Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton this week unveiled his Sustainable Shelby agenda, replete with 52 top-rated priorities and detailed recommendations in seven key areas.

Doug Farr, green architect and author of Sustainable Urbanism, urged the 350 people attending the announcement at Memphis Botanic Garden to resist traditional silos in implementing the agenda and moving ahead. His 40-minute presentation highlighted the things that are important to a sustainable city – effective public transit, transit-oriented development, walkable and bikable neighborhoods, high performance buildings and high performance infrastructure.

While Memphis is usually behind the curve on these kinds of initiatives, this is one time when we seem to have the chance to be at the front of a movement forming behind Mr. Farr’s principles and philosophy. Already, our local ULI chapter is following up with him to set up a workshop in a couple of months to build momentum behind the Sustainable Shelby process.


As part of the Sustainable Shelby process (with which we helped), the 52 top-rated priorities will get immediate attention. In the next 90 days, plans of implementation will be developed for each of them, and to emphasize the point, Mayor Wharton said 90 days four different times.

Recently back from a study tour of Germany with the Brookings Institution, he said that if Germany can retool its economy, remake its cities and reinvent its transportation networks, surely Shelby County can do the same. A similar point was made by Mr. Farr, who said that Memphis should shed its normal lack of self-confidence to take up the call to become a leader of sustainable urbanism.

The comprehensive recommendations were developed in only four months by seven committees – transportation and traffic, public buildings and public policies, neighborhood rebirth, public incentives, environment and natural resources, building codes, and land use and development – and the ratings for the top 52 were the product of voting by the members of the committee members and voting on behalf of the public using a public opinion poll by Steve Ethridge.

$2 Billion Penalty For Waiting Too Long

There’s a recommendation from every committee in the top 15, but concern about land use and development policies is clearly evident. Three of the top five recommendations were related to that area, and based on the Shelby County debt of about $2 billion, it’s hard to argue about the need for different land use and development patterns.

While Mayor Wharton’s attention on smart growth was spurred by the threat of bankruptcy if county government’s debt remains unchecked, he seems able now to show just as much passion about reducing daily commuting mileage (Portland economist Joe Cortright pointed out at the kick-off of the process that if we could reduce our daily driving mileage by 1.6 miles a day, it would result in $280 million in savings), the need to develop quality public transit that gets people out of their cars, “complete streets” and walkable neighborhoods.

While Mayor Wharton only has a couple more years in office as county mayor, he pledges to make Sustainable Shelby a priority, and in light of his expected race as frontrunner in the next Memphis mayor’s race, there is the chance for the agenda to be transplanted in city government as well.


Regardless, this smart growth agenda is an idea whose time has come. We’ve proven how badly we can degrade our quality of life with unbridled sprawl, with developers calling the shots, with traffic engineers given the power to shape our city’s character and with an inequitable tax structure subsidizing the unsustainable lifestyle choices of residents in far-flung reaches of Shelby County.

In that regard, it was encouraging to us that the #1 recommendation dealt with the public realm. We would never have predicted it, but there it was – “Create/reinvest in a great public realm that includes parks, schools, streets, plazas that are appropriately scaled – one size does not fit all.” Coupled with it in our mind is the #2 recommendation, which said: “Create/reinvest in great neighborhoods – not merely subdivisions – that are “complete,” walkable, and provide a sense of neighborhood.”

If we could only get those two right, we’d be happy, but if the other 50 are also backed up with plans to implement them, this could indeed be the seminal event that its organizers envisioned.

Getting The Conversation Right

As we have regularly written, too often, in Shelby County, we’re not having the right conversation about the important issues. Instead, we are rehashing the past, we are fighting old battles and we are driven by personality conflicts while our city and county drift aimlessly at a time when it needs all cylinders working together to compete in this complex economy.

Finally, it feels like we are having the right conversation about the right issues and the right strategies.

But, now for the fun part — making sure, as Mayor Wharton said, that Sustainable Shelby doesn’t merely become another report that we dust off occasionally to congratulate ourselves on our collective wisdom.

The proof of his and like-minded organizations’ seriousness will become clear in the coming weeks, because recommendations without implementation are nothing but wishful thinking. It seems that we actually have the chance for new thinking on some old issues that are fundamental to the kind of city that we want and can create.