Planning in the Memphis area is being done, in some cases at a high level and by everyone.  Chambers, governments and community groups.  Mayors, business leaders and developers.  Everyone has a plan for something.  But what is guiding these plans to ensure they are complementary?  Who is coordinating efforts to ensure they don’t conflict?

Aerotropolis is attempting to create linkages between all points of the community and multiple transportation modes to the airport area.  There are hundreds of miles of greenways being planned for Shelby, Desoto and Tipton Counties.  Sustainable Shelby is the first agenda for sustainability in the Memphis region and a strategic framework that addresses building codes, the environment and neighborhood rebirth.  As a follow-up to the 2026 long-range transportation plan, the Memphis MPO has decided to take on a regional imagining process to help determine how land uses should integrate with transportation needs while setting regional goals across jurisdictional boundaries.  And I-269 is one of the largest infrastructure projects in America.

Desoto County Supervisors should be applauded for pursuing a growth plan for their segment of the future I-269.  As well, Collierville planners deserve credit for a forward thinking Small Area Plan developed for their segment.  Some have accurately noted the need for local plans to guide development in areas that will be accessible from this new interstate loop touching two states and four different counties.  However, what the previously mentioned plans and this 30-plus mile I-269 project point out is a critical need for the first true Metro Area Growth Plan.

Honest planning for Memphis, the suburbs and beyond

A Regional Growth Plan not only studies development trends in an area, but guides equitable and sustainable expansion of resources to serve new development while maintaining the quality of life in existing neighborhoods.  The growth plan determines land-uses and housing strategies.  It lays out utility, infrastructure and transportation needs.  The plan helps us understand development’s impact on education, public safety and healthcare.  Workforce strategies are conceptualized and regional coordination is defined.

Most of all a Regional Growth Plan would help us understand both the fiscal impact of expansion and the quality of life that expansion would affect.  It would force us all to answer critical questions about the future of our community.

Can the Nesbit Water Association provide service to new neighborhoods, how much will that cost and will there ever be enough tax revenue to support new homes?  Will schools have to be built in Arlington and Piperton and will others have to be closed in Bartlett and Germantown?  Where will the new libraries, parks and community centers be and when will the old ones be decommissioned?  Will Memphis, Light, Gas and Water be able to continue providing power to new areas when the customer base in old areas is shrinking?  What happens to the Downtown office market that was replaced by the Airport office market that was replaced by the East Memphis office market when a new office market emerges in a different place?  Will industry be concentrated in certain areas or will it be spread from Covington to Hernando and from Marion to Hickory Withe?

Regional planning that works

Like many cities including Memphis in the late 1960s, Portland, Oregon found itself facing urban decay and suburbanization.  Tri-Met, the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was created to operate the area’s bus and rail system in 1969.  Then Republican State Governor Tom McCall and Democratic City Mayor Neil Goldschmidt rallied for and enacted strong local land use measures, a system of urban growth boundaries and rural conservation policies throughout the 1970s.

In 1977 the Oregon Legislature passed a bill allowing a referendum creating a Metro Council.  Residents in three counties and 25 cities in the Portland region elect the council that then works cooperatively with local governments on planning policy, regional services and quality of life initiatives.  The Metro Council proudly boasts about providing a regional vision and approach in order to build thriving communities, economic vitality and scenic beauty.  They also now manage over 12,000 acres of regional parkland, the Oregon Zoo, Convention Facilities, a Performing Arts Center, in addition to recycling and garbage services.

Since 1980, the City of Portland has grown by 57% with a population density of over 4,200 people per square mile.  The Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has grown by 62% to almost 2.2 million.  Portland’s regional household income surpasses $70,000 a year.

By contrast, the City of Memphis has grown by 4.8% since 1980 and has a population density of less than 2,200 people per square mile.  The MSA has grown by 29% to just over 1.2 million.  Memphis’s regional household income is almost $62,000 a year.

It’s not too late, we’re not too small, other regions are doing it

Manhattan, Kansas has an MSA with a regional population of less than 114,000 people.  In 2008, a coalition of seven different counties, four different cities, three chambers of commerce and two economic development commissions released the Flint Hills Regional Growth Plan for the Manhattan area.  This $900,000 initiative assessed regional conditions, anticipated future needs and prioritized actions to accommodate growth and mitigate adverse impacts.  The stated intention of the plan was never to supersede local agencies but rather to provide an assessment and a coordinated action plan to address the needs of the region.  The City of Manhattan recently hired its first Regional Growth Coordinator to spearhead the implementation effort.

More than winners and losers… survivors

Memphis is neither Manhattan, Kansas nor Portland, Oregon but we can learn by their examples.  These and other communities are realizing that the only way to survive is through a team approach to regional planning and development.  If West Memphis, Olive Branch, Whitehaven and Somerville continue to compete with one another, we will all continue to pay higher taxes for a declining level of government service.  As Mayor Wharton has said, “the present course is unsustainable on the basis of public finances, environment and land use, disposable neighborhoods, deteriorating health, and declining quality of life.” However, if we use I-269 or regional greenways or town-square restoration or manufacturing recruitment to start a dialogue about actual, coordinated regional growth planning, we have an opportunity to quickly change course and perhaps surpass our peer cities.