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.
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.
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.