Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Transitions: Three Great Men

We come today to praise great men – three, to be precise.

Two of them, Tiffany Bingham and Vasco Smith, died earlier this week. The third, Jeff Nesin, announced last week that he would step down as president of Memphis College of Art at the end of the year.

Mr. Nesin – like many of his generation – feels the pull of responsibility for his aged parents, and because of it, he will be returning to New York. While we write often about the economic impact of 25-34 year-old talent, Mr. Nesin reminds us that talent isn’t confined to any single demographic group.

In November of last year, we received an email that asked what we would do to set a “creativity movement” in motion in Memphis. Our answer came quickly: “Appoint Jeff Nesin the Memphis czar of creativity.”

Artful Leadership

That’s because we don’t know anyone who more fully understands the importance of creatives, the culture of creativity and the creative economy than the gifted president of the Memphis College of Art; however, we also know that Mr. Nesin would immediately demur, suggesting that the movement would be best led by the people it seeks to serve – the creative members of our city themselves.

That’s what we’ve always admired the most about Mr. Nesin. He modulated his lively intellect with an accessible personality that inspired the people around him and most of all the students who chose to attend one of Memphis’ most underappreciated distinctive assets – the College of Art.

It’s hard to find another city of our size that has its own College of Art, and over the years, it has been a reliable source of artistic talent and creative expression. Under Mr. Nesin’s leadership, its impact was magnified as he doubled its enrollment, increased its financial and civic support and added more and more scholarships to open up new options for hosts of young people.

After 19 years with him at the helm of the College of Art, it is difficult to imagine Memphis without him. He was a ready source of fresh thinking and new ideas, but at his heart, he was an urbanist, and his ability to blend arts and culture into his understanding of cities will be missed by all of us.

Tif Bingham

Tif Bingham, one of the young Turks who brought Memphis out of its post-MLK assassination decline, died this week. Little more than 30 years ago, as Memphis seemingly spiraled out of control, a handful of well-educated, visionary entrepreneurs decided to apply their skills to civic affairs, and because of it, that period was a seminal moment in our city’s history.

Chief among them was Mr. Bingham, and because of him, Memphis in May was born and the Memphis Jobs Conference took place. He was a founder of the former - which broke down racial walls and opened up Memphis to the world - and he was chairman of the latter – which set the agenda for Memphis for roughly 15 years.

When we talk today about the kind of talent and leadership that Memphis needs to improve its trajectory, Mr. Bingham is the perfect model for it. Born into a general life of privilege, he felt the pain of the poor and fought for fair play and harmony.

When he brought these same sensibilities and uncommon honesty to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce as its president from 1979 to 1984, he made for a very different kind of Chamber executive. He wasn’t prone to kneejerk cheerleading although he was an unyielding supporter of his adopted hometown since 1960. He wasn’t given to the happy talk that’s prevalent in these jobs but he was given to the civility and consensus that welcomed everyone intoi important civic conversations.

Role Model

At a time when Memphis was desperate for some positive publicity, a number of city leaders – both public and private – went after the Miss Teen USA pageant for Memphis. They got it, but in the end, it came and it went, leaving few ripples in the water here and even fewer across the country. At a time when Memphis needed desperately to send a message about a city serious about coming together and producing change, he was honest enough to stand in front of the stampede chasing the beauty pageant, saying that it was not the best use of scarce marketing dollars.

In the aftermath of the crowning of Miss Teen USA, it was inarguable that he was right. It was the kind of resistance to groupthink and to jumping on the bandwagon of the latest, greatest big idea that made him so special and made him a role model for those of us who strive to remain true to our convictions while pushing for progress.

But in truth, we remember him as a role model in courage in a different battle altogether. After leaving the Chamber of Commerce, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, an unforgiving degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that often impairs motor skills, speech and other functions. Although speech often came with increasing difficulty, it nevertheless was always laced with kindness and concern for the other person.

While he was widely traveled – a genetic disposition inherited from the grandfather, the noted National Geographic explorer who discovered Machu Picchu and U.S. Senator Hiram Bingham – there was no place more special for him than his house on the rocky beach at Tenants Harbor, Maine. With lobster pots down the road, rhubarb pies sold at a house at the corner, with Andrew Wyeth scenery nearby along with the artist himself, there was a lilt that came to his voice when he talked about this special corner of the world.

We extend our sympathies to his wife Sandy and to his family for the loss of a gracious friend and gentleman.

Vasco Smith

Vasco Smith was many things – a lion of the civil rights movement, a dentist, a politician and a jazz aficionado who had few peers. More to the point, he was a loyal friend and a fascinating conversationalist.

There was a time when he and his wife of 56 years, Maxine, were anathema to a large segment of white Memphians struggling mightily to hang on to a world of segregation and deprivation for African-Americans. They were vilified, they were ridiculed in the media and they were threatened with murder.

And yet, he never wavered, and as he and Mrs. Smith relied on each other for strength in the face of such hatred, their already strong bonds grew even stronger. They were inseparable and singularly dedicated to each other, and we know that today it is difficult for her to imagine a world without her life companion.

We were fortunate to call Mr. Smith a dear friend, and despite what many people thought, he was a friend to the city that he so dearly loved. Judging from some of the comments posted to his obituary in The Commercial Appeal, racism is alive and well in Memphis, and our only regret that it outlived Mr. Smith himself. That said, at least today, its comments come under monikers that hide identities because today, as a result of Mr. Smith’s legacy, these kinds of people hide in the shadows where they hurl their racist comments anonymously.

The Movement

Mr. Smith could be a firebrand, but it was always rhetoric with a reason. Once he was able to move from outside government calling for equality to an elected official of government itself, he was often able to deliver his blistering indictment of a white-dominated county legislative body with a wink. Once, after increasing his decibel level and his emotional delivery, he turned in his chair, winking and saying, “I bet that gets things moving.”

And, as usual, it did, because although he was inside government, he was still doing what he had always done: speaking truth to power (or the power structure). As he once explained it, if the civil rights movement had taught him anything, it was that often the rhetoric had to be overblown. “If I want to move these folks to the middle, that means I have to move way over there so that when they compromise with me, they end up where I wanted them in the first place,” he said.

Some memorable days were created any time we could with libation in hand, spend a few hours listening to Mr. Smith playing jazz records at his house. He was a veritable encyclopedia of jazz and his record collection was without peer in Memphis. And so was he.

In a world desperately in need of role models, here are three of our favorites – Mr. Smith, Mr. Bingham and Mr. Nesin.

Note: We’d like to make the modest suggestion to our daily newspaper that comments should not be allowed on some articles. What possible comfort could Mr. Smith’s family find from reading his obituary online and coming face-to-face with some all too familiar hateful comments? These coarse voices are becoming all too familiar on The Commercial Appeal website on articles of all kinds where some intellectual illiterates drag race into everything.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Skating Toward A Better Future

With the Mud Island Land Use Study - Phase Three Public Meetings wrapping up this week, there may be questions about the final recommendations, but there can be no questions any longer about the potential of a skate park on the Mississippi River isthmus.

There have been a lot of suggested activities for Mud Island, but it’s hard to gaze over at the generally staid river park and not imagine the beehive of activity that would be produced by a first-class skate park that is the largest in the U.S. Best of all, it would dynamite national public perceptions of a slow-moving riverfront, shaped more often by photos of riverboats and times gone by than by active, young families that speak to our future, enlivening an area desperately in need of animation and activity.

We commend the Division of Park Services for finally trying to close the skate park gap that exists between our city and its peers. According to the Trust for Public Land, the top 10 cities for skate parks have from 1 to 1.8 skate parks per 100,000 people. In other words, for Memphis to get in the top 10, we need to open up minimum of 6 skate parks and more likely 10.

That’s why plans to build a skate park in the Glenview neighborhood and as part of the proposed plans for the Fairgrounds are welcome announcements, but they do nothing to mitigate the importance of a signature venue as a downtown welcome mat for Memphis. (Your last chances to weigh in on the plan for Mud Island are Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. at Memphis Botanic Garden and Thursday at 5:45 p.m. at Harbor Landing on Mud Island.)

Getting Ahead Of The Game

Eight years ago, we were in Louisville and the mayor there wanted to show off the things that showed how serious his city was about its future. He took us to two places that he considered proof positive – the new, improved riverfront and the new skate park within a stone’s throw of the riverfront.

It was middle of a weekday and the place was alive with activity. The mayor said that it was open around the clock, and it was never empty. Most of all, it sent the message, he said, that Louisville was serious about attracting young talented workers and in creating a new, more progressive brand for itself (shortly thereafter, his fellow citizens approved the first large city-county consolidation in 40 years to punctuate his point).

