what cities like cleveland can learn from memphis

The story of sprawl in Memphis begins as early as the 1950s and with one of the first suburban shopping centers in the country, Poplar Plaza, built at the edge of the city’s eastern limit. The sprawl continued in earnest throughout the ‘70s, cutting into the surrounding county with the deliberateness and tenacity of a Mississippi River current as developers gobbled up land further and further east. An interstate loop was built around the city, then another.

It’s a familiar story. Yet while Memphis hasn’t actively worked to abort the sprawl, the flow is beginning to abate as more and more entrepreneurs, planners, young people, families and government itself look inward, back to the city and its neighborhoods.

The idea that other smart cities have something to learn from Memphis is a new one, a radical one, yet it’s completely plausible given the recent addition of 60 miles of bike lanes, a $350,000 ArtPlace grant to build the Broad Avenue Arts District, the recent influx of small businesses to Overton Square and redevelopment of the Sears Crosstown building.

How did these projects get off the ground? How did the city and civic leaders partner to work towards revitalization? These are some of the questions being asked by developers and civic leaders around the country, and answered by experts in the field closer to home.

Opt for flexibility and community-driven growth

The first lesson, surprisingly, is to not let the rigidity often associated with planning get in the way of progress.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, long-range planning may not always be in a city’s best interests. Thinking small in the beginning, starting off manageably with pop-up shops and temporary green spaces or street festivals, solidifies a neighborhood’s vested interest in its area of town.

“Local government here is learning to be flexible, learning to be nimble, learning to reorient and be able to respond more quickly to these neighborhood-driven efforts,” says Tommy Pacello, project manager for the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team.

Incidentally, another lesson for cities might be to get yourself such a team. This one, funded by the Bloomberg Philanthropies beginning in 2012, has worked to reduce gun violence and restore economic vitality to core neighborhoods within the city.

The neighborhood efforts Pacello references are epitomized by the creation of the Broad Avenue Arts District along a once-forgotten street in the Binghampton neighborhood of Midtown. The district is a half-mile revitalization project fostered by a few key players.

In 2006, the city held several charettes and engaged about 200 residents, business owners and stakeholders, and developed a vision for where the community wanted to be.

For multiple reasons, the city never saw the implementation of those ideas. Yet, in 2010, stakeholders were able to take matters into their own hands. They created festivals and pop-up markets through the “New Face for an Old Broad” initiative. In one particularly gutsy action, citizens hand-painted bicycle lanes and head-in parking spaces along the street. They proved to the city what could be done and made clear what they wanted.

And, to its credit, the city did listen. Not only listened but, with the adoption of the 500-page Unified Development Code (UDC) in 2010, “there is now a codified process by which the neighborhood associations are brought into the discussion sooner and the goal is… they can be more instrumental on the design of the project,” says Josh Whitehead, planning director for the Memphis & Shelby County Office of Planning and Development.

Lean urbanism and ‘freewheeling’ code

Urbanists have given a name to the movement to revitalize cities using a community-driven process -- they call it ‘lean urbanism.’ And cities everywhere are taking a closer look at it.  

“They’re thinking about creative placemaking, and thinking about this concept of lean urbanism, which is this whole idea essentially about how do we build great places out of baling wire and twine and not thinking about over-engineering projects,” says Pacello.

Whitehead makes the case that less restrictive, bottom-up approaches to planning can be effective, and points to Portland, Oregon as an example of the opposite. That progressive city has a state-implemented ‘urban growth boundary,’ a line in the sand dictating that no development occurs outside that line until the density within reaches a certain threshold.

It is an effective impediment to urban sprawl. But in an older area of town, industrial makers and manufacturers are being encroached upon by residential and commercial retail concerns, Whitehead says. “Only the City of Portland can rezone your property and they do that comprehensively as a big neighborhood… it’s so restrictive.”

His suggestion: “The language of code needs to be as freewheeling as possible.”

The analogy is of a parent and child. The child decides she wants to play trombone, but instead of rushing out and paying hundreds of dollars for an instrument that may be left behind in short order, the parent rents one. The budding musician gets a feel for the instrument, shows a willingness to practice and takes responsibility for it. Once the parent is convinced, something more permanent is considered.

And once it’s considered, the parent -- or city -- must act quickly and in similar, responsible fashion. This might include reworking sewers, adding or doing away with street lights, or knitting those neighborhoods together through pedestrian and bike-friendly right of ways, as is the goal of the Mid-South Complete Streets and the Mid-South Regional Greenprint initiatives. Both work to, in essence, bring the city together through a network of pedestrian-friendly streets, roadways, pathways and green spaces.

“We depend on businesses and we depend on citizens to bring things to our attention and ask if we’d consider doing things another way,” says Maria Fuhrmann, special assistant to Mayor A. C. Wharton. “I think one thing that the mayor’s office has done and city government has done in general is just been receptive and responsive to the needs that businesses, particularly small businesses, bring to us.”

The big impact of small investment

In 2010, Memphis was deemed one of the worst cities for cycling. Two years and more than 60 miles of dedicated bike lanes later, it was one of the most-improved. Most of those lanes are in the city and many connect the revitalized areas of Cooper-Young, Overton Square, Broad and downtown.

