Thursday, July 30, 2009

Driving Toward An Effective Public Transit System

It’s been said with no sense of hyperbole that all the planets would have to align for Memphis to have high-quality, efficient public transit.

Such is the lack of confidence that Memphis Area Transit Authority will ever offer the kind of transit system used in other cities to attract young professionals, reduce pollution, and connect urban neighborhoods to job centers.

The absence of quality transit is what a research fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital calls “Memphis’ hidden surcharge.” The low cost of living allowed her to “quit living like a student,” so “instead of three of us crammed into an apartment in Boston, I can buy a house in Memphis. But what they don’t tell you is that you have to buy a car because the mass transit is so bad.”

Public Un-Transit

Another researcher tells of attending medical school in a city where bus stops had signs blinking the time that the next bus would arrive. Another told of the easy-to-use public transit website in her hometown – complete with GPS-equipped buses so riders can see exactly where they are – and laughs at the idea that “a transit company that can’t manage buses should be guiding light rail decisons.”

The Trip Planner function on MATA’s website suggests that it understands the Memphis surcharge. When it recommends a route, it helpfully reminds that it’s also available by car and that “these directions are for planning purposes only.”

Memphians in large measure are untraveled, and maybe that’s one reason there isn’t greater pressure for better public transit. Of the 50 largest metros, Memphians are last in taking vacation trips and last in “liking to visit places that are different.”

Changing Direction

Many young professionals relocating here marvel that Memphians accept the current transit system. Often, they attended colleges in cities with state-of-the-art mass transit systems, and they are outspoken about what MATA should be.

Accustomed to using public transit regularly in their previous hometowns, they cope here with a system seemingly shaped by the delivery of workers for domestic jobs in suburban homes, by the attitude that its customers don’t have any other choices, and by the philosophy expressed by a MATA executive: “Public transit isn’t for everyone.”

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Polling for Sustainable Shelby revealed that the per gallon price of gas would have to reach $6.70 before suburban riders would climb onto MATA buses.

More Than Roads

Despite all this, however, the planets may in fact be aligning.

First, it’s time for MATA to produce the regional mass transit plan required by federal law. These plans have often been more about putting this year’s date on the old plan rather than considering all the options and the costs.

This time around, a bolder approach is being encouraged by Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization, the obscure federally-mandated agency that has to give the MATA plan its stamp of approval. MPO is charged with long-range transportation planning, and finally, public transit – and not just building more and more highways – is getting attention.

No Excuses

Second, Sustainable Shelby will be rolled out this month, and it reflects a strong pro-public transit attitude, stating: “Higher aspirations for public transit and improved bus service can decrease the number of cars on the road and improve air quality. A dedicated funding source is needed for higher quality transportation and expansion of service. A truly sustainable community demands a 21st century approach to addressing our transportation needs and challenges.”

Third, and most importantly, the Tennessee Legislature surprisingly passed legislation in May allowing Memphis and other major metro areas to create a Regional Transportation Authority and the “dedicated funding source” that is needed to pay for it.

In its defense, MATA has said that its ambitions have been thwarted by lack of funds to think and act boldly. With the planets now aligned, MATA finds itself in a new “no excuses” era. It remains to be seen if MATA has the ability to make the most of this rare opportunity to become relevant to everyone in our region.


If indeed the planets have finally aligned for MATA, they are orbiting around Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton. He’s chairman of the MPO, he’s the architect of Sustainable Shelby, and he could be the key member of a Regional Transportation Authority Board.

Already announced as a candidate for mayor of Memphis whenever that office opens up, it appears that public transit – traditionally the province of the city mayor - now unexpectedly becomes the barometer for testing what a future Wharton Administration could be.

Previously published as Memphis magazine's City Journal column.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


The reason we are so exorcised about I-269 and other sprawl-inducing highway projects are because they deepen the economic segregation that holds back Memphis’ progress.

Memphis is #1 in economic segregation among the largest 50 metros in the U.S.

Here’s the kicker: sprawl is a major cause of economic isolation, and economic isolation in turn exacerbates poverty and creates obstacles for residents to connect with the social networks that are often essential to employment and improved lifestyles.

Well-connected cities have less division between economic groups, and based on the recent decibel level here, it shouldn’t be too surprising that we are at the top of the list of economically segregated cities. Nashville is #38.

Cross Purposes

Meanwhile, the economic segregation results in concentrated poverty that is the seedbed for our city's most serious problems and derails our best efforts to address them. Projects like I-269 promise only to make them worse, because every problem becomes harder to deal with in cities that are economically segregated.

In other words, at the precise time when every city, county and state agency should be focused on encouraging infill redevelopment that revives and stabilizes Memphis neighborhoods, our transportation investments hollow them out, and leaders appear unable to turn the tide and abandon the idea that sprawl is "growth."

At the same time, the cause and effect — connecting the dots — between sprawl, the climbing Memphis tax rate, and an economically polarized city are overwhelmed by the influence of those who drive these transportation projects.

The inattention to the urban center that fuels our regional economy is symbolized by I-269, but its impact will be real and immediate. It will further produce an economically polarized city where fewer and fewer Memphis workers are paying more and more in taxes — including those spent for services and amenities that are in truth regional.


Let us say this clearly and unequivocably: there is no economic or social benefit to City of Memphis as a result of I-269. Don’t believe the propaganda or the breathless media headlines.

Wrapping I-269 in a shroud of terms like smart growth, knowledge economy jobs, New Urbanism and open space protection, supporters of the interstate suggest with straight faces that Memphis will benefit from new economic growth and development that the interstate will provide. If our past teaches us anything, it is that the I-269 corridor will be characterized by unwalkable, car-centric sameness.

Someone from North Mississippi said in an article in The Commercial Appeal that the task now is to apply smart growth principles to I-269. We’re not sure when we’ve heard such a contradiction of terms. It reminds us of the story on NPR about the developer proudly boasting of the region’s most sustainable residential development – green energy, walking trails, etc. There was only one problem: it was an hour commute to New York and an hour and half commute to Philadelphia.

It’s the kind of green-washing that’s being done by developers and economic development types to try to put a pretty face on projects that are clearly unsustainable.

Making It Worse

Here’s the thing: Memphis’ ability to compete in the new economy is undercut by the hollowing out of the middle class, by the worst economic segregation of the 50 largest metros, by the quickening loss of college-educated 25-34 year-olds, a 15% house vacancy rate that’s doubled since 2000 and 20% of Memphis families living on less than $8,700 a year.

These are the forces driving Memphis’ trajectory and defining our future. There is nothing in I-269 that does anything to improve these trends that are threatening the future of our city. More to the point and despite the denial by our suburban cities, the trends of Memphis will in fact determine the future of the entire region.

If Memphis must live with the problems that are exacerbated by I-269, we must do more than all pledge our commitment to regional planning. More to the point, we must change policies so that the interstate does in fact mitigate its negative impact.

For example, we’re said previously that I-269 and Tennessee 385 should be toll roads. They would produce more than $100 million a year that could be invested in strategies to strengthen our core city and to make Memphis a city of choice.

Nontraditional Thinking

There are other innovations like a higher sales tax along the route to establish a tax-sharing program that could direct money into the improvement of Memphis neighborhoods. Or perhaps there’s a way to pass impact fees and sustainability guidelines for development along the interstate route, to set up land trusts and to require the same level of public investments in public transit.

In a perfect world, our local and state officials would simply turn down the federal money for I-269, calling Mississippi's bluff as it is faced with the interstate version of an oxbow lake. Perhaps, it's not too late to call on our leaders to say enough is enough and make the most important decision facing them - doing what's right for Memphis.

But, I-269 exists because of politics. That's why we think the answer needs to be found in the same place.

These are difficult times for the Memphis metro – let’s say it again, metro. Unlike most other metro areas, the cancerous problems that threaten our economic health are regional and not just the problems of the city. Unless we start to figure out how to avoid self-indulgent projects like I-269 and make the investments that strengthen our entire region so that it is prepared for the fundamental restructuring of the economy that is well under way, we will prove that the road to hell is indeed paved with intentions that aren’t always good.