The skate park had just served as the site for a nationally televised X-games competition, and the mayor was still basking in the glow of this validation of his leadership to get the facility built.

A friend of ours says that Memphis is always on the cutting edge. Unfortunately, it’s the one 20 years ago.

A Marker For Talent

In this case, we have a chance to get it right a lot earlier if we can come to grips with the wisdom of the proposed skate park on Mud Island. Clearly, in the public process run by the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), no group has been more passionate or armed with more facts about the impact of its project.

From where we sit, the business community ought to be leading the fight for the skate park – and the vision of the tip of Mud Island teeming with the kind of activity that we saw in Louisville. In the great scheme of things, we suggest that the presence of the skate park could pay bigger dividends than all of the big projects that we pursue in the name of “talent attraction.”

These days, any Chamber that isn’t anchoring its work in the creation, attraction and retention of talent isn’t really working on economic development. That’s why we’ve seen so many cities invest in skate parks as a convincing way to send new messages to today’s highly coveted 25-34 year-olds.

Hopefully, we won’t do what we often have done – add it after everyone else has one. It would be the outdoor recreation version of Hard Rock Café. By the time one located here, it seemed that everyone had one, but still, we acted like we had just landed an NFL team. We did, however, get an NBA team, but, come to think of it, it was after there were about three dozen of them.

Not Either-Or

At any rate, the skate park is a relatively low-cost way to do something before it’s old hat. But we need to do it now, and we need to do it in a high-profile place like Mud Island, where it sends an unequivocable message about our city, where it animates a downtown that critically needs it and where it becomes a hub of vibrancy 24/7.

In addition, we believe the Memphis Division of Park Services understands that this is not a question of either a large-scale, prominent skate park downtown or a number of smaller skate parks throughout the city. Actually, we need to be doing both. And soon.

We confidently predict that there are more skaters than golfers and tennis players, and city government provides courses and courts.

Here, we often seem so obsessed with studying and planning and less committed to implementing and executing. And an idea like the skate park on the south tip of Mud Island – a source of animation, a magnet for families, a repositioning of the park as a vibrant, dynamic hub of activity and a use that can bring all sides of the controversy over the future of our riverfront together – just seems too good to pass up.

Just Do It

If other cities can do it, we just don’t know why we can’t. In many other cities, there’s just a stronger predilection for action. They are simply hard-wired to take action and to do something.

In today’s highly competitive global economy and with our dire economic indicators, time is the only thing we don’t have enough of. Let’s decide on three things we need to do to compete and go do them. When we’re done, let’s pick three more and work on them. We put the Mud Island Skate Park on our first list.

Skateboarding is among the top four outdoor activities of Americans with 64 outings per participant, according to information gathered by Skatelife Memphis. Meanwhile, skaters are willing to travel 10 or more hours to their favorite skate parks, and it’s hard to imagine one destined to be more special than one located on the banks of America’s greatest river.

In number of participants, skateboarding has now passed baseball, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers, and Sports Illustrated has called it “the great influence on American youth culture in the 20th century.”

An Easy Call

We’ve not met anyone in years who we admire than Dr. Aaron Shafer, the St. Jude Children’s Hospital researcher who has spearheaded this project from a personal dream to one now supported by a broad constituency. His work on the skate park is a reminder for Memphis as it tries to do better in attracting young professionals: sometimes, it’s not the mega-project, but the smaller projects – the ones generating activity and vibrancy – that offer the most immediate returns on investment with this coveted demographic.

Dr. Shafer’s diagnosis is that the skate park would go a long way to keeping people like him in Memphis, and that’s as powerful a reason for building it as we can think of. To his credit, however, Dr. Shafer’s ultimate motivation is at-risk children and his dream is for a wholesome environment where they can exercise and where a $3 million skate park can bring them into contact with role models and mentors.
In a city where consensus is about as scarce as Grizzlies’ victories, the plan for a skate park on Mud Island is about as close as it gets.

All in all, the notion of building the skate park at the southern tip of Mud Island – the geographic equivalent of the city’s toe in the water – would be a dependable source of vibrancy and a magnet for skating families. It’s as close to a no brainer as any project we’ve seen for downtown Memphis.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Buehler Homes Taxes County Commissioners

Every once in awhile something makes its way to the agenda of Memphis City Council or Shelby County Board of Commissioners that simply defies imagination.

The resolution on Monday’s board of commissioners’ agenda to give 140 county-owned lots to Beuhler Homes for rental housing is one of them.

There are so many reasons that county commissioners should at least go slow – if not vote against – a plan that seems to have more questions than solid assurances. Perhaps, the best way to do it would to be to take the time to carefully analyze the implications of this plan rather than respond to the politics of it.

So far, the push for the 140 lots has raised eyebrows but the political urgency behind it has raised even more. There seems to be a “take no prisoners” strategy to get it passed which in itself does nothing so much as spark more questions.

Payment Due

Opponents contend that the company is the equivalent of a public-sanctioned slum lord and advocates claim it as a company committed to constructing affordable houses in the urban core. In other words, there are a lot of concerns that need to be answered about Beuhler Homes.

Commissioner Mike Ritz raised a huge reason when he pointed out that the company owes $1.1 million in overdue property taxes. At a time when so many people say that government should operate like a business, it’s hard to fathom a private partnership getting off the ground if one of the partners had that kind of encumbrance.

One Central Garden resident put it succinctly in her email: “Why take properties from people who can't pay taxes and give it to someone who is not paying his property taxes?” It’s a fair question. At the least, it would be prudent for the board of commissioners to have a signed, enforceable agreement from Buehler Homes for payment of its delinquent taxes before it considers doing anything with the company.

We’re not sure what Commissioner Steve Mulroy meant when we referred to making “some sort of moral statement,” but in truth, the only kind of statement that matters is a “paid in full” statement from the county trustee’s office.

Core Questions

The question by Commissioner Henri Brooks – who has been faithfully driving a core city initiative – proved there are concerns even more important than the monetary ones, citing the low-quality standards by Buehler Homes and complaints from many in the neighborhoods where they are located.

To address this, the company said it improved its designs as a result of negotiations with a design review process set up by the board of commissioners. However, the designs bear scant improvement over the houses that have, in Commissioner Brooks’ words, disregarded the interests of the inner city. Hers are cautionary words since she actually represents part of North Memphis where the lots are located.

Buehler Homes has given a lot of promises to get county approval of its lots, but if the past is the best predictor of the future, it’s hard to feel too much optimism that things will fundamentally be any different.

That legacy is stark testimony to the ambivalence that county government has shown for the more than 20 years that it has been enabling Buehler’s housing business. After all that time, Buehler Homes isn’t ever named as an example of the kind of urban infill that strengthens neighborhoods and the urban fabric. More to the point, it’s regularly pointed to as an example of the kind of disregard that is often prevalent whenever the client is the working poor, whether it is public transit or urban housing.

Plugging In CDC’s

There is hope of do things differently, and community development corporations are showing how it can be done. Back when Buehler Homes’s relationship with county government began, CDC’s were few and far between. Fortunately, that is no longer the case, and the most inventive, effective strategies originate there.

Because of the evolution of the CDC’s, it seems reasonable that decisions about the best use of county-owned lots should directly involve them. Perhaps, this takes the form of the CDC’s vetting the proposed uses, or even better, that the county asks them to develop ways that the lots could be used as leverage for their revitalization plans.

As proposed now, the use of these 140 lots is entirely up to the discretion of Buehler Homes, and in this way, the rental housing to spring up there could be in direct conflict with the aspirations of its residents and the plans of the CDC in that area.

It’s a serious disconnect. Even if county government is not interested in the opinions of the CDC’s, it would seem logical that county government itself would at least not take action on 140 lots unless it had its own over-arching neighborhood redevelopment plan – one that answers what kind of neighborhoods county government wants to create, what tool box of county incentives – including its lots – could be created to stimulate healthy neighborhoods, what is the consensus vision of the neighborhood and its CDC and what could county government do to work with city agencies who are much more engaged in the life of Memphis neighborhoods.

A Better Way

Ironically, Buehler Homes moved to the county board of commissioners’ agenda while an item that supported legislation to allow the county to donate tax sale property to CDC’s for commercial purposes foundered. There are 250 of these ordinances in other communities, so we’re hard-pressed to understand why there’s foot-dragging here, but hopefully, approval will be given in coming weeks.

