Sunday, October 04, 2009

Getting The Focus Right: It's About Cities

This may surprise you but we’ve got to say it: we’re tired of hearing about the paramount importance of regions and how regionalism is the road to a successful future for Memphis.

And we admit that we were some of the earliest people who talked about regionalism and the need for every one in the Memphis region to pull together and to establish a collaborative agenda.

It was about 20 years ago when we introduced the concept to our community, and a part of us has regretted it ever since. It’s not that we feel that we were wrong; it’s just that it seems more and more that the application of the concept has come at the expense of the city that lies at the heart of the region.

Yes, we know – and we’ve frequently said – that regions are the economic unit of competition in the global economy. There is no argument about that.

Boxed In

We know that solutions to some issues – say, water and air quality and greenways – are best served up in a regional context.

We know there are advantages – like Memphis International Airport – that are supported by and serve the entire region.

We also know that often solutions dressed in the cloak of regionalism are anything but sensitive to the urban core that is the beating heart for the area. The poster child to prove this point is seen in transportation decisions that are more motivated by moving packages through the region than keeping people in our city.

Because our corner of the world focuses more on creating high-quality roads for trucks and new corridors for development, there is always one more unnecessary project (think I-269) and the plethora of road expansion plans so traffic moves faster from 7:30 to 9 a.m. and 4:30 to 6 p.m. each workday.

Flowing Out But Not So Much In

In this way, regionalism can become the basis for so many faulty equations as more and more asphalt is laid as the answer to “economic development” and to transportation plans that define themselves as highways only. It’s the infrastructure equivalent of not only giving up on the city but firing a bullet into its prospects for the future.

Here’s the thing: regionalism across the U.S. is often more outward-focused than inward-directed. As a result, programs supported by the major city that focus on a stronger region are rarely reciprocated by the region’s suburban cities.

For example, it’s not unusual to hear Memphis and Shelby County officials call for regional progress and to urge regional strategies that embraces the best interest of area’s cities. And yet, there’s little of that kind of commitment flowing from the fringes back to the center.

That’s why in some regions, there have been complaints that regionalism is really just racism with a new face. And while we’re unprepared to embrace this level of cynicism, we are prepared to join in complaints that too little of regionalism is aimed at strengthening the urban core.

Getting The Focus Right

We’ve seen it most prominently here in the slow understanding that sprawl is a cancer that threatens our financial and social health. If we are serious about sustainability and becoming the kind of green city that can succeed in the new economy, we’ve got to get serious – not to mention, honest – about the forces (and the public policies that set them in motion) that put us in the condition we’re in today.

So, forgive us if in the midst of the euphoria about the creation of the much-needed and long overdue White House Office of Urban Affairs, we urge it to resist the siren’s call of regionalism for awhile and focus solely on cities themselves.

We know there are a lot of think tanks that hail the metro as the platform for White House actions, but for us, it’s the city that counts most and after a decade of being ignored by the federal bureaucracy, it’s time to give them targeted, concentrated attention.

In the past seven years, in the midst of a period of disinterest in cities, the troubling trends in Memphis quickened – children in poverty dramatically increased, more young professional talent left, economic segregation deepened and middle income families moved.

Regionalism Hasn’t Helped

Today, about 35% of Memphis workers are either unemployed or have not looked for a job in so long that they are no longer included in the unemployment rate.

The poverty rate in Memphis has risen 27.2% since 2000, and the poverty rate for adolescents has climbed 45%. Memphis is losing an average of three families a day that earn $35,000 to $75,000.

Meanwhile, Memphis is losing five people a day with college degrees. Inside the 1970 city limits of Memphis, population is down 28% and density is cut in half.

It’s a vicious cycle: people leave, property values shrink, taxes go up, low jobs growth, talent leaves, well, you get the picture. It’s a vicious cycle that, if not interrupted, escalates and at this exact moment, that’s where we find ourselves. And so do dozens of other cities.

Rationale: Regional Profits

And yet, there are still people and organizations calling for a blind allegiance to regionalism that treats cities as after-thoughts in problem-solving. That’s why we admire the work of CEOs for Cities so much (headed up by our colleague Carol Coletta).

It has an unflinching bias: nothing matters more than cities.

We agree wholeheartedly, because so often in the rush to “regional solutions,” the urban cores are frequently not even mentioned at all. As we said, it’s the dirty little secret of regionalism: generally cities give much more than they get.

That’s partly because so often the language of regionalism is co-opted by business forces, particularly real estate and logistics, that have only a passing acquaintance with the spirit of regionalism. More to the point, regionalism was often used as the rationale for political contributions and influence that chewed up $1 billion in tax money for roads and schools that opened up more and more greenfields for development.

From Rhetoric To Results

Mysteriously, there’s always more money for highways, and despite all the hyperbole about new roads as economic engines, there’s precious little evidence of it here, particularly with our jobs growth lagging behind levels of a decade ago. And yet, any suggestion that we should go slow with new roads is greeted with predictions of economic doom.

But back to our main point. It’s past time that we ease up on the rhetoric of regionalism and concentrate single-mindedly on addressing the challenges of Memphis, beginning with development of a manageable number of transformative strategies that can create neighborhoods of choice for middle income families and young families.