In the end, it’s not great roads that will draw jobs to Memphis. It’s great quality of life, a culture of creativity and a willingness to support dreamers and entrepreneurs that will attract the talented people that in turn attract jobs to our community. The blind pursuit of more lanes and more roads without the fuller context for community in time creates an incomplete plan for transportation and replicates the same mistaken policies of the past.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Et Tu Sixty-Nine, Part II

Present transportation policies are critical to creating the tax burden that drives people out of Memphis.

While density is one of those things that cause people’s eyes to immediately glaze over, it’s a factor that drives everything in government – from quality of service to the tax rate.

As we pointed out a year ago, within the 1970 city limits of Memphis, there are today 28% fewer people. This reduced density results in services being delivered over an area with fewer people, driving up costs and ultimately driving up taxes.

It doesn’t stop there for Memphis taxpayers. They are caught in a vise of taxes caused by the reduced density in the urban core and the cost of suburban sprawl. In other words, for 30 years, Memphians have been forced to subsidize policies that have eroded their own city.


That’s at the heart of what is wrong with transportation policy and so many public decisions here. There’s no sense that choices are being made. As Shelby County Government invested $1.5 billion to open up the greenfields of unincorporated Shelby County, it was in fact making the choice to fuel the decline of the urban core.

Of course, Memphis City Council members acted as co-conspirators since their approval was required for projects and zoning changes with its “extraterritorial jurisdiction,” as local government calls it. Regular people would say that Council members have to approve projects outside of the Memphis city limits for three or five miles.

Acting as puppets of the development and homebuilding industries, City Council rubber stamped project after project with no thought that they too were making a choice. They were in fact choosing development on the edge rather than redevelopment of the core.

Jared Diamond wrote in his book, Collapse, about how “societies choose to fail or succeed.” In other words, sprawl did not just happen in Shelby County. It was a choice. The suffocating county government debt did not just happen. It was a choice. The hollowing out of the urban core did not just happen. It was a choice.

Voting For Their Own City’s Decline

Diamond describes in his best-seller how civilizations that formerly flourished made choices that doomed them to catastrophe, and many of these bad decisions were tied to the squandering of resources, to ignoring trouble signs that the environment emits and to the cutting down of too many trees.

Using his yardstick, the threats to our small corner of Western culture seem obvious. They are seen in choices in favor of rapid population movement, degradation of the environment and instability of government.

For more than a decade, when Memphis City Council routinely approved any development within the 3-5 mile zone outside of the city limits, it never had the sense that it was making a choice. Developers wanted more development, and these areas were outside of the city limits, so there was no perceived cost in giving them what they asked for.

Actually, every vote on one of the developments in this area should have been weighed as a choice -- to shift public investments to the suburban fringe rather than spend them on strengthening the urban core and protecting the public infrastructure already paid for there.


Meanwhile, across Civic Center Plaza, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted time after time to approve every development placed on its agenda, its members never had a sense that they were making a choice -- to fuel sprawl and set in motion their own financial decline, cuts in public services and erosion of their ability to take a leadership role in the community.

Like many of the societies described in Diamond’s book, Shelby County made the choice to ignore the warning signs, always believing that the flow of money was endless, short-term benefits were as good as long-term ones and its political power was unshakeable.

Shelby County chose to see sprawl as “normal” and beyond its control. It called it “growth,” when it was no growth at all, but a massive subsidized There is no real growth in Shelby county because population increases are essentially births over deaths, not the result of an influx of new residents.

To understand the cost of the choices made in favor of sprawl, just do the math: every new single family detached house valued at $175,000 costs Shelby County Government more than $4,000 a year for 20 years in public services, primarily schools and roads.

It takes about 6,000 square feet of commercial/industrial development to offset the deficit to Shelby County that is produced by one residential unit. (This assumes of course that the commercial/industrial development is paying taxes in the first place, rather than receiving a tax freeze.)

Even Roses Have Thorns

Of course, it’s not just transportation policy that suffers from the lack of a clear, comprehensive analysis. Notably, there are the analyses conducted by City of Memphis before it annexes an area.

It’s not about choice at all. It’s about the rosiest scenarios – assuming no decline in the areas or exodus of residents – but more to the point, they never take into consideration the impact on existing neighborhoods of taking in new area. Instead, the exercise is about determining the amount of revenues and the cost of city services, and the answer is that in time, the annexation is a money maker for city government.

But they haven’t been. They have in fact diverted money to pay for infrastructure and services for the new areas of Memphis while the urban core received less attention and money. And as changes take place in the new area, as in Hickory Hill, city government has compounded the scope of the challenges facing it.

It’s essentially the same thing done in transportation planning here. There’s never a new road and more lanes of traffic that can’t be justified by engineers who make their living off such projects. It’s all about traffic flow, congestion and travel times and rows and rows of numbers.

Faux Planning

Unfortunately, it’s never about the impact that building a highway on the fringes of our community will have on our existing city and the infrastructure we’ve already paid for. Like annexation, it is at its essence a false equation and a faux exercise in planning.

In the end, the seminal question of Collapse is: How can society best avoid destroying itself?

The seminal question in our community is how do we create a balanced approach to decisions – weighing all factors rather than just the justifications of special interests – and how do we treat every decision as what it is – a choice.

Tomorrow: Et Tu Sixty-Nine, Part 3

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Et Tu Sixty-Nine

The drumbeat of the asphalt lobby is getting louder, and as it has been so often, its persistent beat hypnotizes elected officials who should know better.

What is it anyway about otherwise logical people who suspend all logic and sense of balance when roads come into play? How do so many of these hypnotized people end up in positions where they make decisions about roads?

If you doubt our cynicism, just consider the last time you heard about a major road project voted down. Instead, people in appointed elected offices and economic development officials paid with our tax dollars, who are entrusted to make sound transportation decisions, cavalierly pave over Memphis’ future with more and more sprawl and less and less conscience about the consequences for the urban heart that keeps the regional economy beating.

Lost In The Wilderness

Somewhere, we lost our way.

We lost the perspective that all of life and the life of our city in particular is about making the right choices.

We lost the idea that the quality of life of our city is much more important than the quality of our ability to move freight through our community.

We lost our sense of priority, buying into the belief that nothing is more important than moving cars, even if it means moving Memphis into the danger zone.

We lost our ability to be consistent. The same people who are now putting a pretty face on I-269 through north Mississippi – which the state sees as a heavy competitive advantage - are the same people who told us last year that we had to give away more tax freezes to compete with the Mississippi.

No Room For Mistakes

Here’s why this matters so much. Memphis has no margin for error.

If we are to succeed and change our trajectory, we have to do an awful lots of things right. Decisions on highways and transportation here are not only not right; they are disastrously wrong.

How is it that there is such a clear, consensus opinion that we have paid a devastating price for highway decisions that fueled sprawl and hollowed out Memphis, and despite that, in an act of cognitive dissonance, we unbelievably continue on blithely with the same misguided attitudes toward road-building.

This assault on reason continues to most dramatically play out in the advocacy of I-269.

It’s a case study of the way that political insiders and development interests are able to win even when they appear to have lost. I-269 was apparently blocked when Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, the county delegation of the Tennessee Legislature and Center City Commission opposed the inexplicable I-269 interstate loop that sweeps through North Mississippi and swings along the easternmost edge of Shelby County.

Facts Of Life

The mayors’ opposition was persuasive and unshakable. At least in the beginning.

But developers are different than regular people. Once a decision seems to be decided, the public moves on. Developers move in and game the system through operatives and apologists who back door the system, looking for soft spots in the decision-making process and painting elected officials into corners, where exhausted and politically hemmed in, they almost uniformly give in.

That’s what happened with Mayor Herenton and Mayor Rout with I-269. Although they thought they had made the final decision to put a nail into the coffin of the project, developers and the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce simply went under the radar, joining hands with Mississippi officials who were determined to use the interstate through Northern DeSoto to open up the green fields for developers.

With few options but surrender, the mayors eventually acquiesced, angry and frustrated.

It’s a seminal fact of life about the system. There is always the force that comes from those driven by their financial benefit – developers and highway builders and from those driven by their political benefits. That both groups can be so single-minded in their self-interest to the detriment of the overall health of Memphis is something best left for psychologists to study, but it is odd how often short-term financial and political interests trump long-term sound public policy.