Meanwhile, supporters of the land transfer from county government to the Buehler Homes suggest that anything is better than what exists now, but that’s one step (a short one) away from the “anything goes” approach that plagues declining Memphis neighborhood.

There should be a better way. It should involve development of a master plan for the neighborhood in conjunction with University of Memphis planners, a CDC and neighborhood residents, the assembly of all city and county incentives, a city-county neighborhood design review team and involvement of civic resources like the CD Council, UrbanArt Commission and the AIA chapter.

In other words, it’s past time to quit talking about how important our neighborhoods are and do something to help them. It’s time to make them a priority and to concentrate our energy, focus our resources and engage our imagination to do something that sets national standards.

The Right Call

One thing for sure: there will be people at Monday’s board of commissioners meeting to urge a different way of doing business. The CD Council has expressed its concern about “Buehler’s track record of building unattractive and low-quality housing.” Another member said that if the company is given the 140 lots, it “totally undercuts the efforts of real transformation in our inner city/often historic neighborhoods.”

It’s likely that some North Memphis constituents and neighborhood redevelopment leaders will oppose the resolution Monday or at least ask for it to be evaluated within a larger context. We can only hope that the board of commissioners listens.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Walking In Memphis (The North Riverside Version)

In response to our post earlier this week about the uninviting welcome that greets visitors to Memphis from the Riverside exit off I-40, a reader sent his photographic take on that stretch of grim landscape.

He emailed: "Check out the walk that tourists have from the welcome center to Mud Island, where many of them go. It starts with a view of a sea of parking lots, then uglier than sin garages and a Mud Island park in need of some tender loving care, from the streaked pylons holding up the tram to the ugly tin foil, etc., that greets visitors from the west. The whole area needs a facelift. Take a look."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Art Park Paints A Better Picture Of Memphis

My morning commute delivers me many days to downtown Memphis from the Riverside Drive exit of I-40. It’s the antithesis of the experience that greets me two miles away south when I enter downtown from the other end of Riverside Drive off I-55.

There, the spectacular view of the river and downtown unfailingly lifts my spirit and evokes my pride in our city. Meanwhile, the other end of Riverside Drive is unwelcoming, shabby and depressing.

It is a rare day that I don’t drive onto Riverside from the north that I don’t think of the Memphis Art Park. Coupled with a skate park on Mud Island, it has the power to redefine a riverfront desperately in need of vibrancy and to shake off the pervasive feeling of lethargy that greets visitors.

Turning Around

Beale Street Landing is an important piece in the puzzle and will change things at the foot of Beale, but in its own way, Memphis Art Park’s opportunity to shake up the area between Union and Floyd Alley and Front and Riverside has equal, if not more, potential. After all, most visitors to Memphis end up in this area looking at the most photographed location in our city – the Mississippi River.

They look eagerly for something to do – even if it’s just to buy a Coke or ice cream and enjoy the view. Often, they’re looking for anything to pass the time while they wait for a riverfront trolley whose posted schedule is irrelevant. (Q: When will the next trolley arrive? A: When you see it coming.) The idea of eating lunch in a restaurant where they can view the river is as alien as the Riverfront Development Corporation and Friends of our Riverfront issuing joint press releases.

Visitors are looking for something interesting to do – an activity, something with the opportunity for a personal experience, something that offers them the feeling of doing something special or finding something unexpected in a city know for its creativity but that often works hard to keep it under wraps.

When Memphis decided to turn its back on the river, it did so with a vengeance. But that’s a common tale for cities on American rivers. Riverfronts were rowdy, dirty and commercial, so cities didn’t place much value on them as iconic landmarks or competitive platforms for the future. They were simply ignored.

The Wrong Message

But we know better now. So it’s nothing short of astounding that the northern entrance to Riverside remains as dismal today as it did 30 years ago.

Driving off I-40, we are greeted with chain link fences that do little except to send the message that this must be a city with a lot of crime and little design ethos. The chain link fence on the west lines a parking lot and the chain link fence on the east follows the trolley line (and makes visitor’s walk from the Welcome Center to the Mud Island tram circuitous and indirect).

If this entrance into downtown is anything, it is a juxtaposition, killing the chance for a strong first impression.

Across from the Tennessee Welcome Center is an austere, crumbling oatmeal-colored, bunker-like parking garage whose better days are long past, and a large motor home seems perpetually parked there. There’s brief respite passing between Confederate and Jefferson Davis Parks, and about the same time that Mud Island comes into view on the right, there’s promising work taking place on the left as the old Custom House is being converted into the University of Memphis law school (and thanks to the Hyde Family Foundations, the face to the river is being made greener and more attractive).


But the boost doesn’t last long. Immediately past it are the ignored rear of the old Cossitt Library, another godawful garage facing the river and a parking lot and more fencing behind the first station – all of which would be transformed by Memphis Art Park. Finally, at Union and Riverside, where you expect a breath-taking experience, the high ground – Wagner Place - is lined with commercial garbage dumpsters and hundreds of parking spaces where green space and seating overlooking the river would be gifts to downtown.

Greater momentum for elimination of the prevailing ugliness on this section of the riverfront should be a cause that all of us could rally around. For now, we’ll start with Memphis Art Park.

Its creator, John Kirkscey, reminds us about what’s best about Memphis: the ability of one person with a dream and an entrepreneurial and creative spirit to inspire others to rally around him. Already, the Center City Commission has expressed support for the Art Park, joining an awful lot of people who live and work downtown and who work and enjoy our arts and culture scene.

The $30 million project would transform the heart of the riverfront (which dearly needs it), and it would become the most visited, most vibrant place in a downtown (which dearly needs it). A few years ago, when CEOs for Cities asked corporate CEOs what they most wanted out of a city, they said vibrancy.

Something Better

Unfortunately, vibrancy in downtown Memphis is few and far between, pretty much centered in the area of Beale Street, and it generally cranks up about the time that many people are going down for the night. Memphis Art Park would become another important anchor of vibrancy as the fire station, the parking garage and the Cossitt Library became a beehive of creativity, contributing to a culture of creativity that cities need today to succeed.

There are places for emerging artists, musicians, dancers, actors and filmmakers who could be celebrated and enjoyed. In Mr. Kirkscey’s words, “Memphis Arts Park would be a cultural beacon on our city’s doorstep and announce that Memphis is a distinctive arts destination.”

His conceptual plans – fleshed out by David Schuermann and Joey Hagan of Architecture, Incorporated – call for rehabilitating the library into a multi-purpose arts facility, including studios, film rooms, music rooms, gallery/exhibition/event space and a community arts resource center. It would also have a sculpture garden overlooking the river.

Best of all, the Art Park reimagines the Monroe garage so that it has murals, lighting, colored scrims, a green rooftop park and art plaza and a pedestrian bluff walk. Finally, the fire station headquarters – which has been slated for replacement by City of Memphis Fire Services – would become a community cinema, a performance venue, gallery and event space and a plaza for outdoor events. There also would be a grand staircase and fountain at Union and Riverside.

Planning The Dream

Fortunately, Mr. Kirkscey and his advocates are remaining nimble so alternates are being considered and suggestions are being welcomed. Already, a number of local organizations have expressed their interest in being part of the project, and hopefully, local government and local philanthropies will join hands to jump start the project.

To his credit, Mr. Kirkscey is doing more than offering up a dream. He has developed a 60-page plan complete with design ideas, costing, architectural renderings, operational philosophy and examples of successful similar projects in other cities.

At this point, we need to admit that we have a personal bias in this issue. Our office is a half block from the river on Union and faces the moribund fire station and the concrete walls that meet the sidewalk beside it.

It would be so good that when visitors to Memphis walking down Union to the river ask us what they can do, we could point across the street to a lively, active art park that reflects the best of what our city has to offer.

Friday, September 18, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Brick City And Blog Cities

Smart City is talking to the executive producers of the Sundance channel series Brick City. Brick City is a five-part documentary series that fans out in Newark, New Jersey, to capture the daily drama of a community striving to become a better, safer and stronger place to live. The show follows the lives of the citizens of Newark including its mayor, Cory Booker as they work to re-make their city.

And we'll have a conversation with the mind behind the blog The Urbanophile. Aaron Renn is a leading urban affairs thinker and strategist in the midwest and his blog, The Urbanophile is a must read for people who are about cities. We'll talk to Aaron's about everything from city branding to the urban pecking order.

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, September 17, 2009

Answers Are Blowing In The Rhetorical Wind

On a day when some of us are remembering the life of Mary Travers, it’s certainly not a time to condemn protesters and demonstrations, since she was inspiration for so many of them.

