renewal in the 1950s and 1960s;community development in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s; and now we seem to be in another progressive era with new urbanism, smart growth, green ethics. I wonder where we will be in another 100 years? Maybe the poor will surround the central city and the rich & middle classes will be in the center?

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