One Trick Pony

It’s the sort of mentality that blandly accepts as reasonable that our roads and highways should be built as if it is always 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. It’s the sort of philosophy that answers every question about better transportation with more roads. God knows that there is always an engineering study to justify more and more roads.

MATA offers third-world public transit. So what do we do? Build more highways.

Neighborhoods are begging for bike lanes. So what do we do? Build more highways.

Yes, people want “complete streets” that offer transportation alternatives. So what do we do? Build more highways.

It was utterly unbelievable a decade ago, but it’s just unconscionable now. Despite dire warnings of gridlock that act as if we the need to give people a way to drive from Nashville to Jackson, Mississippi, without even seeing Memphis from the interstate, there’s really no crisis.

Need For A Detour

In a comparison with 35 large metros (see the list at the end of this post), including all of our peer cities, federal government data show that Memphis is #27 in the annual cost of delay per peak traveler, #25 in travel time index, #28 in commute time and #22 in change in travel time index. Meanwhile, we have the same freeway lanes per square mile as Boston and more than Chicago and Philadelphia.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group said that Memphis is 6th in the number of lanes of highways per capita, and our community was cited by the Federal Highway Administration for lack of safe alternative forms of transportation.

It hardly sounds like the makings of catastrophe. Funny, we’re fourth from the bottom in transit capacity, but you don’t hear any of the usual suspects calling for a 21st century transit system.

That’s the thing about transportation planning. There’s little consideration for what the public really wants and even less consideration about what makes successful Memphis neighborhoods and the damage that is done by the present transportation policies.

Tomorrow: Et Tu Sixty-Nine, Part 2

* Cities in study: Los Angeles, San Diego, Baltimore, San Francisco, San Antonio, St. Louis, Charlotte, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbux, Salt Lake City, Washington D.C., Denver, Louisville, New York, Seattle, Miami, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Portland, Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Minneapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Boston, Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Austin and Atlanta

Thursday, July 23, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Leading For Learning

This week on Smart City, Philip Schlechty of the Schlechty Center joins us to talk about school reform. Phil is a a longtime and passionate advocate for public education and his latest book, Leading for Learning: How to Transform Schools into Learning Organizations, challenges many of the basic assumptions of educators. We'll talk about how to break through the bureaucracy of the education system and turn schools into learning organizations.

And we'll speak with Clay Shirky. He's the author of the book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.The book is about the power of the internet to break through old bureaucracy, and how online networking can create brand new ways of interacting out in the real world.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Time For Valuing Family, Not Just Family Values

We have absolutely no interest in the sex lives of celebrities and politicians, and we’ve always thought that marital infidelities are best left to the couple involved and the rest of us should just mind our own business.

The only disagreement that we’ve ever had here on this rule of thumb has been the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton sexual affair. It was the unanimous opinion here that the president’s impeachment was an overreach and a $70 million one at that by the time Kenneth Starr quit churning his billable hours.

It was a split decision on whether President Clinton had done anything wrong. The majority vote here was that it was silly to care about the sexual activities of politicians and the president was no exception. The minority view was that it did matter, not because President Clinton was having sex outside of marriage but because he was having sex with an intern, theoretically an employee of the White House.

…Where You Get The Mail

We mention all this to say that if the revelation of Tennessee Senator Paul Stanley – the latest in a seemingly endless string of outed philanderers whose political careers have been built on images of their families and the rhetoric of family values – had not involved his legislative intern, we’d simply dismiss it as none of our business and it is best left to Senator Stanley and his wife.

The problem is that the first rule of Being the Boss 101 is that you do not have sex with people who work for you. It’s not about being unfaithful to your wife. It’s about opening up your employer – in this case, the State of Tennessee – to possible legal action for sexual harassment.

On that latter point, there appears to be no gray area, and reluctantly, we conclude that Senator Stanley’s behavior with an employee makes this seamy and untenable. It’s just hard to argue with the general feeling by most parents that their 22-year-old daughters should be safe from sexual advances in the halls of government (even if she is a seductress of the first order).

Damage Control

Senator Stanley essentially issued up his mea culpa in his resignation from the coveted chairmanship of the Senate Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee. At this point in these serial events, the emphasis always seems to be on stanching the political bleeding, and apparently, that’s what his resignation was aimed at doing.

It’s confusing, however, as to why he would feel the need to resign a chairmanship if he isn’t resigning as a senator. Perhaps we are being Pollyannish, but we think he should be concentrate on his family, not his politics.

Whether his wife emulates the familiar, “stand by your man” style of Elliott Spitzer’s wife, or the refreshing independence of the wife of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, it could be a major influence in giving this a shorter shelf life as a media priority. It’s tempting to say these days that many of these politicians have more commitment to the Second Amendment than to the Seventh Commandment, but life is always complicated and often messy, so we hesitate to trivialize the most angst-filled episodes in people’s lives.

Compassion Is A Family Value

As for us, we find little to commend in Senator Stanley’s anti-living wage, pro-gun and anti-gay politics, and in the past legislative session, he was a poster child for the worst Legislature in modern history. That said, we vote for the volume to be turned down on all of this.

While Senator Stanley tried clumsily to cast himself as a victim in his first press release, he needs to follow the familiar scandal containment two-step: accept responsibility and ask for forgiveness. Our people are infinitely forgiving and they understand that every one has something in their lives that they’d rather forget.

To his credit, the senator did not toy with the idea of coming across with the extortion payment in hopes of keeping a lid on the blackmail attempt. Instead, he went to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, knowing that consequences would be inevitable and unpredictable.

Senator Stanley prominently displays a photograph of his family on his website, and they cast a striking portrait of perfection. At this point, we should at least be willing to give them space to deal with the imperfection that has intruded into their lives.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

School Districts Need Education In Fair Taxes

Memphians are the only people in a major Tennessee city who pay twice for their public schools.

Memphians are the only people in Shelby County who pay twice for their public schools.

And apparently both school districts want to keep it that way.

Out Of The Closet

We’ve learned to expect the worst anytime Shelby County Schools board chair David Picker opens his mouth, but the debate on single source funding seems to have finally forced him out of the closet.

There’s no question left that he’s about the kids. He’s clearly about political advantage and pandering. Anything that seems to take a broader view than the one by the county district’s all-white school board is regularly rejected out of hand. Single source funding now joins consolidation, charter schools, student rights and separation of church and state.

Meanwhile, Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash appears to be operating under the only game plan that seems to make sense to him: he’s just trying to keep all his options open. However, that doesn’t change the fundamental fact that the traditional funding formula is unfair to Memphians and inequitable from any angle you choose to look at it.

It appears likely that in time single source funding by Shelby County Government – the government constitutionally obligated to provide public education in conjunction with state government – will be the law of the land here. But it won’t come without some angst by Memphis City Schools and the typical gnashing of teeth by Shelby County Schools, but it is coming nevertheless.

Upside Down Tax Structure

And it’s high time. School expenditures have risen faster than the rest of government and much more than the departments controlled by the mayors. Schools generally have made few sacrifices like the rest of local government departments to cope with budgetary crises. School funding has increased dramatically while student enrollment at city schools declined and student enrollment at county schools flat-lined.

We’ve made no secret – in fact, you’re probably tired of us saying it – that we admire the Memphis City Council for drawing a line in the sand and forcing this issue. Otherwise, we’d still be hearing what we’ve heard for the past 20 years – a promise that city and county will get around to a more equitable funding system soon.

We’ve made no secret that we were pleased by the Council’s decision to cut $57 million and we were then disappointed that it plowed 78% of it back into the general city budget. It was a historic chance to do something about leveling the playing field for Memphis taxpayers, but in addition, had it been done, the Council would be standing on stronger political ground right now.

That said, we still stand on their side of this argument. You’ve heard our concerns often, so we won’t repeat them here, but suffice it to say: the less you earn in Memphis, the greater percentage of your salary that you pay in taxes. And, with the hollowing out of the middle class in our city, we have a more and more polarized tax base that will pay more and more for less and less in public services.

The Wrong #1

We’ve cited all the statistics before, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll quote a new one: Of 35 major metros in the U.S., Memphis is #1 in the total annual government revenue as a per cent of total personal income.