But we wouldn’t any way. What the city and the country need are more people willing to take to the streets to have their voices heard, and the fact that we disagree with the tea partiers does nothing to dampen our opinion that their protesting is good for democracy. In the market place of ideas, we predict that these protests will in time fade because of the risks attached to the excesses of its leadership, but that’s no reason to dismiss everybody with condescension, despite the unforgivable racist signs and comments by some of the participants.

But that’s the way it always is. In the midst of anti-war protests, there were always a couple of people who took it too far with their signs and their rhetoric. In gay pride marches, there were a couple of people who give every one else heartburn and get the message of the day askew.

In the end, the public’s good sense generally wins out, and the change takes place somewhere in the middle. It may take awhile, but screeds, irrationality and hateful name-calling kill off protesters’ chances to be heard and to have traction with the mainstream. Whether it’s the anti-tax Tea Party-goers, the birthers, or the town meeting health care hecklers on the right or the over-the-top sloganeering and the social media self-organizing of the left, it’s just too little these days about creating consensus on important public issues and too much about shouting each other down.

Change Changes Things

That’s the most frightening aspect of recent events. While invoking the names of our Founding Fathers and harkening back to supposedly inviolate American principles, protesters seem to look past the notion of e pluribus unum that sums up the supposed guiding principle for our nation’s crazy experiment in democracy.

We live in the world of talking heads who say one thing today and another tomorrow, and with little media fact checking, we are left searching for meaning in a swirl of hyperbole, situational politics and rhetorical blasts that stoke the base but burn up the chance for honest discussion. The Glenn Becks of the world create and then cover Tea Parties with a solemnity that suggests that he’s an objective bystander. (Of course, when President Bush was being portrayed as Hitler, he was aghast and enflamed, a condition he has apparently been cured of now.)

It is a frightening time for many people. Everything they thought was certain about their world feels upside down. A black man is president, gays are getting married, a wise Latina woman is on the Supreme Court, health care insurance will change, white men will become the new minority and Latinos will transform the country. They are left with little to do except to stand and scream as the tide overtakes them.

In a country where disillusionment is the coin of the realm, it’s also a highly combustible currency, and most of all, it shouts down reasoned debate and reasonable discussions about serious issues that are crucial for our future. The right has no exclusive claim to this behavior, and there are some on the left who are frustrated that President Obama is not moving quickly enough and is defending some of the policies of the Bush Administration that they abhor.

Ready To March

But, we hesitate to join the chorus at this time. It’s difficult at times to grasp the difference between campaigning and governing, between creating a base for election and creating a middle ground for your policies. Absurdist plots about a secret socialism conspiracies by the far right and continuing suggestions by the far left that President Bush is a war criminal do nothing so much as to divert us from the pressing tasks at hand. We seem so easily diverted by panem et circenses that are offered up reliably by to take our eyes off the ball.

Maybe, Aldous Huxley was right. It is indeed a Brave New World.

If it is, somehow, with in it, we have to find the means to rise above our identity as part of a special interest group and move beyond our own wedge issue to talk about what binds us together as a people and to find the common ground on which we all can stand.

As for us, we’ve wondered for eight years why more Americans weren’t out in the streets protesting tax policies that concentrated wealth among the well-connected and financial elites, many of the same people who now get multi-million bonuses after being bailed out by taxpayers less than a year ago.

Economic Dogma

For example, while some still genuflect at the altar of “tax cuts as magic answers” and passed more in 2001 and 2007, it’s incredulous to us that anyone is still willing to accept them as sound economic policy. In the past eight years, median household income declined to the lowest level since 1997, poverty climbed more than 50% and the number of insured Americans declined every year. The two terms of the Bush presidency were the only two in recent history in which income declined through eight years, and it predated the recession by seven years.

To our point, it may have taken six years, but the American people sorted it out. No one had to tell them that the recession began in 2007 although it took the Fed longer to figure it out. In the end, the on-the-ground understanding of an economy gone wrong resulted in the abysmal levels of support for the way the economy was being handled by the administration and voters delivered their inescapable message on Election Day.

So now, tea party-goers are incensed by the notion that health care reform could cost $1 trillion over 10 years, but we don’t remember complaints from them when the Bush Administration added that same amount to the deficit (without counterbalancing cuts) with its prescription plan for the government-run health care program that is Medicare. President Bush did veto the plan to expand health care to cover children, which contributed to the 21% increase in the uninsured during his terms.

In other words, we have a definite point of view, but we believe most Americans are like us: They’re willing to talk to anybody willing to find the common ground where all of us can gather to discuss the underlying challenges before us as a people. One thing seems widely held: It’s a tough time to be an average American. As our paychecks evaporate, the political bloviation condenses on our eye glasses, keeping us from seeing the political opportunism happening right in front of us.

Hate Bait

Former House leader Dick Armey, who helped lead the Republican Party into the wilderness, is now working hard at FreedomWorks to build tea party turnout while turning out the same kind of “line in the sand” messaging that he mastered in Congress. He intones that “liberals don't care what you do as long as it's mandatory,” although he led passage of numerous bills aimed at institutionalizing his personal values into law. The same kind of self-parody is equally lost on which sees every single Republican idea as a slippery slope toward fascism.

Our favorite protester, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” What’s lost most in the present climate of fear and loathing is not just civility, but a sense of mutuality that should bind us altogether in search of answers.

Some of us here are old enough to remember the unbridled hatred for President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King and its painful results. As Dr. King often said, there is room for debate and there is room for disagreement. There just is no room for hatred and objectifying the other side.

He said: “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."

Maybe there is indeed a way to get to the Promised Land where we renounce the pandering and the hate-mongers, where we agree that every one should have a voice and where we find ways that we can get back to the barn-raising values that have defined this country for so long.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nashville Took Different Road With Merged Governments

In the coming months, there were doubtlessly be lots of numbers batted back and forth as our community decides what it’s going to do about merging city and county governments.

Memphis regularly competes against Jacksonville, Nashville, Indianapolis and Louisville for business investments and new jobs, and they all are outperforming our city. They also just happen to have consolidated governments, which are hailed by their business leaders and their mayors as a seminal reason for their success.

Most bruising to our civic ego, however, are comparisons with Nashville. And to make matters worse, former mayors of Nashville – from Bill Purcell at Harvard University to Governor Phil Bredesen - said they counted themselves as lucky that Memphis never consolidated governments so it provided stronger competition.

The former mayors said that the reduced red tape, the simplifying the government structure and added responsiveness that came from a single vision and a single mayor were major competitive advantages for Nashville.

At the exact point that Nashville was passing consolidation and setting a different course for the future, Memphis was rejecting it. It's often pointed out here that there was a point where Memphis and Atlanta were comparable, and that while the Georgia capital made so many right decisions - from race to economic development - while our city decided to play it safe. The results are graphic and dramatic.

The same can be said about Memphis and Nashville except that our city was always "Big Shelby," the dominant force, the major economy and the big brother to the smaller, countrified city that was Nashville. And yet, it too made wise decisions that would shape the course of its history, and listening to historians there, a key one was the combining of Nashville and Davidson County governments.

Accepting this assessment, it’s instructive to compare a few key indicators for where our two cities are today:

High-performing city index
#144 – Memphis
#22 – Nashville

Most economically segregated
#38 – Nashville
#1 – Memphis

Jobs Growth, 2002-2007
#46 – Nashville
#117 – Memphis

Wages Growth, 2002-2007
#39 – Nashville
#110 – Memphis

Net new income, 1998-2007
#15 – Nashville
#134 – Memphis

We’ve written a lot about consolidation in the past four years, and without question, we’ll write even more in the coming year, but as this important discussion begins, it’s these numbers that we’re keeping in mind.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

City Council Acts On Urge To Merge

And we're off.

Today, Memphis City Council, which gets regularly beaten up by so many people, showed uncommon leadership in unanimously approving the creation of a charter commission. Hopefully, that commission will blow up all preconceived notions of what government is supposed to look like and will start all over to build a totally new government for our county.

With this vote, City Council set aside the misinformation being spread on the campaign trail for city mayor by the anti-consolidation candidates who are blind to the need to do something to shake up our government, our community's trends and our future.

City Council joined the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in signaling the go-ahead for a process that should be open, wide-ranging and imaginative. It should begin with an educational program to get everyone up to speed on what city-county consolidation could be if we dream big enough.

Put Out The Welcome Mat

It should be a process that welcomes all voices and all opinions. It should be about listening to the public and soliciting their opinions and it should be about giving people from all over Shelby County a seat at the table.

