The past couple of days I’ve been thinking about the City’s short sighted decision to approve the CVS at Union and Cooper over recommendations of rejection from both Office of Planning and Development and the Land Use Control Board.
Why is it that just as the City seems to be gaining momentum (Unified Development Code adoption, Midtown Overlay, Sooner’s development withdrawal from Overton Square, a new city skate park, and 55 miles of new bike lanes) the City makes a decision that both chills the momentum and will be haunting us for years to come? This has nothing to do with the loss of the historic church and everything to do with missed opportunity due to shortsightedness.
There are a handful of properties in the core of the Memphis that make sense for smart, urban, infill redevelopment and the corner of Union and Cooper is one of them. Playhouse on the Square provides a cultural anchor and in a vibrant economy the redevelopment opportunities would have tempted developers to build on the foundation established by Playhouse. In approving a single story, single use, suburban drugstore, the city has undermined the stabilizing qualities that the Playhouse brought to the intersection and has all but guaranteed that Union and Cooper will remain underutilized as a suburban drugstore and asphalt dominated gateway.
Racing to the Bottom
Secondly, when you make decisions like this you broadcast that Memphis will not enforce their development standards and is more than willing to race to the bottom for the next chain that comes along. At an equivalently positioned intersection in Austin, Nashville, Raleigh, or any of our other peer cities, CVS would not have walked in the door with a suburban site plan. CVS has shown that in other markets they are willing to build an urban model if the community has a pattern of requiring such.
How did we get here? When did we stop thinking about long term impacts and start racing to the bottom? In listening to the tone of the CVS supporters a severely poor self image seems at least a plausible reason. If you wonder why 25 – 34 year olds are leaving Memphis at an alarming rate consider how our leaders broadcast our self-image and question whether anyone has ever told the next generation of leaders why they should stay.
So if the City action is a symptom of a larger problem of low self-esteem and a race to the bottom mentality, what do we do?
I suggest taking a cue from 1909 Chicago. After the 1893 World’s Fair and the completion of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 plan for the City of Chicago, the city was swollen with civic pride. They had a shared community vision for what they wanted the city to become and they had a blueprint for how to get there.
Planning and Doing
So they had a plan — lots of cities have plans. What matters is what they did with it.
A businessman and philanthropist named Charles Wacker thought that the best way to ensure continued momentum was to educate the next generation of leaders why and how cities work, the importance of the built environment, and the continued focus on the shared community vision. So in 1911 he published Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago, an 8th grade level text that for close to 20 years became a core part of the 8th grade curriculum in Chicago’s schools.
This illustrated text taught students the basic fundamentals of city planning, how to take ownership for your city, and perhaps most importantly PRIDE IN THEIR CITY! Below is an excerpt from this manual…
“It is becoming a recognized fact that the power, growth and advancement of a city is limited only by the measure of united civic interest of its people. The stronger and more vital the Community, the greater and more influential the city. It is this spirit which gives Chicago its great world distinction—an indomitable, living, throbbing love for the city, expressing a demand of its united people that the city shall deserve and achieve greatness. “
Memphis as a Treasure
The Wacker Manual influenced a generation of leaders, public servants, and most importantly engaged citizens. As a result –the Plan of Chicago was embraced and implemented.
I grew up in Memphis and attended school in Memphis and never once was told about the intricacies that make Memphis a treasure, about how communities are the building blocks for great cities, about how cities work, or about the importance of civic engagement. In fact, if anything I was told to be afraid of downtown and midtown and to get out of Memphis as soon as I was old enough.
Now the City Beautiful movement has passed, and Memphis lacks a plan and is far from a shared community vision (it does have a start in Sustainable Shelby), but I think there is a lesson here that hopefully could impact the next generation.
Why not introduce a curriculum into the school system that would teach students the importance of their city? It could focus on what gives Memphis its grit, soul, and texture, how the city survived yellow fever and emerged a world leader in sanitation, how the city’s most famous export has shaped modern music, how Memphis has evolved over the years and how they as Memphians have an opportunity to shape what the city becomes in the future. Most importantly it would ask students to “own” the city to take pride in it and to stick around and help clean up the mess.
Getting this implemented is another issue that will take a team of dedicated and talented educators, urbanists, and financial backers to figure out. In a city so chilling of new ideas is not likely to be easy. At a minimum the requirements are: (1) A shared community vision; (2) A crafted curriculum; and (3) A willing school system. Three requirements that individually seem insurmountable and weighted down with political agendas.
I am confident that there are hundreds of reasons we can come up with for why this will not work but what if we as a community were able to pull it off? What if it worked? What if, as in Chicago, teaching students about their city actually instilled pride and served as the foundation for a future Mayor Daley or future City Council member?
As Daniel Burnham said… “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized” – Isn’t it about time we tried something different?