That’s why it is in everyone’s enlightened self-interest that single source funding proposal recommended by the special committee on school funding is approved and enacted. Public education is a countywide service, and because of it, its cost should be born by the county tax base.

Enter Mr. Pickler stage right. Far right.

In engaging in his predictable screed against the proposal for fair funding, he all but acknowledged that county taxpayers outside Memphis are getting a sweet deal in their tax responsibilities. He said single source funding is merely a way to shift the costs of schools to county residents and drive up their tax rate.

Birchers At The Board

Well, yes, it is. It’s shifting the funding to the government that should be paying for them…just like they do for all those schools outside Memphis. And when it is done, we’ll be like every other large county in Tennessee. Only in the parallel universe inhabited by Mr. Pickler is this some sinister plot, and we’re sure that, as usual, he’s looking under his bed for communists, whoops, we mean consolidationists.

They’re everywhere, and proving that paranoia is all-consuming, he sees consolidation in every effort to bring logic and good sense to educational funding although Mayor A C Wharton, Memphis City Council Chair Myron Lowery and Shelby County Board of Commissioner Chair Deidre Malone have said in their listening tour that they do not support merger of city and county school districts.

We agree with them, largely because we reject the notion that we can only improve our predominately African-American city school district by taking in the predominately white county school district. The truth is that the city schools aren’t as bad as people think and the county schools aren’t as good as they think.

If you are looking for educational innovation and the open minds needed for school reform in this community, look to Memphis City Schools, not Shelby County Schools. We don’t think a merger with county schools accomplishes anything but takes our eye off the ball about the education of the kids that matter most – the 103,000 students in city classrooms.

Against Fair Play

But back to Mr. Pickler’s pickle. What offends him most in making taxes equitable is that county taxes will go up and city taxes will go down. In a lame attempt to buttress his position, he issued a “position paper” that is characterized by its innuendoes and attempts at political cleverness.

But here’s the real truth: if Shelby County Schools is not happy with the final recommendation of this special committee, it is because the petulant Mr. Pickler picked up his toys and went home whenever members of the committee didn’t bend to his tantrums.

Never someone to rely on persuasion and honest debate, he was given special opportunities to present the case for his position, but in the end, his objective wasn’t to engage in collaboration but combat.

His thinly-veiled racist comments have finally worn thin. We keep waiting – impatiently – for our local version of Special Counsel for the Army Joseph N. Welch who famously said to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the midst of his communist witch hunt of the Fifties: “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Sadly, we know the answer when it comes to Mr. Pickler, but we have more confidence in people living outside Memphis than he does. We think they understand that it’s unfair that they only pay once for their schools. We think the residents of Germantown know in their hearts that there’s no justification for them only paying county taxes for their schools while their city government pays nothing.

Protecting Their Turf

In response to Mr. Pickler’s call for opposition, Collierville Alderman Tom Allen also admitted that his citizens get preferential treatment. “If they see that the tax rate in Shelby County goes up that much…we’ll be in the same situation Memphis is in: you’ll see flight, people leaving Shelby County,” he opined.

In other words, it’s fine for Collierville to shove its responsibility to Memphians and to kill our urban core as long as their vision of suburban bliss is protected and given preference. As we’ve asked for years, if these town officials are so committed to education, why don’t they do what Memphis has done for decades – appropriate some of their city revenues for schools.

Mr. Pickler and his cronies reflexively stoke the fires of divisiveness by pointing out that no representations of the suburban towns were on the special committee. Of course, that made perfect sense, since only the people who have skin in the game deserved a place at the table.

For 25 years, the county school board has pandered to the town mayors while ignoring the concerns and desires of their major funding source – Shelby County Government. That they have no groundswell of support at this point is the direct result of an attitude of arrogance toward county mayors and commissioners as far back as the 1980s and as recently as a few weeks ago.

Divisiveness As Political Strategy

That’s why in the midst of this important discussion, county school officials have done nothing to put this into the context of children and education. Rather, they pose it in terms of prejudice toward the city and in terms of “we versus they” politics. It’s a sad commentary on the maturity of the elected leaders of our county schools, and most of all, we worry about those poor county students who have no role models to emulate.

Back to Memphis City Schools, Superintendent Cash must be wondering these days if he’s being sabotaged by members of his own team. The debacle about charter schools and the district’s failure to follow the letter of the law that it’s supposed to enforce is the latest embarrassment.

We assume that Superintendent Cash is just as dismayed as we are, because surely he relied on his staff to get this right. Once again, it wasn’t a close call but a miss by a mile as district officials treated themselves as having special privileges.

Meanwhile, rumblings out of the district these days indicate how difficult it will be to change the culture of Memphis City Schools. In the last week of school, there were schools where teachers were told by principals to make sure no one was failed, and it is likely that a controversy involving the transportation department will rival the nutrition center scandal.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Memphis: The Good, The Bad And The In-Between

As the cat-loving father of two wonderful daughters, I have always found dogs and boys mysterious in equal measure.

The dog illiteracy was solved with a lovable Airedale terrier named Brodnax, the company mascot and family pet of Carol Coletta and John Montgomery, and the ignorance of boys was resolved when my two perfect daughters Emily and Adrienne married two exceptional men Jeremy and Matt. Jeremy’s son Seth was the bonus.

Dogs and boys played in a weekend in which we saw Memphis – the good, the bad and the in-between.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

First, the good: Nonconnah Greenway on Forest Hill-Irene Road north of Bill Morris Parkway. I’ve driven past the 50-acre, $1.4 million project many times, but it was volunteering to walk my brother-in-law’s Australian blue heeler that took me into the green space.

It’s an unspoiled treat as the walking paths meander beside the creek and take visitors past all kinds of plants and wildflowers. There’s an attractive stone entrance, water feature, lake, a metal bridge, and a sidewalk that connects the Mike Rose Soccer complex to the Veterans Cemetery.

The Greenway opened about two years ago as a part of the Wharton Administration’s green space plan and was conceived by Shelby County Director of Public Works Ted Fox, former Army colonel heading up the Memphis Corps of Engineers Office. Mr. Fox has a vision for a series of interconnected greenways and made the convincing point that our county’s creeks should not be neglected as public discussion concentrated on greenway plans along Wolf River.

Nonconnah Greenway is one of those lesser known special places in Shelby County, and it’s made even more satisfying by the surprising natural setting preserved there.

Mud In Your Eye

Second, the in-between. With Seth spending the weekend with us, we gave him options for the afternoon, and after serious deliberation, he elected for a trip to Mud Island.

It’s been so long since we’ve visited the river park that we couldn’t remember the last time with any certainty. That alone bears testament to problems of access and animation that erode any sense of urgency for return visits to the isthmus (part of the reason we have so strongly endorsed a skate park for the tip of Mud Island).

It was clear from our visit that Mud Island is limping along as a result of a strapped budget and limited staff. In mid-afternoon on Saturday, the park had hundreds of visitors, but the line at the ticket window should have been a tip-off that Mud Island is essentially operating on a “no frills” budget. There was one clerk in the ticket office, leading to a 15-minute wait to buy tickets.

We’ve always loved Mud Island, and we were pleased to see that care is still given to the landscaping. It’s when you look close that it becomes obvious that maintenance is pretty basic and the physical condition of the place is tired and lacking.

Steep Climb

There is an obvious need for paint and polish, but a number of repairs are more than simple fix-ups. Joining the phalanx of tourists visiting Mud Island, we couldn’t help but see the park through their eyes – torn fabric and peeling paint for the monorail portion of the visit, cobwebs and ceiling problems along the escalators to the scale-model river, which needed more water to provide for more pleasant wading, alphabetical letters which needed to be replaced on some of the large displays showing river tributaries a disappointing Gulf of Mexico, desperately in need of maintenance and begging to be reinvented.

There’s so little to do that the most popular activity for adults and kids alike was to slide down the steep hill leading up to the amphitheater, and the food is marginal, especially considering that it’s a signature tourist attractions. But the biggest problem with Mud Island is that once you’re there, it’s essentially just a place to take a stroll.

Unfortunately, in city government’s haste to turn Mud Island over to Sidney Shlenker as part of his Rakapolis project, a bizarre development combining Egyptology and rock and roll and linking The Pyramid and Mud Island, it gave him carte blanch to do pretty well whatever he damn well-pleased.

