I’m walking across Poplar Avenue thinking about Mary Cashiola.
In itself, that probably doesn’t make me particularly unique. But it’s the day after her must-read column in the Memphis Flyer, In The Bluff, dealt with Germantown’s smart growth program.
So, here I am thinking about Ms. Cashiola, because I’m walking across Poplar Avenue at Germantown Road, one of those super-wide suburban streets that she says she won’t drive down, much less walk across.
Asphalt As King
But I’m doing just that, wondering with each step when the tragic decision was made that traffic engineers would become chief urban designers for our city and county, contributing roadways that carve our community into dysfunctioning, disconnected sections and that create barriers rather than bonds between all of us.
More precisely, Ms. Cashiola referred to Germantown Parkway as one of these kinds of highways in her column about Germantown. But while I curse the overly wide road I’m walking across, I’m also thinking that Germantown actually gets more right than wrong.
In truth, the highway I’m crossing and Germantown Parkway are not of Germantown’s making. Rather, they were designed by Tennessee Department of Transportation, that bastion of the state’s most powerful special interest – roadbuilders. In the industry’s worldview, there’s never a road design that couldn’t be made better by two more lanes of asphalt.
In its infinite devotion to roadbuilders, state traffic engineers have insisted on the devastating designs that sacrifice the quality of our state’s communities in exchange for car-centric highway designs that line the pockets of the political powers who control it.
To its credit, Germantown’s engineers show more sensitivity. Amazingly, Germantown Road, entering the city limits from the south, is still two lanes. The one constant in the city is that the straightest line between two points is never a straight road, and it’s impossible to speed from one side of town to another because roads are not designed for speeds higher than those posted (a common philosophy in roads designed by city and county governments).
In other words, the intuitive message sent to drivers in Germantown is that they should slow down and smell the roses. As numerous studies point out, the overly wide highways popularized by traffic engineers tell motorists to ignore the speed limit, because the road is designed for higher speeds.
Ribbing And Results
While Germantown takes its share of ribbing, both good-natured and not, it’s really hard to demean its public attention to design, ambiance and community.
And don’t make the mistake of thinking that the tongue-in-cheek news reports reflect any serious opposition by Germantown residents to city policies that keep the city off-limits to billboards, restrict sign dimensions and heights, encourage landscaped boulevards and discourage drivers speeding through neighborhoods.
Much of this can be credited to Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, who has brought a steady hand and concern for the future to City Hall. Best of all, she resists the temptation to take anti-Memphis positions for her own political benefits or to respond in kind to the periodic outbursts of anti-suburban rhetoric from her Memphis counterpart.
Instead, she speaks convincingly of the inextricable ties – economic and historical – between Germantown and the major city whose orbit dominates its own. There are many public positions taken by Germantown with which we disagree, but at least they have none of the “we versus they” rhetoric often found in Memphis City Hall.
Unlike many suburbs of similar size and with similar commuter predilections, decisions in Germantown are much less likely to pivot on cars than those made in Memphis and Shelby County Governments – not to mention Collierville and Bartlett.
Germantown’s new Smart Growth Plan appears to be built loosely on the now generally accepted principles of New Urbanists. In fact, conventional wisdom to the contrary, Germantown’s population density per square mile is only nine percent less than Memphis itself. In fact, Germantown’s population density is almost twice Collierville’s to the east and Shelby County’s.
Of course, the real difference between Memphis and Germantown is in the density of housing units. Memphis’ density is 20 percent greater than the suburban city, but then again, Memphis’ percentage of unoccupied housing is about three times larger than Germantown’s.
At any rate, suffice it to say, any city that develops smart growth policies is a smart city, and it’s an approach that could well serve as an example to Memphis and Shelby County where talk about smart growth far exceeds action on smart growth.
Back to Ms. Cashiola, as usual, she points her pen at an important issue in this community, and if you’re interested in the implications of public policies here, you have to read her column each week. Even a reference to the “downtown Memphis renaissance” can’t deter us from hanging on her every word.