It seems the perfect time for City of Memphis to decide what it wants to be when it grows up, and specifically if this means growing out.

Normally, the single greatest driver of the political process is crisis management and scenario thinking is about as common as Tea Party members at an Obama rally.  That’s why we were encouraged by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s announcement of a formal strategic planning process for his new term.

Hopefully, the grownups in the Republican Party – they seem at times to number two, Governor Bill Haslam and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell – and one Democrat, Tennessee Attorney General Robert E. Cooper, will save the anti-Memphis legislators from themselves now that instead of building a wall around 20,000 people in rural Shelby County, they put a target on their backs instead.

Perhaps, with a little luck and a sound legal opinion, we will have the opportunity to step back and do more than decide if Memphis will annex Fisherville.  More to the point, it would be the opportunity to decide exactly what the City of Memphis’ annexation policy should be in the first place.

Damn the Torpedoes

Past practice has been for Memphis to chase people and revenues and gobble up county land as part of the every expanding city limits.  It’s hard to fault Memphis for treating this as an infallible policy when the consequences of landlocked cities like St. Louis, Louisville, and other major cities were so graphic.  In those cities, with dwindling options to increase revenues and add population, the larger cities regularly became a host to the smaller, parasitic cities who financially contributed little, if anything, to the costs of regional attractions, amenities, and assets.

For Memphis, the annexation “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach propped up the budgets of city government, but in retrospect, the cost to the former city was seen in declining  neighborhood infrastructure and quality of life.

Worst of all, the annexation first philosophy led Memphis to adopt a sewer policy that was ruinous to the future of the entire community.  It’s not widely understood that the City of Memphis administration and City Council were co-conspirators in the unsustainable sprawl that came to characterize unincorporated Shelby County.

Through city government’s extra-territorial jurisdiction (which gives Council members a vote on zoning and land use decisions outside the borders of Memphis, three miles or five miles), City Council had the ability to shape the future of unincorporated Shelby County, but instead, it wielded a rubber stamp on every project because its members assumed that through annexation, Memphis would ultimately take in the area through annexation and gather up the new property taxes.

Real Costs

Then again, there was the reliable influence of developers to deliver whatever vote promised them the most profits, but without a framework that cast annexation as making a choice, there was never any resistance to the notion that aggressive annexations was the answer to all that ailed Memphis.

It’s impossible to look at the hollowing out of Memphis neighborhoods, the deterioration of the infrastructure, and the climbing costs of city services without considering that the annexation policy might have been a contributing factor.

But as happens often in government, there are no data or analysis of annexation to conclusively answer the question.  No one tried to determine what the “real” cost of annexation was, because annexation studies were only about new revenues to be generated from the newly annexed areas and the costs of city services.

In other words, it was always an arithmetic problem – revenues minus expenditures – to determine if the city “made” money on the annexation.  Unfortunately, it was never an exercise to determine the full costs, which included the implications for the existing city neighborhoods or the scenarios for all the options, including annexation, no annexation, or even de-annexation.


As Memphis City Council routinely approved any development within the 3-5 mile extraterritorial area, there was never a sense that it was making a choice. There was no perceived downside to annexing area.  And yet, every vote should have been considered a choice — to shift public investments to the suburban fringe rather than spend them on strengthening the urban core and protecting the public infrastructure already paid for there.

Memphis is indeed a shrinking city.   The population within the 1970 city limits of Memphis is now 28% less than it was then. In other words, 124,348 people within the 217.4 square miles of the 1970 Memphis borders are no longer there.

When the 20th century dawned, Memphis covered an area of 18.5 square miles with a density of 7,125. Even by 1970, it was only at 178 square miles (almost a doubling of the size of the city in about 20 years since 1950).   The density of Memphis is about 2,000 persons per square mile. That’s down from about 4,000 in 1960, about 3,500 in 1970, and about 2,500 in 1980. Not only are cities more sustainable when they are denser, but public services are easier and cheaper to deliver.

Today, Memphis is bigger than the size of New York City – 346 square miles to 305 square miles. Public services over such a massive area stretch already underfunded services even more, and to us, it suggests that Memphis needs a serious debate over the relationship between the size of the city and the effectiveness and economy of its public services.