And he did. He added eyesore after eyesore – adding a sandy beach, turning Gulf of Mexico into a swimming pool and most grievous of all, pushing an outstanding $1 million children’s playground over the side of the banks, removing a special place for young visitors who seemed on Saturday to be generally unsure about why their parents have brought them to the park.

Getting It Right

All of which makes it timely for Riverfront Development Corporation to think of how Mud Island can be reinvented to offer more uses and to create more revenues to get the park back into decent condition.

The visit to Mud Island was a cautionary tale for Beale Street Landing. Memphis is much better at building big projects than we are at maintaining them. We are encouraged that in addition to building the badly needed riverfront icon, the Riverfront Development Corporation is developing the program and activities that will keep the place alive.

That’s the thing about public realm. It’s about more than constructing it, but equally important, it’s about programming it. That’s why Memphis has no high-functioning public realm other than Overton Park that we can point to as an example of what it looks like when we do it well.

The Public Gets It

It’s a problem that’s not lost on the public. When the 130 people on the seven committees of Sustainable Shelby cast their votes and the opinions of the public were also weighed in, the #1 priority set by the process was creation of quality public realm.

In his presentation of 12 modest proposals for Memphis, former National Endowment for the Arts design director Jeff Speck said that Memphis has little public realm that works, and we do a dismal job of connecting the public realm to neighborhoods or to the fabric of the city.

That ultimately will be the test for Beale Street Landing. It’s not that it can just be architecturally striking. It must be characterized just as much by its connectivity, its vibrancy and its animated sense of place.

We have confidence that RDC “gets” it when it comes to the various elements that must be present for a quality public realm. After all, many of the people at the organization remember the big promises for the expansion of Tom Lee Park – the food vendors, performers and a beehive of activity.

Once the park was doubled, there was little mention – much less attention – to these issues, and today, Tom Lee Park continues to remain a place of unrealized potential.

Breaking News

One last word about a visit to Mud Island. Many of our fellow guests walked over from the Tennessee Visitors Center in downtown Memphis. You should try it sometime. From the front door of the center, it’s about a two football fields walk to Mud Island, except it’s impossible to walk it directly because of the ugly fences on the perimeter of the parking lots.

Finally, the bad. When I returned to my car, which was parked one block from Mud Island on Jefferson, the passenger window had been broken out and my XM radio stolen. In 38 years of working downtown, it marked the second time I’ve lost a window, so I guess I’ve been lucky (not counting the time my car was stolen).

Strangely, Saturday, I didn’t so much feel that I had been victimized by a criminal as that my ticket as a lover of this city had been punched for another year.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Can Memphis Have A Storied Mayor?

Kip Bergstrom, former executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council and now head of Stamford, Connecticut, Urban Redevelopment Commission, is one of the smartest people we know, and always bears listening to.

But his words resonate especially in today's politically charged environment.

“Leadership is about telling stories,” he said. We were reminded of his advice in light of our posts about great mayors, because in his former job, Mr. Bergstrom worked with one of them, Providence Mayor David Cicilline.


In recent years, Providence has made impressive strides in turning around, reducing crime, reforming government, using technology to track public services and more. The Rhode Island Economic Policy Council helped set the agenda for the city because it was an honest broker of economic development data and as a think tank identifying emerging trends affecting Providence.

“We tell stories using data,” said Mr. Bergstrom, who has an uncanny ability to find just the right data to modulate economic strategy. “The right kind of story at the right time can make organizations – and cities – vulnerable to new ideas. Story telling is one of the best ways to change a city.”

He once said that he concentrates on three priorities: 1) improving the business climate, 2) enhancing quality of place, and 3) increasing innovation.

Play To Win

But he acknowledges that every city should be working on these same priorities. “But, these days too many cities play not to lose, rather than playing to win,” he said. "It's about figuring out what we need to play and then we figure out what we need to do to win.”

Cities need to take a Wayne Gretzky approach to its economic growth. He said when the ice hockey legend was asked the secret to his success, his answer was, “‘Some skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck will be.’ Cities that succeed are skating to where the puck is, and today, that means they are creating an ethos of innovation.”

Like Memphis, Providence faced challenges with the performance of its public schools. “In K-12, schools are doing exactly what they were designed to do – creating an industrial workforce. The only problem: there is no industrial economy, but we’re still educating graduates for jobs that don’t exist any more.”

Innovate Or Die

That’s why the mantra for cities today is “innovate or face precipitous decline.” He said that Memphis Bioworks Foundation’s success in marrying medical devices with logistics is a well-known national model of innovation and a lesson in the importance of a city identifying its unique niche.

“Cities that have innovation-ready workers will succeed,” Mr. Bergstrom said. “The end game is for our workers to develop skills so they can offload rules work to free up pattern recognition skills.”

In advice particularly relevant to Memphis, he said that the frontline workers on which the service economy is built must be the focus of innovation strategies. “After all, they are delivering the experience for our customers,” he said.


Because growth of the national economy is being driven by immigration, he said that “the first city to figure out the ways to turn immigrants into knowledge workers wins the game. Is there any reason this shouldn’t be Memphis?”

Another issue of importance is regionalism, because regional answers are needed for the toughest problems facing urban areas. However, he cautions that regionalism is not the magic cure for all that ails cities.

“The beginning of regionalism is not the end of rivalry,” he said. “Rivalry can be good for a region. Regions gain consciousness from outside in. In other words, Boston will not ‘get’ the region first. Providence will.”


So, if the theme of Mr. Bergstrom’s message is that leaders tell stories and innovation is the key to whether cities succeed, it leaves us with some deafening questions:

Why are our stories so often about personality-driven politics and racial conflict?

Who is best able to tell the kinds of story that can inspire Memphians and promise the best hope of success for Memphis?

Who understands and is prepared to lead a city of innovation as its mayor?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Paving The Process For Better Transportation Decisions

Sadly, we’re not surprised that stimulus money spent here on transportation is more of the same – unfocused, unstrategic and unconnected.

Earlier this year, the Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) approved projects to be funded by $28.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka stimulus plan. In a blog post a couple of weeks ago, we spotlighted the U.S. Conference of Mayors report that showed that Memphis got a grand total of 4% of the stimulus funding funneled through our state government

But even when we get money, it looks more like business as usual than a historic chance to invest the money into transformational projects. Instead, it sure looks like the traffic engineers simply pulled out their wish lists and plugged their budgets with federal money.

As a result, the list of projects in Shelby County has little rhyme or reason on the surface and appear to have no connection to target neighborhoods or strategic projects in our community.

Silos and Dots

It seems to us that Memphis and Shelby County need an Office of Connecting the Dots. Time after time, particularly in making decisions on transportation (which is defined here by the asphalt lobby rather than by public opinion), decisions are regularly made in silos so that we rarely create any momentum for change or more to the point, reverse our devastating patterns of sprawl.

For decades, decisions about school locations have been made in a vacuum by the districts and without consultation with city and county divisions so that planning is coordinated and smart. Rather than decisions about schools, roads and public facilities being made within each agency’s staff, a collaborative process and serious planning could maximize the public investments and create a convergence of purpose.

If it were left to us, we’d make our priority for stimulus money getting the roads and infrastructure right for downtown and urban neighborhoods. (The area outside Memphis has just as many projects as Memphis does.) Or, we’d make our priority taking up lanes of asphalt rather than putting down more of them and repaving them. The map of the projects and its resemblance to a patchwork quilt only reinforces the notion that there was no grand plan for the wise investment of the stimulus money for transportation.

If anything, there is continued evidence that our traffic planning is aimed more at moving freight through Memphis than in moving Memphis ahead. It’s the continuation of the mangled logic that led to approval of I-269 and to the seemingly unshakable emphasis on investing in the roads used by distribution companies instead of investing in transportation that revives our neighborhoods and connects our people to employment centers.

The People Perish

There’s little vision for transportation here except road-building, and unfortunately, despite promises from on high to the contrary, the stimulus funding has turned into a grab bag of projects for the usual suspects.

It’s a system of insiders who make the decisions and provide sham opportunities for the public to have a voice. For example, there are the mandatory public meetings for the public to express their opinion on the road projects, but it is largely for show.