If there is a foundation to build this process on, we think it is that most people in our community want to have this conversation, to have a chance to talk about what better government could look like and ultimately to decide it at the polls.

To that end, and proving that hope springs eternal, we hope that the town mayors will show a willingness to engage in the debate rather than trying to shout it down.

The Moment

Just imagine.

If we are successful in creating a new government that most people can endorse, we could eliminate the inevitable moment in every meeting where someone says, "If only we were consolidated, we could..."

It’s the “consolidation moment,” the time when someone holds up the merger of city and county governments as the answer to all that ails our city.

Frequently mentioned in these merger moments is the poster child of all things virtuous when it comes to Memphians’ perceptions of consolidation – Nashville. But these days, Louisville is more and more added to the mix.

Power Of Popularity

But Nashville and Louisville did have one thing in common that proved pivotal to passage of consolidation – wildly popular political leaders who set consolidation as their priority and put all of their political chips on the table to get the merger passed by the voters.

In Nashville in 1962, it was the dominating influence of Davidson County Judge Beverly Briley. The Nashville Mayor, Ben West, was distrusted by voters outside of Nashville, who came to see the referendum as a vote of confidence for either Briley or West. That was critical, because consolidation in Nashville, like Memphis, had to be passed in a dual vote of Nashville voters and non-Nashville voters.

It's why Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton - complete with intimidating poll numbers and war chest - is possibly the pivotal figure in our long-time quest for consolidated government. And with Mayor Herenton out of office, the merger proposal is free of the personality politics that dominated this question in the past.

Modernizing Government

In Louisville, the political realities were just the opposite of Nashville’s. In Kentucky, consolidation is passed when a majority of all voters in the county approve it, so there’s only one vote total. There, the wildly popular former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson – with a 90+ percent approval rating – led the fight for consolidated government and became its first mayor.

Unlike many cities, there was no crisis or scandal in Louisville that served as the catalytic event for consolidation. Instead, it was all about creating a modern government structure that would make the city more competitive, more entrepreneurial and more successful.

There were no claims that consolidation would result in big savings and instead, the business and political leadership made it a vote of confidence about the future of their hometown.

Keep It Vague

The pro-consolidation campaign spent about $2 million while anti-consolidation forces ran a shoestring campaign that was regularly derided by the news media.

Like Memphis, Louisville had been pursuing consolidation without success for decades - 23 years there. Voters turned it down in 1982 and 1983. In 2000, consolidation passed 56% for and 44% against.

The most striking lesson for Memphis in the Louisville vote is the reminder of how simple our governmental structure is. The most obvious contradiction to the widely held perception that we are hopelessly complicated here is this: There are 8 governments in Shelby County; there were 118 local governments in Jefferson County.

Back to Nashville, it was the first Tennessee city to put consolidation on the ballot after passage of the 1953 constitutional amendment that allowed merged governments. That same amendment set up the dual majority requirement that has been the formidable hurdle that has to be cleared here for success.

We’re Not Alone

By the way, the last consolidation votes in Memphis were in 1962 and 1971. In one of those votes, the merger failed because it was voted down outside of Memphis, but in the other, it was voted down both inside and outside of Memphis.

By way of reference, the civic frustration caused by failed consolidation votes is not limited to Memphis. It failed at the ballot box in Knoxville in 1958, 1978, 1983 and 1996. Chattanooga voted it down in 1964 and 1970. It also was voted down in Jackson in 1987, Clarksville in 1981 and Bristol in 1982 and 1988.

Besides Nashville, it’s only passed in two other counties, Lynchburg/ Moore, in 1987 and Hartsville/Trousdale in 2000, with respective populations of 4,700 and 2,400.

It is nonetheless something we need to pursue, because Memphis has to do something dramatic to change a trajectory that is headed in the wrong direction, something dramatic to shake off a largely negative national media image and something dramatic to make local government as sophisticated as the economy that our community seeks to compete in.

One Last Fact

Let's get to one of government's favorite points - the proverbial bottom line.

Today, Memphis languishes in the bottom rungs of most economic indicators that matter, and as important, our national image languishes just as much as we are portrayed as divided, conflicted and in an economic freefall.

As a result, we need nothing less than a fundamental game changer for our community - something dramatic, something that serves notice that we've set out in a new direction and something that shows that we are committed to a bolder, more competitive future.

The passage of consolidation will do that, and that alone is enough of a reason to support it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Music Video Pays Tribute To #37

Here's a video recommendation from our good friend, Ken Neill, publisher of Memphis Flyer and Memphis magazine. It's a musical perspective about the health care debate.

Top Urban Thinkers

Planetizen has announced results of its crowdsourcing experiment to rank the most influential urban thinkers of all time. Congratulations to our colleague Carol Coletta for making the list at #49.

Here's what Planetizen said:

The poll was active for one month, from August 7th to September 7th, 2009. We would never claim that this is a definitive list; voters were given free reign to submit and vote for whomever they liked. Our only caveat is that we cleared out a couple of submissions that were clearly in jest, such as "Jesus" (although I'm sure someone could make a legitimate argument for his influence on urban planning).

The other significant issue with this list that will surely be raised is the lack of women: only 7 out of the top 100 are female. This is countered somewhat by the impossibly wide lead by which Jane Jacobs takes the top spot. Those women who are included are an impressive crew, but of course, their are a significant number of women making a big difference in urban planning issues that aren't on the list.

The thinkers that are here are a fascinating bunch, ranging from planners of the past like Baron Haussmann, the civic planner that changed the face of Paris in the 19th century, to active thinkers of today like Scott Bernstein, President and Co-Founder of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. And to be honest, there were a handful of names that we didn't know. We hope that you'll also find a lot to chew on in these biographies, and we invite your comments.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Broken Government Calls For Change Agents

The listening tour on merging governments was based on a central premise: the business models for Memphis and Shelby County Governments are broken.

There may be disagreements about seemingly everything related to merging city and county governments, but surely there is no dispute about this.

After all, county government traces its roots back to the days of ox carts on English mud roads and the vestiges of these origins are seen in the structure that remains in place today. Until the 1970s, Shelby County Government still had squires heading the legislative branch and three commissioners and chairman of the County Court over administrative functions that conflicted and overlapped. The county mayor’s office was created in 1976 to correct these problems, but a government filled with fiefdoms answering to various elected officials and a plethora of boards remain.

About a decade earlier, City of Memphis streamlined its structure to eliminate a similar multi-headed administrative structure. Until then, commissioners headed up various parts of the city administration and one them served as mayor. In 1966, the commission form of government was replaced with the mayor-council form, and today’s city government is largely unchanged from that time.

Culture Change

In other words, city government was last modernized back when all prime time television began broadcasting in color. And yet, that same structure operates today in a world measured in nanoseconds and in instantaneous communications unimaginable back then. It’s hard to think of any organization other than government that has been so resistant to the kind of transformative change that is needed to cope with the changing realities over those years.

At a time when Memphis itself needs leap frog strategies to shake off its low rankings in key economic indicators, the change should start with improvements to city government itself. Hopefully, city-county merger will be approved after a comprehensive education campaign in the coming year, and even if it is, it will be several years transitioning to it.

As a result, the new mayor needs to begin immediately upon taking the oath of office to overhaul the culture of City Hall and to improve its operations. Contrary to conventional wisdom, city government does not spend more money per capita on its services than the other governments in Shelby County. In fact, it spends less than most of them.

Despite that, as the city government efficiency study pointed out, there are some fundamental changes that can save millions of dollars. In other words, on the first day, the new mayor should begin to implement the recommendations in a study that was quickly put on a shelf in the mayor’s office with all the others pointing out ways to improve operations.

Change Should Be In The Air

On the second day, the new mayor should order that Memphis will throw out its website and its technology planning and start over. This time, the objective should be to develop the best 21st century e-government, to put every government report online, to develop a website that allows citizens to do everything on line that is done at a counter and to get serious about the application of GIS mapping that brings with it more accountability. There’s a point at which it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the websites of local government are intentionally unnavigable and impenetrable. It’s just too hard to make websites that have as little value to their visitors.

On the third day, the new mayor should set up an innovative program to identify and empower changes agents who can shake up things and becomes forces for change throughout city government.

In other words, the new mayor’s first three days should be devoted entirely to culture change. There’s no more powerful message that the mayor can send, because so much of that person’s success will depend on a City Hall culture that has been leaderless for years.

It’s impossible to imagine any company whose CEO has left after 18 years that would not engage in a top-to-bottom evaluation of the organization and its services and would not draw up an actionable plan to generate new energy and new focus on its core business.

