Monday, June 15, 2009

Turning Memphis Green

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 have lulled 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 $1.8 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 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 produced 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 traditional 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.


Zippy the giver said...

This city is the obvious victim of developers, bad planning, and corrupt officials handing them a green light to create a bubble economy.
This city will be green after they bulldoze it to the ground. And that is coming.
Seriously, the way that this city has been let to go, it has NO CHANCE in the future. NONE.
Who was that local TV dipstick that said, "have you sen the records of our criminals? do you really think you can rehabilitate them?"
If you don't EVER try you will never know, however, it HAS BEEN DONE in many other communities and bigger cities than Memphis with 80% SUCCESS with criminals just as bad as ours or worse.
80% success would turn this dump around people and create a motivate, that's right I SAID MOTIVATED, workforce with it's eyes on quality. People who will respect others rather than the current "jealousy out of control" system that dominate the landscape now.
That kind of education is supposed to present in every single household, not just a gift for the "golden few". I guess you'd have to get rid of that very unholy stingy-butt attitude first.

Anonymous said...

Its will be really green city ..after they bulldoze it to the ground.
thanks for sharing
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