The priorities are set. The deal is already done. There is no real, meaningful public input – which is absolutely amazing in this age of social media.

That’s why our idea of “complete streets” is to allow trucks and cars on the same roads. Public transit has traditionally been an afterthought and the sub-standard service provided here marginalizes the need for a 21st century system. And we are years behind in the development of bike lanes.

Bought And Paid For

We’re not sure where Memphis went wrong, except for the fact that our public processes was put up for auction and was bought by developers decades ago. Even today, in a time of greater attention to public opinion, the intertwined relationship between the public process and the special interests seems unabated.

We thought of this recently when we read this headline in the Memphis News: “Chamber Committee Whittles Priority List For Area Road Projects.” The article by Eric Smith said the Major Roads Committee of the Greater Memphis Chamber is setting road priorities for our region through an MPO committee.

We have many friends on this committee and the MPO, but here’s the thing: the business group’s interest is not necessarily the community’s interest. It is a business lobby and over the years, it has advocated ably for road projects that served its members.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work inside the Chamber. But, that same committee can’t set priorities for the community at large. It should have a major role in setting them and it should represent the Chamber’s position aggressively, but it’s not the same as representing transportation that supports entrepreneurs, innovators and healthy neighborhoods.

Misplaced Priorities

In the end, it’s not great roads that will draw jobs to Memphis. It’s great quality of life, a culture of creativity and a willingness to support dreamers and entrepreneurs that will attract the talented people that in turn attract jobs to our community. The blind pursuit of more lanes and more roads without the fuller context for community in time creates an incomplete plan for transportation and replicates the same mistaken policies of the past.

Recent studies have shown that although the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S. have two-thirds of the country’s population and three-quarters of its economic activity, states so far have allocated 70% of the stimulus money to rural areas.

Back to transportation planning, a major U.S. mayor made our point this week at a meeting at the White House Office of Urban Affairs, complaining that the composition of the MPO in his region was unfair to his city. As we’ve pointed out before, the Brookings report on the 50 largest MPO’s in the U.S. concluded that Memphis has the third most unbalanced board. While the City of Memphis has 63 percent of the total population, it has only 16 percent of MPO members. Meanwhile, suburbs with 32 percent of the population control 79 percent of the vote.

In addition, Memphis was cited as one of the most racially unequal bodies. Despite Memphis’ large African-American population, 84 percent of MPO’s members are white. “That MPO boards do not reflect the geographic or racial composition of the metropolitan populations they serve should be a cause for concern, especially given that MPO’s were intended by the federal framers to be an essential conduit for implementing reforms and ensuring public accountability,” the report said.

Who’s Who

The makeup of the Memphis MPO underscores the point:

• Governor of Tennessee, or his representative
• Governor of Mississippi, or his representative
• Commissioner, Tennessee Department of Transportation
• Executive Director, Mississippi Department of Transportation
• Mayor of Shelby County
• Mayors of Memphis, Germantown, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington, Lakeland and Arlington
• Mayor of Fayette County
• Mayor of every incorporated town in Fayette County
• President, DeSoto County Board of Supervisors
• Mayors of every incorporated town in DeSoto County
• Chair, Memphis Transit Authority
• Chair, Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission
• Chair, Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority

In other words, the mayors of Germantown, Millington and Olive Branch can outvote the mayor of Memphis and the mayor of Shelby County.

Changing The Future

There is speculation in Washington, D.C., that legislation may be advanced to address these representation problems and to beef up MPO’s to make them more effective regional planning bodies. It’s an idea that deserves serious consideration, because transportation decisions have undercut cities’ economic and social health for years.

If our MPO is any indication, there is no lack of talent on the staffs of these transportation bodies. There is only the lack of political will to give them the right questions to answer and the right problems to solve.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

9-1-1 For Customer Service In City Hall

We were excited to see this department in City Hall - Office of Strategic Customer Services.

Unfortunately, it’s found in the city government of Dallas and not here, but the office there manages a program that seems like an idea whose time has come - mystery shoppers for city services.

In the Texas city, volunteers are recruited and trained to evaluate the customer service of city departments, the most recent being a survey of Dallas’ 311 program. Of course, there’s another more basic reason why we won’t be doing that here – we still don’t have a 311 system.

Without Peer

Today, there are 60 cities with 311 programs, including some of the cities that we often cite as our “peer cities” – Charlotte, Louisville, Indianapolis and Birmingham. Nashville recently joined the ranks of cities that allow citizens to call one number for information and access to city services, and although its program is modest when compared to the standard for 311 – New York City – at least it’s a start.

While the Nashville version presently looks like a glorified information service, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has set up a 311 structure where its calls are used to analyze department efficiency and evaluate employee performance.

In the Big Apple, all calls are answered by a live operator and the service is available 24 hours a day. In addition, translations are available in more than 170 languages, and the information being given to callers is the most up-to-date, real-time data base in the city.

Nerve Centers

In the midst of crisis, the 311 program is the nerve center for citizens in the midst of a crisis. That’s why more and more, 311 is considered as a basic service for government. Here, it’s not even on the radar.

Back to the mystery shopper program in Dallas, the city government there uses these specially trained citizens to rank services and the performance of specific employees. The mystery shoppers rating 311 – a program receiving about 33,000 calls a month - are just the latest way that Dallas has used them. Previously, they rated operations of the city’s park department, and their reports are regularly used by city officials to evaluate services.

In Dallas, mystery shoppers not only evaluated how the calls were handled, but how well specific departments resolved the calls for services. The reports from the mystery shoppers are given to the Dallas City Council quarterly and are posted on-line.

Meanwhile, mystery shoppers are instrumental to Chicago's performance management system, and Miami and Richmond are already planning similar mystery shopper programs.

Losing Streak

As we’ve said, it’s unfortunate that Memphis is 0 for 2 on both mystery shoppers and 311, but more to the point, City Hall shows little interest in customer relations. It’s too bad, because there’s so much room for improved service, and so many of the answers aren’t really that complicated.

We were thinking about simple solutions to better customer service recently as we stood in line in City Hall for 40 minutes to pay city taxes. All we needed was a receipt that the tax bill had been paid, and there were only six people ahead of us when we got in line.

But with computers failing and with clerks’ windows opening and closing with no apparent logic, you didn’t need a degree in hospitality from the Wilson School at University of Memphis to devise ways to improve things. In fact, that was a favorite pastime of the people queued up in the tax line.

A Different View

A mystery shopper program would go a long way to developing actionable recommendations for improving things, but a start would be if city employees actually stood in line in various departments.

It would be illuminating for them to see city services from our side of the counter.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Local Government As Performance Art

Caught in a brutal vise of too many kids, too little density and a broken tax structure, the next people to head up local government here may not need to be mayors, but alchemists.

There are so many troubling trends taking place in Memphis, and they converge by necessity in the budget hearings of our governments. Because of it, the acrimony and conflict of this year’s budget hearings are destined to become an annual event if nothing is done to dramatically change the key forces shaping our city’s future.

There’s the 20% bulge in children in Shelby County when compared to Nashville/Davidson County and its peer communities. It’s a regional anomaly, and when converted into public costs, it amounts to roughly $180 million a year. In other words, if we had the same percentage of student population as Nashville, we’d spend $180 million a year less in education alone (not including the cost of services to poor, at-risk kids).

Not Dense Enough

Meanwhile, the costs of delivering public services are going up because of the decreasing density of Memphis neighborhoods. Density fell 21% percent from 2000-2005, accelerating a trend that began four decades ago. When compared to 35 other peer cities, Memphis is #5 in the greatest decline in density.

Today, there are 28% fewer people inside the city limits of Memphis as there were in 1970, and density is half what it was. While density is a key indicator of neighborhoods that work, it matters to taxpayers most of all. Public services are less expensive when they are serving high-density areas, and capital costs are almost 50 percent cheaper than low-density sprawl.

That’s why the strongest champions for high-density should be our local elected officials. They need to use their bully pulpits to correct public misperceptions that higher density means lower property values; to persuade financial institutions not yet comfortable with funding urban-oriented construction; and to reinvent the local development standards that often discourage higher densities.