That’s exactly what the new mayor needs to do.

No Risk, No Pain

It’s hard to imagine that the next mayor won’t face the Obama dilemma. There’s so much that has been left untended, there’s so much that has been done wrong and there are so many challenges pressing for attention. So the mayor needs to set priorities carefully, because it’s easy to be pulled off message and off target.

While government is always tough and frustrating on agents of change, a city government with the same mayor for 18 years is especially so. As a result, there’s the widespread feeling now that the best way to get ahead is to adopt a no-risk approach to your work. It’s largely a fact of life in the public sector at every level that if you take no risk, it’s the safest way to move up.

Of course, innovation requires risk. New ideas require risk. But, there is no reward for taking a chance and striking out in government. It’s not a laboratory. There’s no R & D. There’s often not another chance to experiment, because the punishment for mistake can be high, so the safe, take no chances approach works best for lifers.

That has to change, because it’s a zero sum game. Government ends up with a lot of people who learn to play the game, people who learn to play it safe and people who learn that it’s best to just say no. Taxpayers end up with a government that innovates too little and costs too much.

Volcanic Designs

So, for us, the challenge for the next mayor is not just to pick creative people to fill the chief administrative officer and directors’ jobs. It is also to develop a change agent program for City Hall.

Such a program requires three things: a thoughtful design, the careful recruitment and development of personnel and close integration between the change agent team and the areas targeted for transformation.

There are two options for the new mayor for such a program – centralized or decentralized. The centralized team answers directly to top management and the other leaves the change agents in their respective areas with a reporting relationship to a change agent leader. We’d vote for the second approach for city government for a variety of reasons

We’re not saying that there are no potential change agents in city government. In truth, there are, but they lie dormant like volcanoes, looking for the right conditions to have any impact. There needs to be a mix of existing employees willing to flourish as change agents and new employees with specific experience that’s needed – like human resources, technology and communications.

Key Change

All of this reminds us of how important a mayor’s role is in driving change. It is so easy to settle for incremental improvement when it’s transformation that is needed. That’s why just like in the private sector, there is no substitute for CEO leadership.

If there are applicable lessons from the private sector, they are that the CEO is key to making the change meaningful, because people will work hard for causes they believe in, so it’s up to the leader to inspire workers that they are involved in something important. Then, there is the behavior of the CEO, who needs workers to emulate it and whose own personal commitment to the objectives drives change. Finally, the CEO needs to appoint a dedicated management team that also embodies the change they hope to produce.

That’s because there’s no message as strong to city government employees as understanding the personal story of the transformation as explained by the mayor. In this way, it’s not about powerpoint presentations, but about “management by walking around” and clear explanations of why change is necessary (including stories of the mayor’s own experiences).

As countless business research has shown, there is absolutely no substitute for a CEO directing energy toward the right targets and making the transformation relevant and meaningful to every worker.

It’s tough in business. It’s even harder in government. But it is nonetheless absolutely vital. That’s why it has to be top priorities for the next mayor. `

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Our Region: Built To Last?

Here's the winner The Congress for New Urbanism contest. This short film explores the connection between New Urbanism and environmental issues, all of which is especially pertinent to Memphis and our region. Click here for film.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Code Red: A Time For A Change


It’s one of those words used so often by politicians that it’s almost lost all meaning. It’s right up there with world-class, state-of-the-art, public-private partnership, new paradigm, and summit. For once, reform is precisely the right word to describe the new development code now being written for Memphis and Shelby County.

That's because the new Unified Development Code is about more than good land use. More to the point, it is about good government.

That’s precisely why the next six months is a time to be on high alert from pressures by special interests who have all but owned the local zoning apparatus for more than a decade. They controlled the process to the point that one boasted that on any given day, he could deliver seven votes (a majority) in either local legislative body, another has co-signed car loans and given rides on his private jet to elected officials, and both have been involved in real estate dealings with the same politicians who vote on their zoning cases.

The Catch

Therein lies the Catch-22. This new way making land use decisions requires the approval of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Sometime in the coming months, these 26 legislators will be asked to pass the new Unified Development Code written by nationally respected planners Lee Einswiler and Colin Scaff of Austin for the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development. The new Code would reform what is most wrong with the present system, replacing the current politicized process with one where politicians set policy and professional planners decide on zoning requests.

The subverting of the present system stems largely from the misuse of PD’s (Planned Development) and the takeover of the Land Use Control Board by developers. Designed to replace existing zoning districts with innovative development, PD’s were intended to be rare and allowed because of important public benefits, such as increasing open space or protecting the environment.

Instead, in Memphis and Shelby County, unlike the rest of the nation, PD’s are the rule, not the exception, and normally, the underlying zoning isn’t even changed, so there is land with agricultural zoning that is covered with cookie cutter development.

Subverting The System

To make matters worse, local PD applications are treated as special exemptions, because that section of the law has weaker requirements for notifying the public and neighborhood groups. Their clout was weakened even more in the mid-1990’s when Mayors Herenton and Rout - ignoring pleas from neighborhoods for more representation - loaded up the public board that votes first on zoning applications, the Land Use Control Board, with employees, friends and even relatives of developers, to the point where even today, only one member represents neighborhoods.

With this takeover by developers in the late '90's, the percentage of times the board overturned its own professional staff's recommendations about PDs climbed to 70 percent - and in only one year.

Creations of Memphis and Shelby County’s fatally flawed zoning process is all around us. The sewer extension to the Gray’s Creek basin was driven by politics and built without a plan in place. The plan for Germantown Parkway was never adopted as official government policy and amendments began before the ink was dry, giving birth to seemingly endless succession of derivative strip malls and traffic-clogged streets. Future Hickory Hills cover the landscape of the unincorporated areas of Shelby County, where they are testament to politically-based zoning that allows a quality of housing so poor that it requires reinvestment before mortgages are paid.

Meanwhile, construction of Highway 385 on the eastern fringe of Shelby County nears completion, and incredibly, once again, there is no limit to what developers can do there.

The Difference

So, what difference could the new Unified Development Code make?

* It could correct the questionable governance issues in the system now.

* It could throw out cookie cutter rules that tend to urbanize the suburbs and suburbanize the city.

* It could give incentives for mixed income, mixed age and mixed use neighborhoods so people can age in place.

* It could remove disincentives for investing in the urban core.

* It could create more open space and preserves trees. It would give incentives for higher densities that support retail, churches, and services.

* It could encourage development that is less auto-oriented and more walkable.

A Reform Vote

In other words, it is a revolutionary idea for Memphis and Shelby County, ending an era of “slash and burn” profiteering and swinging the pendulum strongly toward smart growth and good government.

It may be hard for some City Council and Board of Commissioners to reform local system and wean themselves from the steady stream of campaign contributions that flow from the development industry, but it's a vote for reform that every neighborhood group will be watching.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Taking The Best Road To The Future, Figuratively And Literally

It doesn’t take much reading of this blog to know that we are deeply concerned by the pursuit of highways at the expense of our urban core’s health, priorities influenced too much by the usual suspects and the tendency for the asphalt lobby to determine the quality life of our community.

That may very well be about to come to an end, because the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development – through the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) – is about to launch a process unlike any undertaken to set transportation priorities – the Mid-South Transportation and Land Use Plan.

This new approach makes our comments last week almost prescient when we said that despite the imbalance of the governing body of the organization, the MPO staff makes the best of a trying situation.

But this new way of producing the long-range transportation plan is better than that. It’s a break from the past and sends the message that DPD is lean, mean and dead serious about a plan that is developed better, with public participation that is stronger and with options for the future that are wiser.

Fortunes Foretold

It’s worth mentioning that the staff members were instrumental in the development of the Sustainable Shelby report which will be released this Thursday, September 10, at 5:30 p.m. at Bridges, 477 N. Fifth. The report is unique -- not only is it the region’s first sustainability plan of action, but it is the first plan issued on DVD, complete with a poster and audio interviews.

But back to the transportation plan: there has been a tendency in long years past for it to be more of a perfunctory process. At times, there was almost the feeling that the projections were merely being updated but the goal was the same: to build more and more lanes of traffic.

This new, improved year-long process – named Imagine 2035 – will take a 25-year look in the crystal ball for the region, including land use, population growth (and relocation), and more. Best of all, there is a deadly serious effort to engage the public using Facebook, a website, a blog and kiosks. In addition, MPO is looking for ways to involve people like the action-oriented local chapter of the Urban Land Institute and the Coalition for Livable Communities representing 100 neighborhood groups.