Memphis is one of only a few cities nationwide to have had this sort of success grown from the bottom up, says Sarah Newstok, program manager for The Coalition for Livable Communities, an initiative of the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis and a driving force behind such initiatives. “We made policy happen,” she says about the community. “It was a true grassroots effort.”

There are other investments that show the government’s dedication to a neighborhood’s desires. In Overton Square, a once-vibrant entertainment district in decline for decades, the city invested $12 million in a new 451-space parking garage with an underground water retention basin to alleviate potential flooding of the area from nearby Lick Creek.

The garage was the last piece of a puzzle begun by local entrepreneurs, developers and live theatres expanding into the area.

Across Midtown, there’s now a plan to redevelop the 1.5-million-square-foot Sears retail and distribution center. Vacated in 1993, it has sat empty since, and with it, surrounding streets and homes have deteriorated as well. Once private money was in place, the final piece needed was $15 million from the city for easements. With the chance at neighborhood revitalization and private investment committed, the city could hardly say no to the relatively small ask once the interest was made apparent and private funding guaranteed.

“The way that redevelopment has taken place, cities around the country are learning from [it],” says Pacello. “What they did there was really clever because they went in and they spent a couple of years learning the neighborhood, understanding the neighborhood, highlighting why this area was valuable and kind of uncovering the hidden value of the neighborhood.”

If allowed to organically change and adapt, the result can be a neighborhood as vibrant as Cooper-Young with its many shops, restaurants, eclectic homes and residents, and a festival that draws over 100,000 every year.

Innovation is the home field advantage

A smart city must play to its strengths and leverage its assets for future success. So says Allan Daisley, director of Entrepreneurship & Sustainability for the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and director of its ZeroTo510 medical device accelerator program. Both are located within the world class Medical Center, home to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Hospital and the VA hospital, to name a few.

Industry leaders such as Smith & Nephew, Wright Medical and Medtronic have long taken advantage of Memphis’s position as America’s Distribution Center. Now Memphis is building on this strength. Others will follow as Bioworks, ZeroTo510 and start-up incubator Start Co. invest in and facilitate the rise of the next generation of innovators and game changers.

The Medical Center, with its 17,000-employee ecosystem of buildings, streets, parks and common spaces, sits a short trolley ride away from downtown. Between the two is a rectangle of tangled streets and underutilized warehouse and shop space. Currently known as the Edge District, it is fertile ground for the proposed Innovation District. The intent is to refurbish and renovate it for next-generation businesses like tech companies.

Last January, a team of urban planners, part of the Urban Land Institute’s Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, toured the Medical Center and Edge District to make recommendations on ways to better utilize the area and its assets.

“We have so many smart people going there and working every day, and most of them don’t live there, there are limited things to do there,” Fuhrmann said. “We’d really like to spark an Innovation District that encourages accidental connections over a beer or over a cup of coffee where a scientist from St. Jude and people from Bioworks happen to bump into each other.”

The power of ‘bootstrapping’

A smart city’s assets can be readymade, such as a commanding view from the high ground overlooking the Mississippi River, or they can be created from the ground up, such as the burgeoning arts and culture scene in walkable neighborhoods like Overton Square.

One advantage of Broad Avenue, says Pacello, are the mid-century buildings of relatively manageable size. “They were the size building an end user could step into, [one that] doesn’t have any redevelopment experience, and figure out how to renovate it.”

The renovation possibilities are more easily imagined and can be realized more easily than larger buildings. The growth has been “bootstrapped,” Pacello says, with micro-investments of $20,000 from community members. The “New Face for an Old Broad” campaign has realized $20 million in private investment and created over 25 new businesses in the area.

“An interesting thing about Broad is that none of the [developments] are over a million dollars, it’s just all been totally bootstrapped,” Pacello says. “The cool thing… was that it wasn’t just that one event. They were tenacious about following up and saying ‘What can I do next, what sort of small, tactical intervention can I do that will draw attention to this neighborhood?’”

The citizens continued with their art walks and food truck rodeos, and they introduced a night market and community building projects. The Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team helped them to develop retail incubators and pocket parks. “These little bitty things helped provide texture to that neighborhood, and that’s what has kept it, I think, relevant,” says Pacello.

Nearby, at Sears Crosstown, the challenge is more complex. Instead of relying on smaller entrepreneurs, the developers have called upon the city’s vast healthcare and educational resources, finding interest for the future space from the Church Health Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and many others.

In the Innovation District, as well, the majority of the buildings in need of renovation are larger than the ones on Broad. It will be a test of the city and the UDC to know just how flexible codes can be, just how willing the city is to work with entrepreneurs and innovators.

Newstok’s message to other cities looking to become smarter is to not give up, that persistence pays off. She works with neighborhood associations to realize their dreams, and she realizes that many of those dreams take time. But she also knows that the desires of a community will be heard if its voice is loud enough and if those dreams are viable.

“We might not have a lot of resources,” she says, “but it is sheer will making all of this happen.”

A version of this story first appeared in High Ground, a new online magazine dedicated to covering innovation in Memphis. Issue Media Group is a national media company that covers “what’s next” for cities through a network of over 20 publications in cities across the U.S.