Upside Down Tax Policy

Finally, as a result of too many kids and too little density, we are paying the highest combined city-county tax rate in Tennessee. In the words of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations: "Memphis has the highest combined county and city nominal tax rate in the state…Total local taxes are regressive, since each of the three taxes (property tax, sales tax and wheel tax) is separately regressive. Regressivity refers to lower income persons paying a higher percent of their income for taxes than do higher income persons."

Put another way, not only are our taxes too high but the poorer you are, the greater percentage of your income is spent on them.

Because of these facts, contrary to conventional wisdom and despite relatively effective financial management, our tax rate is destined to remain high and the trends combine to push it higher. For example, if we had the same percentage of student-age population as most major metros, our tax rate here would essentially be the same as the tax rate in Nashville, a city we regularly reject and covet simultaneously.

Getting Real About Change

The fact that a contrary public opinion is widely held is testament to the purposeful way that local government obscures information from the public. For example, we may well have entered a world of Web 2.0, but local government seems incapable of creating a digital environment that would have measured up to Web 1.0. It’s understandable that many people have concluded that the government websites here aren’t accidentally cumbersome and unhelpful, but they are a direct reflection of the prevailing government attitude.

While the money spent by a city director on his city-assigned car and travel expenses may get the headlines, they are mere distractions from the kinds of fundamental changes that the next mayor of Memphis will have to make, starting with technology.

Every transaction, application and request that the public can make standing on the other side of a government counter should also be available online. Every report, every tax freeze given by government and every study paid for by taxpayers should be posted on the Web.

Transparency Is Not Just Campaign Rhetoric

If there’s a model for is kind of transparency, it’s the Missouri Accountability Portal on the state government’s website. It posts detailed information on expenditures by agency, category, contract or vendor and salaries for state employees.

But there’s so much more that can be done here. For example, there are mechanic shops working on publicly-owned vehicles for various agencies all over Shelby County. Even within city government, most divisions have someone assigned to handle information technology rather. The opportunities for merging functions that are replicated over and over again – from purchasing to maintenance to human resources – can yield more than marginal savings. It contributes to the sense of teamwork and collaboration that are sorely lacking in local government today.

In a nutshell, the challenge for the next mayor of Memphis is to create a high-performing government based on and focused on performance – from budgets to salaries. Today, there’s just no real connection between a department’s performance and its budget and there’s no connection between an employee’s performance and salary.

Performance Matters

We’re not saying this is about overlaying private sector models onto the public sector. As a Harvard study concluded years ago, government is too different for these simplistic notions – not to mention campaign sloganeering – about bringing business to government. (And the truth is that everyone is in favor of the government acting more businesslike until it affects them.) Despite this, the notion that performance can’t be applied to the public sector is outdated and flawed.

First and foremost, it requires for a set of outcomes to be defined and to link them seriously to budgeting, evaluation and salaries. To its credit, City of Memphis yearly conducts the Memphis Poll to understand the public’s priorities and opinions, but we’re hard-pressed to see any meaningful way that the polling results are applied to budgets or service delivery.

In the end, it’s about the kind of focus and accountability that can transform the culture of local government, because that’s really the overall objective. It’s also been called the equivalent of changing a tire on a car traveling 60 miles per hour.

No Waiting Room

To compound the challenge, a significant part of the public workforce are Civil Service employees who know that they can ordinarily wait out a person that sets out to change things, whether it is Kriner Cash or A C Wharton.

We can’t afford to wait anymore, and while getting the basics of government right, it’s even more about changing the trends that exacerbate all of this in the first place. That’s the toughest challenge of all, because it requires the repopulating of Memphis, and this won’t ever take place until the public feels that its tax dollars are creating the kind of city in which they want to live.

Friday, July 10, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Creative Ecologies And Families

What's the right habitat for for nurturing and hatching new ideas? John Howkins has spent a lifetime answering that question. His earlier work documented the rise of the creative economy and his latest book, "Creative Ecologies," proposes a new approach to making a supportive environment for creativity and ideas.

Rod Frantz was on the forefront of developing the Creative Class Movement, but now he and his wife Marcy have turned their attention from the creative class to creative families. They've written a book called "The Yes Child," and we'll talk to them about what it means to build a family culture.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Back To The Future With Memphis City Council

We are repeating a post from June, 2007, whose point we thought we had moved beyond:

It is an aphorism – though none the less true – that the most segregated hour in Memphis is at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.

Surely it’s equally true that the most racially-corrosive time in Memphis is any time City Council meets.

Its members proved it again last night.

The Time Machine

It’s as if our city’s leaders are trapped in a time warp where only an H.G. Wells plot line could get them into the present, a present where their racial rhetoric is more and more revealed for its fossilized underpinnings, where their obsession with all things racial is seen for its antediluvian view of our city and where their role models of irrelevancy on race relations is exposed for the burlesque that it is.

It’s as if most Council members have no concept of the responsibilities that come with the gift of public leadership. At a time when we should be celebrating the power of ideas and our diversity, most members cling to the power of prejudice.

Lost in this mélange of Tuesday buffoonery is the reality that their words and actions are in fact poisoning the civic culture of the city. If racial polarization is a malignancy in Memphis, it seems clear that the place to lance the boil is Memphis City Council.

The World In Black And White

It is there that anything – absolutely anything – can get cast in shades of black and white. It wasn’t too long ago that one of the Council members, in the midst of his regular rants, referred to lessons learned from the slave masters. If these lessons included the use of racial invective, insulting epithets and demeaning posturing, there’s no question that he was a star pupil.

In this respect, yesterday’s Council meeting was classic.

Whether it was the Riverfront Development Corporation’s Beale Street Landing project, the request by Lemoyne-Owen College for $3 million or consideration of new ethics rules, Council members were capable of dragging it down to the lowest common denominator in public debate.

Liberal Guilt

We admit that we’ve often explained away the rhetoric of African-American Council members like this: after years of being frozen out of the political system in any meaningful way, they had no real choice but to become adept at using the kind of language that gives them the only power they could muster – the power to shut down public debate by injecting charges of racism. As more than one sociologist has pointed out, it was in this victimization that African-Americans enjoyed one of the few times when they could shift the balance of power and control the conversation.

But these days, we have less patience. These divisive exercises are more than mere political games; they are in fact holding back our city and thwarting its growth. Rather than take the experiences of discrimination and use it to create an open, diverse system of thought and participation, some Council members seem almost intent on reinventing the same malignant environment of the past that brutalized them.

At times, it’s as if the fact that we live in a city with an African-American city mayor, an African-American county mayor, an African-American City Council majority and an African-American majority in our state legislative delegation counts for nothing.

Code Of Conduct

But that's not saying that the white members deserve any prizes. They seem adept at pushing the exact issue guaranteed to create racial conflict and controvery. They seem to think that putting together a majority 7-6 vote and ramming it through the system is the same as exhibiting mature leadership. They contribute and often cause an atmosphere where basic empathy and understanding seem to be the first victims of debate.

If Memphis City Council really wants to demonstrate its maturity, it would tone down the racial rants and adopt a general code of conduct. Most of all, Council members would stop their reflexive charges of racism against anyone with whom they disagree or who represents a project they oppose.

This trend reached its zenith a few weeks ago when yet another person appearing before the Council was accused of being a bigot. Apparently, the fact that he was an active and impassioned champion of the civil rights movement was lost to the fogs of history.

It was a charge that struck the person at his moral core, because he had tried to make racial equality a central theme of his life. And yet, it was a charge tossed about cavalierly by a Council member who disagreed with his position. To the Council member, it was just an instrument of political theater, but to the citizen, it was the same as questioning his personal integrity and character.

The Virus

What's lost is the chance for our public square to be a place where we can confront our past honestly and calmly while charting a bolder future in which we all join hands to accomplish.

Instead of being the place where this kind of substantive discussion takes place, City Council ultimately fails in its first job – to create the common ground where citizens are encouraged to debate, discuss and engage in the substantive issues facing Memphis. Most of all, they fail to be the models for how this kind of respectful, consensus-building discussion should take place.

To the contrary, Council Chambers – with its trappings of past glories and present neglect – has become an environment hostile to most managers of city government, much less average citizens.

New Voices

Standing outside the Council chambers during much of the meeting, an African-American woman in her early 20’s, working as an intern in City Hall, said she couldn’t bear to listen.