Most encouraging of all is that the platform for developing this transportation plan is about a regional vision and scenario planning. In this way, it can become a force in moving a region known for talking the talk to one walking the walk. That’s why it’s good that a crucial part of the plan is about determining community values and then developing a plan based on those values and regional conversations about our vision for the future.

Scenarios For Future

We are particularly partial to scenario planning, and in our work with Leadership Memphis, its class members developed some intriguing scenarios for the city and the region (we'll always like the one about making Memphis the "FedEx of cities). It was a much abbreviated process but working with Peter Bishop, a Houston futurist who leads scenario planning processes for Fortune 500 companies, it pointed out how scenario thinking can produce entirely new ways of seeing the future. As a result, we’re looking forward to its use in this planning process.

This new way of planning is a breakthrough, because it reaches beyond the special interests to the public interest, and because of it, there is a way to raise questions about how to make I-269 positive for the entire region (read Memphis) and what transportation is needed for the shrinking city that is Memphis (and is likely to include Shelby County in this 25-year window).

DPD and MPO deserve kudos for this different – and much-improved - approach to priority-setting and regional planning. It is unquestionable that it won’t be easy, but it is pivotal that it succeeds if we are to have a clear roadmap to the future and to determine what is just the right amount of transportation to remain true to our values and to ensure an overall positive quality of life for the next generation.

Changing Course

In this way, this new approach by MPO planners seems to be moving in the direction set out in the platform of Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton in his campaign for city mayor. His “transportation and connectivity” plank said:

“The Wharton Administration will adopt a ‘complete streets’ philosophy for all transportation plans and neighborhood redevelopment programs policy so every street plan has to include alternative transportation options for safe, attractive, and comfortable access for pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and public transit.

“It emphasizes bike lanes, wide shoulders, crosswalks, and street plantings. In addition, transportation decisions for the Wharton Administration will not be focused on cars but on healthy urban neighborhoods. To complement this approach, Mayor Wharton will urge the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to move from acting as a planning organization to become a more visionary agency acting on the shared values of the community and what we want Memphis to be and asking the tough questions about sprawl.”

All of this is music to our ears and the ears of any one concerned with a more livable city and healthier neighborhoods. As the front runner for election as Memphis mayor, a city bully pulpit could give him more clout to change things than his county office, and barring a major upset, he could get the chance to profoundly change the way that our city – and our region – addresses transportation issues.

Strong First Steps

We asked him what he meant by his ambitions for MPO to become a “more visionary agency acting on the shared values of the community,” and he said that rather than finding out that federal funding is available for this many roads, that many bridges and that much resurfacing, he hopes the federally-mandated transportation planning agency will instead look beyond what money is available to whether the project in the end contributes to the long-range vision of the region and the benefit of its citizens.

This transportation planning process sounds like it’s a strong first step in that direction. Best of all, staff members of MPO have developed ties to local “green” groups, the biking community and to the Community Development Council, all of which have the ability to turn out the public to speak on smart growth, sustainable building patterns and wise land use policy.

In the end, this serious citizen engagement and regional visioning could well be more important than the plan itself. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Labor Day Musing

Fair Enough

We’re willing to support the Delta Fair and Music Festival – it’s a few minutes drive from most of us – but only when its organizers either put up or shut up about how unsafe the midtown Mid-South Fair was. It's time to produce the statistics to prove the point.

And we’re assuming that out in the green fields of Agricenter International, the fair has no vandalism, car break-ins or other nuisances. Apparently, unlike midtown Memphis, out there, all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

Trouble Over Bridging Water

Newspaper coverage often makes for interesting juxtaposition. In one article in The Commercial Appeal last week, Airport Authority chairman Arnold Perl said a third bridge over the Mississippi River is needed because it would be economically devastating to the region if the I-40 (and I-55) bridges were knocked out by a catastrophe like an earthquake.

The headline on another article that same day: Seismic work will reduce lanes on I-40 bridge.

Making Our Own Talent

Reid Dulberger, manager of Memphis ED, was right when he said recently that once the recession is over, Memphis will have a talent shortage.

"We're going to be in a position much like the late '90s," he says. "Before the tech bubble burst, if you were in information technology, you wrote your own ticket. I don't know if the market will swing that dramatically, but it will swing in that direction."

He's right and it reminds us of how serious we need to get about developing our own talent, because unlike almost all of the 50 largest metros, we are not lacking the raw material. That’s because we have an aberration in our demographics here when compared to our competitors – we have a bulge in people younger than 21 years old.

In other words, while Mr. Dulberger is working hard to supply current businesses with the workers they need now, all of us need to get deadly serious about how we can move this bulge in young people into college-educated adults who can compete for knowledge economy jobs. If we can do this, while other cites are begging for workers, we would have ours.


If the founders of the nation had been conservatives, would we still be part of England?

Is it possible for either political party to be consistent? When the majority becomes minority and vice versa, they simply exchange talking points. They say the same things that their opponents used to say, and they do it without even a hint of irony, apparently depending on the rest of us to have 20-second attention spans.

Do most people have a clue what socialism really is?

What is the problem with Texas? Apparently, the anger and hostility that characterized the JFK era is still alive and well.

We thought it was good when President Bush I spoke to students, so we’re baffled about why it’s now such a big deal. Or is it because of the onslaught of talk radio and TV since the Bush era?

If the town mayors are so sure their citizens despise consolidation, why do they seem so scared of having a vote?

Is there any way that City Attorney Elbert Jefferson can now foresee an outcome that works to his benefit?

This Week On Smart City: Love And Goodness

As that old Captain and Tenille song says "Love Will Keep Us Together" but Smart City is finding out how love can also be a primary economic driver for cities. My guest Larry Beasley is the founder of Beasley and Associates, an international planning consultancy. Larry will tell us about planning cities based around an emotional response.

And we'll find out how to make the world a better place with Jonathan Greenblatt. Jonathan runs the organization and he'll tell us about the new venture which he describes as a Craigslist for social good.

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, September 03, 2009

Nothing To Fear But The Fear Of Facts Themselves

Shelby County Board Chairman David Pickler has scheduled four more meetings to spread his myths about single source funding of public education.

His fear offensive is being seen by many people outside Memphis for what it is – disingenuous, misleading and one-sided. Seldom have been numbers mangled as much or facts warped as cleverly as Mr. Pickler has done in his presentation.

Meanwhile, a reader emailed us to suggest that Memphians - who pay twice for schools while every one else in Shelby County pays once - should show up at these dog and pony shows on September 21 at Bartlett High School; September 22 at Millington High School; September 29 at Southwind High School; and October 5 at Arlington High School.

After all, Memphians pay roughly 65 percent of the costs of county schools, and Mr. Pickler should have to answer questions from the people who pay most of his bills.

Here’s some of ours:

1) What is fair about Memphians paying twice for public schools if no one else does?

2) Why shouldn't public education be funded the same way through the entire county - from the largest tax base, county government's?

3) Why is it that you are always the one who finds impossible to be a collaborative partner in any effort to improve our community?

4) Why do you portray this as a “we versus them” issue when all of us are county taxpayers and we all should be treated the same by county government?

5) Why is it wrong for Memphians to ask to be treated just like “county” residents?

6) Can you spell “fairness?”

Great Beaches Labor Day Surfing

Some folks are picking our their beach reading for the Labor Day weekend, so in case you're where there's wi-fi, here are some ideas.

We continue to live vicariously through Revolutions Bike Shop's Anthony Siracusa on his pedaling adventure. He made it to Amsterdam today, and you can read his account on his blog as he explores the way that bicycling connects and shapes a city’s character.

Speaking of bicyclists, Cort Percer, who works at the Peddler on Highland has a biking blog of his own. We especially enjoyed his post that included Live From Memphis video about Revolutions Bicycle Shop. Thanks to his mother, Suzanne Allen, for recommending the blog and the video.

The Memphis Music Magnet project continues to take shape under the direction of Charlie Santo and the University of Memphis' outstanding Graduate Program in City and Regional Planning. The neighborhood revitalization project in the Soulsville neighborhood is a fascinating experiment in place-making, using arts and culture, history and creativity as the instruments for the rebirth of the area. A new website updates us on the project's progress.

In support of our call for a guerrilla bike lane movement, Mary Fryman sent us information about a bike accessory that leaves chalk marks on the road behind bicyclists. It's a way to reclaim part of the road as shared space as cyclists mark their territory, and it's a great adjunct to the night-time bike lane accessory.

