Previously published as Memphis magazine’s City Journal column:

The first stirrings of a green ethos in Memphis are taking place in the unlikeliest of places – Shelby County Government.

It would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. After all, county government was largely responsible for the unchecked sprawl that gobbled up land and taxes until county government threatened to collapse under the weight of its $1.7 billion debt.

Seven-lane roads proliferated, school sites chosen by developers also just happened to make them millions, ordinances to protect trees and environment were killed, parks weren’t built because money went to roads and schools, comprehensive plans for Germantown Parkway weren’t given a chance to work, and the “anything goes” development attitude in unincorporated Shelby County was mirrored in county government.

Engineering A Different Future

County officials never met a development they didn’t like, although its own analysis showed that every new $175,000 house cost $4,000 a year in public services for 20 years before it would generate tax revenue. Unfortunately, by then, many of the houses already needed reinvestment by their owners, and county government didn’t get the anticipated revenues as the demand for schools and roads gave way to social services, crime prevention and neighborhood redevelopment.

These days, the Wharton Administration seems to be working hard to change things. Perhaps it is fitting – albeit surprising – that the first breaks from the past took place in the county engineer’s, which had been at the heart of so many of the decisions that fueled sprawl.

It is a peculiar reality here that traffic engineers have traditionally done more to determine quality of life and urban design than any of the officials elected to make key decisions about the future. It was the engineering offices that gave birth to the philosophy that produced an overabundance of expansive roads and a scarcity of bike lanes, while most communities were doing just the opposite.

The Road Less Travelled

But, all that changed when Shelby County Engineer Mike Oakes was given new marching orders by Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton, and he struck out as a leader of “smart growth” highway design and construction.

It began with a modest first step – a three and a half mile, two-lane section of Houston Levee Road. Only a few years ago, it seemed a certainty that Houston Levee would become another incarnation of Germantown Parkway. But instead of duplicating that highway’s miles of strip malls and expansive traffic lanes, county government instead realigned and rebuilt the Houston Levee from Wolf River to Macon Road with bike lanes, tree plantings, and curving design.

The county intends for the road to never be wider than a four-lane boulevard – a reprise of the design that county government adopted for the long controversial Kirby-Whitten Road through Shelby Farms Park. In that road project, the Wharton Administration introduced “context sensitive design” for the first time to the Memphis area.

Complete Streets

Although it’s widely used across the U.S., context sensitive design never took root here. In essence, it’s a process for designing roads that responds to where they are located and to their impact on the environment. It also assumes that transportation arteries are also for biking and walking, not just for cars.

Context sensitive design is now the norm for all county public works projects, and engineers could almost pass for Sierra Club members. In explaining its new policies, the engineers wrote that “sustainable infrastructure is safer, and pedestrian friendly streets and boulevards these enhancements run in the neighborhood of five percent of total project cost, which yields substantial quality of life and economic development improvements.”

To prove just how serious it is, Shelby County now has its own “signature bridge” – forest green, use of stone enhancements, antique lighting standards, and red brick approaches. The engineers say that roads and bridges are now more visually appealing, but more to the point, they complement the county’s other “green projects” – greenbelt system, Wolf River Environment Restoration Project, CSX Rail Corridor, and a study aimed at protecting the Memphis Sands Aquifer.

Happy Trails

In addition, county government recently opened the 30-acre trailhead for Nonconnah Greenbelt, a long-held dream of Public Works Director Ted Fox; Planning and Development Director Richard Copeland served notice that developers will be required to follow through with landscaping promises; and Kelly Rayne, chief adviser to the mayor, is now negotiating contracts for tax incentives to include “green buildings.”

It’s easy enough to change a policy or a program, but the real test always lies in changing the culture. There’s growing evidence that this is exactly what county government is doing.