In light of recent conversations and media coverage about ending City of Memphis’ long-standing policy of aggressive annexations, we’re reprising a post from June 16, 2009 that was a continuation of a discussion about shrinking cities and deannexation that was raised first on this blog:

We can cure you but we may have to kill you first.

That was a common reaction to an article in London’s Daily Telegraph that reported that the Obama Administration is considering plans for selective bulldozing in some “rust belt” cities including Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Memphis.

We suspect that the story may be a combination of imprecise writing by the reporter and an overstated interest by the Obama Administration from the article’s source, the treasurer of Genessee County who’s out to shrink Flint, Michigan, by 40 percent to compact the city into a more manageable size for public services.

Bruised Pride

He said the Obama Administration has approached him about applying the lessons learned in Flint to a number of U.S. cities. That’s where Memphis came in, because the treasurer Dan Kildee said he was relying on a Brookings Institution report suggesting that 50 cities should shrink.

Based on our inquiry to the Washington think tank, that is likely not an accurate interpretation of what its reports said and that the Obama Administration’s inquiry into the razing of deteriorating neighborhoods was like dozens of conversations about urban strategies by federal officials.

While it might all be a tempest in a teapot, it was disturbing to a number of people that Memphis was listed among the rust belt cities, but we hope that it encourages the serious discussion that is needed about Memphis as a shrinking city.

Doing More With The Same

As we have written before, Memphis annexations have been built upon a faulty analysis. Rather than merely calculating the cost of public services and the amount of new taxes (which often seem to assume that the area will never decline), the evaluation should consider the impact on the core city.

Too often, it’s been a false economy, and in the end, the same services are merely stretched over a larger area. For example, the budget of the Memphis Division of Park Services has been flat for 20 years despite annexations. Meanwhile, by propping up our city’s population through annexation, we are given a false sense of security about our city.

Here’s the thing: since 1970, even with 27 annexations of 100 square miles, the population of Memphis has remained essentially the same. And despite taking in this much land area, the population outside Memphis in Shelby County increased from about 95,000 to 250,000.

A Different Lens

Within those 1970 city limits, Memphis has lost more than 20% of its population. Density was cut in half, making service delivery more expensive and complicated. Perhaps, the equation isn’t about how much new land can we add to Memphis, but how much better can we serve what we have.

Some other cities in the same situation are beginning to consider shrinking their footprints, notably Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint. In fact, in its earliest days, Memphis was less interested in new territory. Between 1891 and 1950, there were 19 annexations, but with the dawning of the 1950’s came a new aggressiveness toward annexations. There were 12 annexations in the Fifties alone and the 1960’s saw 23 more.

In other words, city officials inherited a culture of annexation that has driven the idea that the appropriation of new territory is always a good thing.

The Lure Of New Taxes

The lure was new property taxes and new sales taxes. Unfortunately, we are strapped by one of the most regressive tax structures in the United States. In other words, the less you make in Memphis, the more you pay as a percentage of your income.

It’s time to step back and look at our annexation policies with fresh eyes. If the price for that new revenue is more responsibility over a larger area and no more to spend on the core neighborhoods that are the heart of Memphis, the entire transaction may have been built on a false economy.

It will require courage to act differently, but fortunately, this City Council has shown more in two years than previous Councils showed in 10. It also requires a shift in economic development thinking, where officials normally prefer to brag about.

A Totally New Approach

We can gain solace for the fact that we are not alone. More cities have shrunk in the last 50 years than have grown around the world, according to City Mayors. The difference is that here, we would decide to do it rather than having it done to us. We could consider scenarios in which we abandon the “annex at all costs” attitude or even consider deannexation.

As Shrinking Cities Institute said: “This alternative model could include the demolition or dismantling of underutilized housing and other building stock, the removal of redundant streets, and downsizing of municipal infrastructure to correspond to declining population…Opportunities may arise for restoring native landscape ecologies or reconstituting a new kind of city, where pockets of development are surrounded and connected by natural areas.

“Planned shrinkage can identify opportunities to establish lively and attract development clusters that take advantage of the best the region has to offer, while improving air and water quality, enhancing wildlife habitat and establishing exciting new recreation opportunities.”

New Planning

It may sound simple and logical, but it is incredibly difficult, because it requires us to up-end everything we’ve ever thought about cities.

The study and strategies for urban decline have dwelt on ways to revive neighborhoods and somehow breathe life in areas on life support. Only recently has the attention turned to “shrinking cities” and away from the magnetic (and misleading) power of “growth.”

That’s why it requires a total shift in planning, and the traditional tendency to react to the shrinkage by focusing on economic growth. It’s no overstatement to say that Memphis as a shrinking city may be the single biggest issue facing right now. That’s why we are so exorcised about the nail in the coffin that will be hammered home by I-269.

Taking The First Step

So here’s hoping that our city begins this important conversation. We also hope that it begins with the one conclusion that has received consensus already: traditional urban planning tools don’t work. That’s been proven by the slum and blight removal programs, followed by the urban renewal projects, followed by the economic development initiatives. Now, some cities are appealing to the young creatives who are not scared off by urban challenges but often find the funky environment and cheap digs that are so often lacking in boomtowns, and they are important.

However, they certainly won’t create solutions at the scale needed by cities like Detroit, where city housing is now going for $7,500 or for Memphis whose number of vacant properties has doubled since 2000 to about 14,000. But what it just might do is tap into the creativity and new thinking that creative workers and young talent offer for real solutions for Memphis. We have some now who need to be part – if not leading – this new discussion about the future.

But first things first: we have to decide to begin. Too often, dealing with urban problems in Memphis is like the stages of grief. Just this once, maybe we can move past denial, anger, bargaining and depression, and unabashedly move to acceptance and develop the kinds of bold plans that can truly make a difference in the trajectory of