We remain impressed by the progress that Margot McNeely has made with Project Green Fork. It seems that it was just a few months ago that she had begun her pilot project to certify Memphis restaurants for their sustainability practices, and now, there are a dozen and growing. If only she could get some support from City of Memphis with a real commercial recycling program, the full impact of the program could be felt.

Mike Hollihan sent us the link to a fascinating talk by Stanford economist Paul Romer about his concept of "charter cities" that can break free of poverty and old rules. It's provocative and timely. By the way, Mr. Hollihan's work on the Main Street Journal website makes it a regular place for us to get an overview of the important news in Memphis.

Finally, if you haven't visited Live From Memphis lately, there's always something new and provocative there from Christopher Reyes and Sarah Fleming.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Aerotropolis Redux

It’s hard for any of us these days to maintain context in the midst of information overload and instant communications.

So, we are naïve in thinking that readers are able to place a specific post into an overall context on the blog that can go back years.

Take aerotropolis, for example.

It was in June, 2006, that we made our first post suggesting that our community should give a priority to an aerotropolis plan, and it was December, 2006, that we saluted the Greater Memphis Chamber for doing so. While we may think that people know that we were talking about an aerotropolis long before most people here, it’s clear we are wrong.

Context Matters

One of our local heroes – and a friend to die for as well – called today because she said our post two days ago about the aerotropolis wasn’t fair or complete. There’s no one in Memphis we admire more, and because she’s involved in aerotropolis, we’ve had a comfort level in the development of a plan that builds on Memphis’ distinctiveness.

Perhaps, we don’t remind people of the total context often enough. Again, just because we said it three years ago doesn’t mean that anyone remembers it now or necessarily read it then. More to the point, the people guiding this project – and so many in our city - are largely volunteers, and if anything, Memphis needs more DIY efforts, not less. As we say to distraction, we’re sure, our concerns here generally are that we emphasize transportation here at the expense of all the other elements that make cities successful. That does not mean that we are opposed to aerotropolis (unlike I-269), and we thought we’d made that point earlier this week.

And while we’re at it, it’s worth saying that in criticizing the appalling imbalance on the Metropolitan Planning Organization (a fact highlighted in a Brookings Institution report of MPOs across the U.S.), we are not criticizing the staff people who do their best to serve this city in such a taxing environment. And when we are frustrated about the quality of public decisions, we are not ignoring the difficult conditions in which those decisions are made and how our city’s regressive tax structure pits every one against each other for crumbs from the table.

We hear from a lot of people as a result of these posts, and we are grateful to them for taking the time to email or call. We heard from them when we defended the town mayors from charges of being racist, and it was said that we were too kind to them based on their obstructionism to government merger. We heard from one person who said we were too hard on David Pickler. We heard from people that said we went soft on Senator Paul Stanley after his confessional. We heard from people who said we hated kids because we commended Memphis City Council's decision on schools. We hear from people who say we’re brilliant, and we hear from people who say we are terminally stupid.

Our Stakes In The Ground

If you read this blog much, you know that we are resolute on several issues – walkable neighborhoods, balanced transportation policy, new approaches to economic growth, the devastating effects of sprawl, the overriding importance of talent in our future success, DIY grassroots city-building, visionaries who are working throughout the city, the need to get the conversation right here and the imperative to address the facts honestly and opinions candidly.

But there's something else. As we have written, no one is one-dimensional – oh, well, with the exception of Dick Cheney maybe. No, no, before you email, we’re just kidding. Along with our resolute opinions, we have another that says absolutely that no one is one-dimensional, and while we may criticize a policy or critique a program or suggest an alternative, it is not intended to be a slam at someone unless we clearly say it is.

In answer to the people who email and say that we need to name names and call a spade a spade, it seems like a good time to reiterate why we do it so rarely. We want to talk about policies, and too often, much in Memphis is defined in terms of personalities, and as soon as someone’s name is mentioned, people take sides based on their opinion of that person.

We were also reminded today that perception matters, and that people can and do read the tone of our posts differently from the tone in which we think they have been written and that people often overlay their own emotions and opinions on them. That clearly was the case with the aerotropolis post, in which we thought we were mainly reporting on Council members’ comments and the overall challenge of finding Memphis’ unique niche in a world seeking the same “airport city” objective.

It’s About Alignment

Also, we report that we were told today that aerotropolis is about more than economic development and transportation, and that the committee is paying equal attention to livability issues, neighborhood redevelopment, urban core jobs growth and city marketing. We were delighted to hear it.

At any rate, we appreciated the call today as we appreciate the number of emails and calls we get each week. And we repeat something we haven’t said for awhile: if you want to write a guest blog, please send it to us. We’re trying to have a conversation, not a conversion.

Here’s the June, 2006, post about aerotropolis:

Would someone in city or county governments please buy copies of the current issue of Fast Company for members of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board?

While you are at it, mark the article, “Rise of the Aerotropolis,” which tells of the airport-cities that are being created around the globe. It’s an article of special interest to Memphis as world headquarters for FedEx, the corporation that invented global commerce as we know it.

The article makes some compelling points:

• Over the past 30 years, the value of air cargo has risen 1,395 percent, compared to the GDP’s increase of 154 percent and the value of world trade’s increase of 355 percent.

• Today, 40 percent of the total economic value of all goods in the world and 50 percent of American goods are shipped by air.

• Virtually everything associated with the value-added economy – technology, pharmaceuticals, medical devices – is transported by air.


The aerotropolis is a new thrust for urban planning in several world cities, notably Asian ones, where, rather than banish airports to the outer reaches of cities, airports are moved to the center where cities are built around them. American cities are seen as falling behind in the development of these centers, because of our NIMBY sensitivity and zoning restrictions.

But perhaps, just as FedEx created world commerce, it can create a new future for the area around Memphis International Airport as a competitor for the aerotropolises developing in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Dubai. Rather than becoming a force driving sprawl like it is in these places, perhaps the distinctive U.S. brand of the airport-city could be invented here in Memphis.

According to the article, Memphis already has a rudimentary version of the aerotropolis along with Dallas and Ontario, California, with Denver and Detroit planning developments right now.

Architect of the aerotropolis concept is John Kasarda, a University of North Carolina business professor, who sees it as the logical evolution of globalization writ within a city context. While parts of his crystal ball forecasting into the future conjures up the unfeeling, robotic, gray world captured in so many apocalyptic films where people become mere dispensable cogs in the unrelenting global economic machinery, a uniquely American version of the aerotropolis is not only possible, but preferable to those in far flung parts of the globe.

Absolutely, Positively

But what does this have with the IDB? Here’s the part that made us think of tax freeze policies.

The article says that “the closest thing to an aerotropolis in America today is Memphis International Airport, home for 25 years to FedEx,” adding that Memphis has led the world for 14 years in a row as the airport with the most air cargo, outdistancing powerhouses like Amsterdam and Tokyo.

Delivering the Memphis Regional Chamber’s sales pitch for it, Fast Company points out the distinct advantages of being located in Memphis where companies have midnight or 1 a.m. drop-off deadlines for FedEx, compared to 9 p.m. on the East Coat and 4 p.m. on the West Coast.

In a nation too often defined by a bi-coastal perspective, Memphis has a competitive advantage unmatched in the world – FedEx’s drop-off deadlines and the extra hours of production given to companies here.

Proximity Matters

Joe Ferreira, FedEx’s managing director of hub-area business development, is quoted in the article as saying that she “routinely juggles the requests of as many as 40 to 50 companies jockeying for space around Memphis and smaller hubs.”

“Proximity matters more and more to them,” she says, and Memphis offers an ideal combination of inexpensive, semiskilled labor, acres of turnkey warehouse space and the junction of three states all fighting for their business.

“But the biggest driver,” Ferreira says,” is the growing urge that when we want something, we want it now. And as soon as one company relocates here or to any of our hubs, the next thing that happens is that three or four of its competitors come calling.”

Fast Company says that “while Memphis might qualify for a proto-aerotropolis, with the FedEx hub providing just enough gravity to keep its customers from spinning out of orbit into Mississippi or Arkansas, few other American cities are even remotely ready to build their own analogues.”

Magnetic FedEx

So, once again, we’re told the obvious: FedEx is the ultimate economic magnet for Memphis. Its gravitational pull attracts smart companies that understand that by locating here, they get a competitive advantage found nowhere else, the competitive advantage of a longer, direct connection with the global economy made possible by the inventors of overnight air cargo delivery.

So, with this unmatchable competitive advantage, the obvious question for the IDB is why is it still handing out tax freezes as if we aren’t good enough to attract business otherwise?