It’s a modest project, but it’s a start. Shelby County Government’s plan to design a limited stretch of Houston Levee Road according to smart growth principles is welcome news to taxpayers who’ve been paying a premium for suburban sprawl.

Few subjects have been as endlessly discussed in this community as smart growth, and at times, we seemed at risk of co-opting the language while doing nothing to change our behavior. However, finally, we’re seeing the first signs of meaningful change in the way that the county engineer’s office designs roads. Now, if only this attitude could reach across Main Street to City Hall where the city engineer’s office often sends the message that it’s his way or the highway (excuse the pun) and that the public is nothing so much as a nuisance in the design process.

In fact, nothing symbolizes the difference in attitude and tone between the county engineer’s office and the city engineer’s office more than the difference between Memphis’ plans for Walnut Grove Road into Shelby Farms Park and Shelby County’s plans for Houston Levee Road between the Wolf River and Macon Road.

The Difference

At Shelby Farms Park, the city engineer’s office seems determined to fight any suggestion that Walnut Grove Road should accommodate bicyclists and walkers. Incredibly, at this point, it even seems possible that the road will be a three-mile barrier to bicyclists interested in actually crossing from one side of the park to the other. As the city engineer’s office seems to be saying, its job is to build roads and sensitivity to the natural setting or other modes of transportation is someone else’s job.

In fact, some say that in the wake of Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton’s successful “context sensitive design” process that produced a compromise for the long controversial Kirby Parkway through Shelby Farms Park, the Memphis city engineer’s office seems so irritated by this consensus-building approach to road design that it has taken a harder line on the Walnut Grove Road design.

Meanwhile, at Houston Levee Road, the county engineer’s office essentially is saying that it’s heard what taxpayers have been saying and it’s going to change the way it goes about its business. In announcing the new design, Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes made it clear that he sees the road as our community’s opportunity to prove that it learned the miserable lessons of Germantown Parkway.

3.7 Miles of Hope

The Houston Levee Road project may be a modest first step, but Mr. Oakes suggests that county government is going to raise its aim beyond this 3.7 miles experiment, and hopefully, usher in a better way of building roads and highways in this community.

We know it is too early to get overly excited about the prospects. After all, there was a time when Germantown Parkway – now a concrete tribute to the county’s lack of commitment to sound planning – was heralded as an important opportunity to emphasize some of the same issues now being applied to Houston Levee Road.

Back then, before the ink on the Germantown Parkway Plan had dried, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was making amendments that reversed the plan’s fundamental policies and produced the endless succession of strip malls across the landscape. In the end, the commissioners’ actions to undo the Germantown Parkway Plan did more than damage that highway’s possibilities. It also sent an “anything goes” message to developers and too many among them immediately moved to maximize their profits at the expense of the area’s quality of life.

Sensitive Design

Mr. Oakes pointedly rejected the massive design used for Germantown Parkway in favor of a two-lane road, and to underscore that a new day may be dawning, his plan actually includes bike paths and the planning of trees. He promises that the road will be no wider than two lanes until about 2016 at the earliest and even afterwards, it will be widened to four lanes designed as a boulevard.

The county engineer’s thinking about this road corresponds with a growing belief that supersizing highways actually ends up making them more dangerous. The expansive roadways that exist throughout suburban Shelby County are bleak testament to the “bigger is better” attitude so often adopted by highway engineers.

Thankfully, a change is taking root around the country with a new breed of engineers who design roads that take into consideration once unheard of ideas – slowing down the traffic to move fewer cars and sharing the road with pedestrians and bike riders.

New Engineering Skills

The Memphis city engineer’s office reminds us of how hard it will be for the profession to adapt to this new approach. Strangely, many traffic engineers in the public sector seem blind to the fact that this different philosophy can prevent the fault lines that so often open up between government, neighborhoods and environmentalists. That’s why flexibility and listening are two skills that are becoming as important to highway engineers as skills at the drafting table.

“Context sensitive design” changes the paradigm for the better, as the special committee on Kirby Parkway proved, bringing agreement to a road project characterized by heated controversy for about two decades. In recent years, context sensitive design has evolved into context sensitive solutions. Design seems to imply construction is the answer, and solutions opened up broader possible answers, including not building a road at all.

Coupled with the new Unified Development Code now being written, context sensitive solutions could open up a new emphasis on building a livable, healthier community. More and more, research indicates the strong connection between automobile dependency and land use and declining physical activity.

Walk The Walk

After all, transportation in Shelby County does much more than just move people from place to place. It also shapes the innate character of the community at its most basic. Recent studies show that people with access to sidewalks walk more, people with access to trails jog and walk more, and that walking increases with well-connected streets that are calm, appealing and narrow.

Residents of walkable neighborhoods engage in about 70 more minutes a week of physical activity than people living in less walkable neighborhoods. Between 1977 and 1995, trips made by walking have declined by 40 percent for children and adults while driving trips have almost doubled. It’s no wonder that the percentage of young people who are overweight also doubled when compared to 20 years ago.

Some suggested changes to road design, which are probably be considered by Mr. Oakes, include adding more roadways with bike lanes and trails; dampening speeds on arterials and collectors to about 35 miles per hour; offering networks for pedestrians and bike riders that are as accessible as those for cars; bulbing out curbs, improving crosswalks, and installing landscaped medians to slow down traffic and adding to the safety of pedestrians; adding landscaping, especially trees, and installing public art.

With the new thinking displayed by the county engineer’s office, it’s easier to imagine a community focused on highways that create higher quality of life and reduce the cost of construction as well as public health costs. Once, it was a pipe dream. Perhaps, now, it’s a dream we can achieve.