The following is the closing post in our two-parter about the work by nationally known urban planner Toni Griffin that led to the launch of the Memphis comprehensive plan, Memphis 3.0. You can read the first post here.
Ms. Griffin was hired to write a report about the importance of a planning framework for Memphis and that laid out the data, the philosophy, and the priorities for a comprehensive plan if it were undertaken.
In her report, Ms. Griffin offered deep insights and personal observations about Memphis that framed up its future and set out the benchmarks for a potential plan. Her report was divided into chapters, and when their headings are merged into a paragraph, it summed up the state of the city:
Memphis is a “segregated city” in a diverse region…
which has segregated geographies of prosperity and segregated geographies of economic opportunity
in a region with no culture of transit…
and an economic culture of modest wages and low skill jobs…
for which Memphis neighborhoods bear the greatest burden…
and yet, the city is still rich in urban assets unique to the region…
and while there are many civic partners, the civic infrastructure for change is fragmented and uneven…
so without a shared vision, will the various economic growth agendas improve Memphis and its residents and…
without a shared vision, are our investments achieving the results we want and…
without a shared vision can we adequately confront the fiscal iceberg for the near and long term and…
without a shared vision, are current planning efforts consistent or conflicting…|
Memphis must confront its challenges in a more integrated way, while leveraging its assets.
In response, she suggested a possible approach to include the Memphis Vision for a Prosperous and Inclusive City; Memphis Action Guide for Inclusive Land Use, Transportation, and City Systems; Memphis Action Guide of Inclusive Growth and Prosperity, and the Memphis Action Guide for Inclusive Neighborhoods and Civic Capacity and Neighborhood Implementation Projects.
Based on her research and conversations with a broad range of Memphians, she identified the following planning challenges:
City Identity and urban growth: Regional agendas to date are not strong enough advocates for the urban that promote smart growth patterns and a culture of regional transit and lack of understanding about the multiple narratives that exist about the city’s image and identity among Memphians.
Vision: Lots of plans and analytics, most with non-controversial, high-level recommendations; unclear how well different initiatives support one another and/or avoid conflicting policies, and a culture of “projects” versus “long-term strategy.”
Equity: Economic and racial segregation allow communities (geographic and issues-based) to experience the region’s inequality on a regular basis; is the Memphis community ready to put resident advancement and the language of equity at the center of a shared vision; there are past and current policies that promote continued regional segregation around race, income, employment, schools, and transit.
In her assessment of “leadership challenges,” she wrote:
Government and other sectors: Most sectors are working in silos rather than in partnerships and there is a sense that all are waiting for someone to “step up to the plate” and lead.
Leadership agendas: Management and agenda-setting of economic development, land use planning, transportation planning, health, and schools at the county level may not always put the needs of Memphis first, and state government agenda not urban/Memphis-friendly.
Civic Infrastructure: Need for a more engaged civic culture beyond the city’s “established leadership class” that can work across silos and beyond their own agendas – not just “the chosen few”; Memphis needs to be more specific and articulate about its interests, and few examples of deep and broad engagement of residents or engaging across silos.
Under the heading of barriers to economic growth and prosperity, she wrote:
Economic approaches: Economic piracy/regional competitiveness; economic gardening; few place-based economic approaches; resident job readiness, and unfilled jobs in the market.
Strategic coordination: Lack of alignment between investments and shared vision, near-term project focus versus long-term transformative strategy; local issues affect regional economy and regional decisions affect local progress.
Civic infrastructure: Lack of trust and confidence across municipalities; dedicated capacity to implement is spread across multiple siloed organizations, and planning visions require multiple partners with no one entity “steering the ship” for Memphis.
Equity: Defining the cost and economic impact of inequality and deep and longstanding racial disparities – income, health, and education.
Within this context, she suggested several overall titles for a plan but emphasized that the approach should be the one that is most transformative: An Equity-First Citywide Strategic Framework, The New American Middle-Class City, The Affordable City, The Modern Production City, Social Urbanism, and The Just City, adding that the question is: What approach will be transformative?
In the end, she recommended new “R’s” to replace river, rail, runway, and roads. They were race, research, revenue, repurposed land, regeneration, and reconciliation.
A Singular Importance
Fortunately, for Memphis, Ms. Griffin’s work laid the foundation and the framework for Memphis 3.0, which will release its preliminary conclusions at the end of the month. If we owe her a debt of gratitude, it is not only for delivering a provocative and useful planning report but for building a coalition that supported a comprehensive plan and put it in motion.
Before Memphis 3.0, it had been almost half a century since Memphis embarked on a comprehensive planning process. In looking ahead to the city’s 200th anniversary in May, 2019, perhaps, the most important milestone we can achieve in observance of Memphis’ entry into its third century is to produce Memphis 3.0 with the power and the purpose to set the course of Memphis for decades to come.
It’s worth remembering that a comprehensive plan was never a high priority for Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland in his campaign, but after taking office, he provided the support and the workforce to make it happen, and he deserves credit for that. Come to think of it, nothing is more brilliantly basic than to have a clear plan with equally clear benchmarks.
We have proven what happens when there is not a plan – unsustainable sprawl, development decisions without a framework for making them, stress on city revenues and services, too many P.D.’s, and declining neighborhoods.
Memphis 3.0 gives us a chance to prove what can happen when we do something right, but its success ultimately depends on whether Memphis can mobilize around the plan’s vision and action plan for the future. There are few things under way in this community more important. It’s also why every one needs to get engaged in the process so diverse voices and opinions are heard.
It’s a lot like voting: if you don’t take the time to do it, don’t complain about the outcome.
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