Eye on the Ball

Maybe, just maybe, the optimal size for highly efficient public services and the best quality of life is smaller, and if it is, we need to decide that now before Memphis expands to almost 500 square miles under the existing annexation reserve agreements with the other Shelby County towns.

When “annexed out,” Memphis will be the size of Los Angeles.  It is a daunting proposition because city budgets may then be stretched to the breaking point and the ultimate price would be paid by the urban neighborhoods that already are showing the toxic stress of disinvestment.

The question is: if businesses can downsize, if nonprofit agencies and private institutions can downsize, if the military can downsize, why can’t cities like ours?

Perhaps, we delude ourselves into thinking that annexation is the answer to more city revenues when in fact it simply masks the 28% drop in population in the central city in the past 35 years and the negative implications of taking our eye off the ball: it’s protecting, strengthening, and reviving existing neighborhoods that matter most in the long run.

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

In the area behind the annexation, there’s the same number of water lines, sewers, and streets to be repaired and policed, the same number of neighborhoods but with growing, serious problems to confront. Meanwhile, despite the annexation, people continue to leave and the downward spiral continues on as the city borders move outward.

Aggravating the problem is a simple fact of life: the decline across Memphis is not equally distributed. There are census tracts with less than 50% of the population which lived there in 1970. With the expansion of area and concentrated poverty left in its wake, urban life itself deteriorates. There aren’t enough people to keep the grocery store in the neighborhood open, vacant lots become havens for criminal activity, and the neighborhood feels less safe and becomes less livable and inviting.

Some cities are turning to de-annexation as an answer. Some economists suggest that large tracts of land that no longer have to pay city taxes could attract development that would otherwise avoid them like the plague. Maybe, it could result in decreased costs to the city and increased revenues. Best of all, maybe it might attract people back into the urban area, and perhaps, lured by lower taxes, some of them would be the middle income families we are hemorrhaging.

We know all this runs counter to American’s obsession with bigger as the definition of success. Perhaps, just perhaps, success isn’t measured in larger and larger population. Absent a tax-sharing arrangement or a major overhaul of our tax system, it’s hard to see a way that the population of the “old” city of Memphis will stabilize or grow anytime soon.

But we don’t know what de-annexation could look like, because again, there have been no analyses or evaluations of the variables and the possible scenarios.

Efficiency in Government

We’re not suggesting that shrinking Memphis would be the magic answer to solving our city’s problems, but it’s possible that it would allow us to target our energy, our efforts, and our resources to an area that allows for more efficient deployment of city services and more concentrated attention.

It’s unlikely that Memphis will ever see a return to the 1970 population within the beltway, but it may be our best chance of stabilizing things long enough to triage our problems.

We’ve obscured the fact that we are a shrinking city by annexations that prop up our population numbers and bestow a false sense of security. As a result, we’ve side-stepped the serious discussion that is needed about whether annexation today is actually a boon to the budgets of Memphis city government and whether stretching already faltering public services over a larger area is the sound public policy for our city.

And, the evidence must be more than an accounting exercise. Rather, it must reach conclusions about what the older parts of our city are likely to look like as a result of more annexation, including the needs of these areas and the ability of the city to respond to them. Most of all, the analysis should consider investments that would improve Memphis’ ability to compete for 25-34 year-old college-educated workers and middle class families back into Memphis.

Real Growth

Before we begin, we need to set aside the obsession that growing population and area is “growth.”

Growth at the expense of quality of life means nothing.  Growth at the fringe that consumes funds that should be invested in the older city is not really growth in its broadest sense.

Perhaps, a comprehensive return on investment analysis will show that annexation is the best course of action for city government, but we can’t continue to rely on political dynamics, rhetoric, and business as usual to drive the philosophy and policies of annexations.

Finally, we need to take the time to consider what the options for Memphis are.  We need to see the evidence and the scenarios for the future.  Memphians need to be sure that the policy regarding annexation is indeed a policy that serves the best interests of Memphis.