As the City Council begins to debate the idea of investing in the infrastructure necessary to create a new neighborhood at the former Fairgrounds, it’s worth defining what “urban village” really means. It’s not a shopping strip, or a mall, or even the small town simulation known as a lifestyle center. Instead, an urban village is a truly great neighborhood composed of a well-defined and appropriately scaled network of walkable, comfortable streets, sidewalks, and open spaces.
At its heart lies an attractive and compelling central open space surrounded by compatible uses that define and energize it. In this “civic living room”, neighbors regularly meet to celebrate, recreate, and relax. It’s designed to reflect the story of the place and its people. It might contain a landmark feature, or even a building of civic importance.
A great neighborhood includes places to live, work, shop, learn, and play. It has a distinct central business district with shops that satisfy daily needs such as a cleaners, a grocery, a bank, and places to eat and drink, and to casually come across friends and neighbors. It is featured in city guidebooks and websites.
It’s clean, comfortable, convenient, lively, and walkable. It is vibrant during both daytime and evening hours. It includes abundant landscaping, natural features, and public art. It is its own destination, and encourages visitors to stop, get out of their cars, and walk around.
Like a small village a great neighborhood feels friendly, familiar, welcoming, amiable, and safe. However, it also offers diversity, excitement, choice, and urbanity. Great neighborhoods are the basic building blocks of great cities. They enhance the lives of their current residents, as well as attracting new residents, especially those who can live in whatever city they choose.
Memphis already has urban villages. Harbor Town is one, Cooper-Young is another. Any neighborhood where people walk to a central area in which they regularly bump into and engage people they know in a pleasant, active public realm is an urban village. However, where some succeed, others may not. The difference often lies in providing a positive experience that the overall market values in tangible ways, such as enhanced property values or premium prices.
The quality of a place is measured almost entirely by the quality of the human experience it offers. For example, Disney has always recognized that its visitors will return if they have had a memorable and universally positive experience. Great cities and great neighborhoods offer the same kind of opportunities for positive experiences, and the resulting increased and return traffic, although the precise nature of the experience may vary substantially from place to place.
The conventional wisdom that drives suburban development dictates that retail stores go where their potential customers are already living. In successful city neighborhoods, the opposite is often true. Neighborhood business districts not only can thrive, but also can drive surrounding development by offering something unique in a regional market. The retail mix sets the tone, character, and theme of a place, the elements of experience. It can be geared to a particular market segment such as upscale shoppers, families, empty nesters, or young singles.
One example can be found in the emerging Broad Street Arts District. Although still in its relative infancy, the Broad Street area is beginning to attract a series of retailers and restaurants compatible with the arts theme. Like most successful districts, it offers a unique collection of similar uses supported by regular programmed festivals and activities in the public realm, in this case, the street itself. Although it will take time to grow and evolve incrementally, it has already unified the existing neighbors, and is attracting investment.
The Fairgrounds can become Memphis’ next great neighborhood, built around a specific collection of stores, restaurants, and activities that meet a particular unmet need of the Memphis market. If designed with the characteristics that define the term urban village, this new great neighborhood can generate premium prices for the surrounding real estate, attract new residents to Memphis, enhance our civic pride, repurpose underused land at the city’s heart, generate jobs and additional tax revenues, and point the way to a brighter future for all. That would be an investment worth making.