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.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

DPD is lean, mean and dead.

Yep. sums it up quite well.

the MPO has to 'approve' 'disapprove' or 'modify' the ""plan"" :)
as IT sees fit.

no amount of 'community meetings' to 'seek local input' will alter the ultimate goal of seeing I 269 being completed and a way to provide infrastructure to the waiting pastureland to further aid the distancing of the haves from the have nots.

fpteditors said...

As long as the autosprawl system is subsidized, there will never be a level playing field and all "plans" will fail as they will look like non-euclidian social engineering. The simple and proper approach would be to build a mass grass-roots movement for Free Public Transit

Chuck said...

Dear Smart:

Wow! I just returned from a long summer interlude and right off the bat your blog returns me to the daydreams of summer.

Let me see if I understand what you are saying: the sub-regional transportation planning agency and the Memphis/Shelby County planning agency are going to prepare a plan called "Imagine 2035" even though neither has planning power over the metropolitan region of Memphis; the planning process will put inner city groups and environmental groups at the center of public participation, even though outer counties will veto any attempt to be connected with public transit; the next Mayor of Memphis will champion this planning process and fight against federal and state funds being used to build roads beyond I-269; and as a result of the plan, I-269 will not cause the next wave of sprawl in Fayette, Marshall and Desoto counties.

The Urban Land Institute's local leaders control more land benefiting from I-269 than anyone else. I would like to see how they will champion inner city renewal over their interests to develop the I-269 corridor.

Chuck

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Anonymous, fp and Chuck. Even the DPD staff is laughing out loud at this effort. At least that is what I was told when they had their so=-called retreat.

Imagine 2035 is the same as Imagine 1965 (if that was the name). time to overhaul DPD, lure the experienced planners back, get rid of the attorneys, policewomen, school staffers and set out on a real plan for Memphis and Shelby County.

As soon as the economy picks up (and even now) the Major Road Committee will control all decisions and the decisions will be in their favor not that of the citizens.
Oh, and this scenario doesn't include the smoke and mirrors of A C Wharton.

Let's get real.

Smart City Consulting said...

Here's the thing. Continuing to do what we're doing certainly isn't going to change things either. Finally, we are in the same room at the same table. Then it's up to us to develop a constituency demanding a change from the past.

We are convinced that the staff at DPD and MPO are serious about doing something different, and that alone is reason is to contribute to the kind of wide-ranging, candid discussion and debate that are needed here.

Anonymous said...

MPO will kill any idea that doesn't put money in the pocket of developers. it's all about sprawl, guys, and helping political contributors.

Jupiter said...

"MPO will kill any idea that doesn't put money in the pocket of developers. it's all about sprawl, guys, and helping political contributors."

Being a conspiracy theorist at heart, I'm open to believing this. But can you back this claim with any evidence (anecdotal or, preferably, otherwise)?
If not, I have a hard time taking it seriously.

Jupiter said...

"We are convinced that the staff at DPD and MPO are serious about doing something different"

1) who is "we"?
2) why are "y'all" convinced that DPD/MPO are serious about doing things "better" (err...you do mean "better", right?)

Can you lay it out for me like I'm a 5 year old and provide references?

Anonymous said...

"As long as the autosprawl system is subsidized, there will never be a level playing field and all "plans" will fail as they will look like non-euclidian social engineering. The simple and proper approach would be to build a mass grass-roots movement for Free Public Transit."

That likely will not happen anytime soon. In order to get more people to embrace public transportation in Memphis and the region as a whole, you have to change the culture of the current system (i.e. the Memphis Area Transit Authority).

Being in Nashville for school these past few years, I have noticed that they have gone through great strides to improve public transportation in that city (i.e. the Music City Star commuter train system, Bus Rapid Transit, etc). Memphis has simply fallen through the cracks in this area, which so many cities have either embraced or are now embracing.

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