“It’s the kind of arguing we (people her age) don’t care about,” she said. “The folks in there are always looking for the chance to march and to demonstrate or to talk about the old days and how bad they were treated. But they’re not representing us. They don’t even ask us. We can live anywhere we want, we can have any friends we want, we can live in any city we want and we just want the chance to succeed. We’re not interesting in fighting these old battles. They’re just a waste of time.”

And that’s the saddest thing of all. Council members most prone to lapse into this kind of destructive rhetoric have no concept that to many young people, regardless of their race, all they are proving is how out of touch they really are.

A Chill In The Air

More to the point, all this does nothing so effectively as having a chilling effect on the development of new public leadership at the time when it is needed most.

Next time you think there’s a lack of smart, savvy, young, potential leaders in Memphis, visit FedEx World Headquarters’ cafeteria at lunch time.

It’s a visit that is striking in its effect, because it’s clear that Memphis has thousands of African-American professionals calling the shots in one of the world’s most admired corporations, taking the slings and arrows that come every day in their highly pressurized industry. And yet, they refuse to get involved in the mean streets of public life in Memphis, considering it laughable at best and an indictment of the city at worst.

Reality Check

About 12 hours after the City Council session, we were in a meeting with some people who work every day to solve some of Memphis’ worst problems. They aren’t elected. They avoid City Council meetings like the plague. They work at the grassroots. They work to engage community organizations in the hard work of community-building.

They unanimously agree that the racial chasm amplified in the news media exists primarily in the halls of government, where ritualized racial posturing defines the culture there. They tell of a different Memphis, one where community and neighborhood organizations all over the city are working on the grittiest issues and doing it with little regard to the fact that there are two races at the table.

Instead, they recognize the differences that come from their experiences, and they use them to unify them and strengthen their plans of action. When they talk about race, they talk calmly as friends exploring the boundaries of understanding and tolerance.

The Real Memphis

It was a well-timed reality check.

We can read about Council meetings, we can listen to the verbal bombasts that take place there and we can shake our heads over the wasted energy and time when so much in Memphis needs our leaders’ attention.

But, we should never make the mistake that Memphis City Council reflects what’s really going on in Memphis.

That’s because the real progress is being made at the grassroots, and that’s also where the Council could learn an awful lot about deliberation, decision-making and consensus-building.

There’s no time like the present.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Bring Your Own Bike Lane

We've been tempted to organize a guerilla bike lane striping movement. While the city engineer's office treats it like it's virtually impossible to get this done, what if each of us just went out in front of our house and business and laid down a line for bikes?

But we've just seen something that may be useful before we stripe Memphis. It's a BYOL (bring your own lane) device that projects a bike lane behind you at night. You're still on your own during the day until the thinking of the city engineer's office gets into this century.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Anthony Siracusa: Pedaling His Way To Progress

Anthony Siracusa is peddling, or pedaling, Revolutions abroad these days.


As the founder of Revolutions Community Bike Shop eight years ago at the age of 17, he’s been an ebullient advocate for cycling as the vehicle for civic engagement and progress in Memphis. Now 25 years old, he’s off on a year-long adventure exploring the way that bicycling connects and shapes a city’s character.

Pedaling Toward Progress

"Cities that promote cycling also are cities that seem to take care of their people and have great quality of life," Mr. Siracusa says. "People are moving out of Memphis. We have to reconsider business as usual. It's no longer a matter of whether cycling is a priority. It's now a necessity. There's not an option anymore, because this is about more than cycling. It's about making Memphis a livable city."


It’s hard to argue with his thesis about the connection between cycling, city livability and Memphis’ competitiveness. Bicycling magazine calls Memphis one of the three worst cities for cycling in the U.S. and cites the Walnut Grove bridge into Shelby Farms Park as the poster child for a "bureaucracy [that] has repeatedly ignored or rejected requests from bike clubs, shops, and other organizations for facilities."
Not too long ago, bicycling summoned up images of a bucolic lifestyle not far removed from the past. Today, the bike-friendliness of a city is a "marker" for college-educated, 25-34-year-old professionals as they decide where to live and work.

Riding Toward The Right Goal

From 2000 to 2006, Memphis lost 14,508 people in this demographic, speeding up a skid that began in the 1990s with a decrease of 6,814. This is the age group determining if cities succeed in the knowledge economy. They are the most educated, the most entrepreneurial and the most mobile generation in history, and every city wants them.

And yet, despite frustrations and against all odds, thanks to Mr. Siracusa and others, cycling is moving quickly from being a group of enthusiasts to becoming a community of activists, and in doing so, they are becoming the active, vocal force for change in Memphis as it has been in other cities.

Today, Mr. Siracusa is in Xanadu, thousands of miles from Memphis and light years from our city in its biking culture and emphasis.

He’s in Copenhagen on the first leg of an adventure that will take him to the Netherlands, China, Australia and Mexico where he will study their bicycling communities as he pursues the answer to his question: What is the relationship between the bicycle’s ability to unite people into communities and the bicycle’s ability to unite people into communities and the bicycles transformative potential for urban environments?

Two Passions, Two Choices

The question was provocative enough that Mr. Siracusa was one of 40 people awarded a fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. It’s hard to think of anyone who’s more prepared to answer it. After all, as a teenager, he started Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop “to teach neighborhood kids how to fix bicycles while providing them with a safe space as they learn these skills.” “The program gives me a vent for two of my passions – promoting bicycling and working with troubled kids,” he said.

It’s this experience that finds him posing two fundamental choices – radical reform or patient integration. That exploration is also a purpose of his fellowship.

That pursuit begins today in earnest in Copenhagen, a city known for its extensive network of dedicated bike lanes with their own traffic lights which give cyclists a 10-second head start on automobile traffic. The city also operates a no-cost bike sharing system in its downtown – now that’s a revolutionary idea for the Center City Commission – but it’s also worth mentioning that the bikes are part of a comprehensive, effective transportation plan that includes one of the world’s best systems of public transit.

Pedaling Revolution

Mr. Siracusa said that compared to Memphis where one-half of one percent of Midtowners bike to work, in the entire city of Copenhagen, the percentage is about 50 percent.

Memphis’ potential to become a biking city is eroded by a local circular argument, with some people saying that people don’t ride bikes, so there’s no need to improve bike lanes and general biking conditions. Then, because the conditions aren’t improved, the number of people biking stays suppressed, which justifies the lack of attention to bike lanes.

As he has been for years, Mr. Siracusa is on the forefront of a revolution, as we were reminded in the recent interview on Smart City of Jeff Mapes, a Portland reporter who wrote, Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities.

Learning From Europe

“Portland really consciously designed a lot of its bicycle networks on things that planners, transportation people, bicycle advocates saw on trips to Europe and particularly to the Netherlands,” he said, adding that it begins with “a complete route for bicycles.”

“(It’s not) just enough to stripe a bike lane here or there or say, ‘gee, here’s a nice recreational trail’ but you really need to think out where do people need to go in this city…in the same way you would think it out if you’re planning a network for vehicle travel or for light rail or buses.”

Mr. Mapes also recommended that it is important to design “a city for being in the city instead of just rushing people in and out of the city as so many American cities do…I think that starts to create a bicycle-friendly city.

Getting It Right

Mr. Mapes is right. It’s a lot more than just striping a bike lane, although around here, that would be considered revolutionary. Despite millions of dollars flowing into the city engineer’s office as a result of the federal government’s economic stimulus program, we predict that not $1 will be spent striping a bike lane although neighborhoods are pleading for them.

It’s a symptom of the depths of the problem here in getting our civic agenda right. Even more, it’s a symptom of the flawed public culture that thwarts the kind of innovative public policy that is needed to shake up the status quo.

A year from now, after gathering the lessons from four continents, we’ll have our own expert who can help us create the kind of city that Memphis needs to be. Until then, we can keep up with Mr. Siracusa on his blog in anticipation of his impact when he returns.

Monday, July 06, 2009

No Words Left

Today, we are speechless.

We find ourselves suffering from a exhausting case of drama fatigue from the swirling events in City Hall.

There's really not much else we can say, except that it's time for a fresh start. We hope the political games of chicken and the emphasis on oneupsmanship will end and that we can move on to a seamless, calm 90-day transition.