Today I drove past the new CVS building at Union and Cooper. When complete, it will be a case study how not to redevelop urban commercial district sites.

There was, however, no mechanism to prevent what’s been done. There was no agreed-upon urban design plan or civic vision to guide City decision-makers. Public opinion was divided. This is in part because Memphians have not yet collectively decided what kind of city they want to live in.

By contrast, people in cities like Portland or Denver are remarkably united behind a clear idea of the characteristics, content, functions, and appearance of the city they want to inhabit. These cities attract people. They have a critical economic advantage by attracting the kind of talented, educated people who are the backbone of the middle class, and the economic engine of a community.

Often such cities derive their civic visions from the characteristics and concepts that make up the soul of such places such as mountains, waterfronts, climate, lifestyle, or history. The vision stems from the people themselves knowing who they really are; the stories they tell about themselves, what they celebrate, what they stand for or represent, what they believe in and value.

Memphians sort of, kind of know some of these things about ourselves, but we can’t really agree on how to express them. For example, we generally know we have some relationship to the river, but we aren’t sure what that relationship is, and can’t seem to find a way to physically encounter the water. That’s why the recent flood was such an event; the water came to us! We know we have an outstanding and unique musical heritage, but haven’t figured out how to really capitalize on it (see New Orleans, Nashville, or Austin).

We don’t know how we wish to balance our historic architectural heritage with new development, especially when historic buildings that make major or special contributions to shaping and defining the space of the public realm occupy desirable development sites. And we really don’t quite know how to balance the economic advantage of making Memphis an appealing, attractive, hospitable city with the compulsion to do whatever is necessary to attract new business—any new business—at any cost. In a community with so many people living at or near the poverty level, that struggles even to meet its most basic service levels, where outsized fear of crime and xenophobia often seem to overwhelm any other thinking, making decisions based on the value of an attractive public realm can seem to many to be at best frivolous, and at worst irresponsible.

Taken together, these attitudes tend to erect yet another barrier to good public realm design: a pervasive suspicion of and hostility to “government.” The best vision plans are created within an open, public process that is intended to arrive at a consensus for what our city should be. It is based on shared community values, and meets the reality of the market. They are simultaneously both top (government) down and bottom (community) up.

As good as our current civic leadership is, it has its hands full repairing the damage of decades of difficulty achieving even the basics of good governing in the face of enormous challenges. Resources are strained to the breaking point with little funding available for planning. Even within those limits, the City heroically continues to advance plans that, taken together, may add up to an overall civic vision. Many neighborhood and institutional initiatives are also individually addressing small area plans that contribute to the vision. The next step will be to develop, adopt, and implement public policies based on the overall vision

Without creating and sticking to strong public policies, based on design and economic development principles proven to have strengthen cities elsewhere, the best plan is only paper.