At the same time, our elected officials in Washington, D.C., should urge the Obama Administration to set the hearts of the nation’s regions – their major cities – as their first priority, rather than blindly chasing plans filed under the heading of regionalism.

In truth, there are no silos like the ones of the federal government. We applaud the administration’s discussion about increasing cooperation of its agencies to increase their impact, but if indeed the past is the best predictor of the future, it’s likely that the federal bureaucratic culture will relegate cities to the back burner.

Getting It Right

The officials may mean well, but the gritty problems of cities require innovation, a product that the no-risk environment of federal agencies fails regularly to deliver. That too is something that our federal representatives, notably Congressman Steve Cohen, need to advocate for.

As long as federal agencies are discouraged from the kinds of experiments that are demanded by these trying times (and experiments by their very nature often involve failure), the payoff at the local level will always be incremental and marginal.

Memphis, on the other hand, needs much more than incremental progress. And so do other American cities.

What makes Memphis special is that we have the gritty problems that confront cities much larger, and this makes us the right size to be a national laboratory for the federal government. Our size allows for experiments and for the results to be scaled up for serious measurements of their impact.

Until that is done, cities and the federal government will continue to have much in common. Both will be chasing the wrong goals faster.


ccoletta said...

Tom, thanks so much for reinforcing our argument on why we need to approach "regionalism" with healthy skepticism and always with advocacy for the core city. Too many regional strategies wind up being detrimental to the core city, thereby reducing the competitiveness of the entire metro region. You said it far better than I ever could.

Chuck said...

Dear Smart:

What is a region?

In one view it is a river valley or mountain range (ex. lower Mississippi River valley or Appalachia) where geomorphology has influenced economic progress.

In another view it is the economic territory of a large urban center defined by newspaper circulation, TV ADI, wholesale trade area or tertiary health care service area. Memphis’ health care region is somewhere between 75 and 100 counties.

The smallest region is the metropolitan area. Some people call this the primary economic region of a large core city where citizens of designated contiguous counties share common job and housing markets. The Memphis metropolitan area has 8 counties. Atlanta has 28.

What is regionalism?

This is the process of counties and municipalities in a “region” cooperating to achieve greater efficiencies and effectiveness (economy) from public policy.

When the jurisdictions of a region have a common set of interests, cooperation can be achieved with perhaps a little nudge from the state or federal government as necessary.

Regions from the same state work better than regions that cross state lines. Nashville’s region cooperates better than Memphis’ region.

All metropolitan regions in America were “nudged” into cooperation by the “Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966”, which for the only time in congressional history, recognized the relationship between core city decline and metropolitan-wide sprawl in the same piece of legislation.

The Act mandated that a council of metropolitan area governments be formed to create a growth plan and to review individual jurisdiction’s policies based on the plan. Ideally the plan would have had regional agreement on inner city revitalization and outer growth limits.

Unfortunately the local politicians and their developer friends got their states’ representatives and senators to weaken this form of regionalism. The ultimate example of this is the continuing support of Mississippi’s congressmen for sewer lines to be laid all over Desoto County. Talk about sprawl at its worst. In a few short years Southaven will be part of Memphis’ inner city.

In the Atlanta metro area, Georgia mandated that projects of regional significance be controlled by a regional commission to avoid further sprawl and strengthen inner city revitalization.

Tennessee’s chapter 1101 (Growth Plan Act) was a localized form of regionalism when it required individual counties to define growth boundaries for its municipalities. This Act required consideration of revitalization and growth within the existing city first. However, the result was nothing more than a land grab by each city, which left the core city without a vision of renewal shared by all the jurisdictions. Further there was no provision for inter-county cooperation, which was needed to realize true regional growth planning.

The new transportation/land use plan of the Memphis MPO, “Imagine 2035”, another partial attempt at regionalism, will likely ignore core city revitalization just like the Memphis Fast Forward plan of the Greater Memphis Chamber (aka Regional Chamber). There will be mention of sustaining neighborhoods and renewing older areas, but there will be no specific targets and measurements that are balanced with policies for less outer growth. We will continue to hollow out the core city of Memphis.

So I agree. To hell with regionalism. We’re going begin to build Memphis from within without the cooperation of the region, just like the pious suburbanites like to tell us we should do alone because they are not part of us; and, then we’re going to put up toll booths all along the borders of Shelby County.


Louise said...

Ah, Chuck it's been a day, hasn't it?

You are correct about all of your points.

Long winded, as usual, but correct.

Ed Norton vs. Ralph Cramden.

See ya Tommy.

Zippy the giver said...

You're right, the whole regionalism spiel was a red herring, guilty as charged.
Now what?
We got mapped around by the federal government.
Apparently they aren't as stupid as our past leaders believed.
If we focused on doing "what is called for" instead of "what is comfortable, agreeable, what doesn't challenge our abilities or perceptions" we might be able to see what is called for and DO IT. Following a plan designed to succeed in a specific and measurable way, all the way to the end, and getting the result is called for.
We have never done that, we always chicken out before the fruit grows and then go hungry. Then we state how others are doing the same thing or worse, AS IF THAT MAKES IT BETTER, and yet, still, we have NO RESULT. The we act as if that's OK because "we tried", but we really DIDN'T.
When we are willing to admit hat Memphis needs a 12 step program for itself, we might have a chance, because we are misery junkies.

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