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So excited to be kicking off the Memphis Boot Camp today with Mayor A C Wharton Jr. I've had a chance to chat with the mayor and have been really inspired by his leadership. He didn't disappoint today.

Annexation is not where the action is.  

-Mayor Wharton

Memphis has long covered up its long term financial problems with the short term fix of annexation. Not any more. Mayor Wharton started the Boot Camp by letting people know that "annexation is not where the action is." That's a HUGE step in the right direction. By focusing in instead of out, Memphis is now going to be playing to its strengths.

The downtown and core neighborhoods of Memphis are really the low hanging fruit in terms of high returning investments, places where we can spend three and four figures instead in seven and get even higher returns doing so.

And just as important, these are places where we can improve the city's financial health while simultaneously improving the quality of life for the people that live there. With incremental neighborhood investments, we make people's lives better and do it in a way that will benefit everyone.


Building a Strong Memphis

Following World War II, Memphis embraced America’s new strategy for growth and prosperity intended to solve the most pressing social problem of the day: the poor condition of Memphis after decades of industrialization. 

The new strategy was suburbanization. Relying on the automobile to facilitate growth by horizontally expanding the city, Memphis shifted away from the traditional pattern of neighborhood development and played its part in building the American Dream of large yards, easy driving, and free parking. 

Suburbanization, sold as a way to cure blight and promote prosperity, was radically new and untested. It was also irresistible. Driven by federal programs and financial incentives, Memphis – like most American cities – built highways through the middle of the city, annexed property and extended public utilities outward. 

In the process, core neighborhoods were destroyed and residents relocated to neighborhoods built in the new, experimental style. Streetcars were abandoned and the economic activity at the old stops shifted to new commercial corridors. Old buildings were torn down to provide parking and millions of tax dollars were spent widening streets to accommodate the automobiles now necessary for daily life.

Eventually, the vitality of the city was inverted from its traditional historic pattern of a strong core surrounded by incrementally growing neighborhoods to one where most economic activity took place on the edge. While this shift left many people behind and devastated the historic neighborhoods of Memphis, the result was seen largely as a social problem, not an economic one. Easy growth on the periphery – where land is cheap, the development community is ready, and all the government incentives are in place – was then, and remains today, the community’s default strategy for economic improvement.

There is no question that suburbanization creates growth. In fact, it produced decades of the most robust growth ever experienced. 

Yet, despite the incredible growth, enduring prosperity remains elusive for most American cities, including Memphis.

Hard bankruptcies like Detroit and San Bernardino grab headlines, but most cities struggle against the soft default where police officers and fire fighters are laid off, pensions are underfunded, services are cut, and routine maintenance is delayed, all while taxes creep up. In such a successful country, how can our cities be so fragile?

The answer is that we have mistaken growth for wealth creation. Memphis does not lack growth; it lacks productive growth through transactions that build the community’s wealth over time.
When cities expand horizontally, they trade the immediate increase in revenue that comes along with expansion for the long-term liability of maintaining and servicing the new, far-flung infrastructure. 
When cities expand horizontally, they trade the immediate increase in revenue that comes along with expansion for the long-term liability of maintaining and servicing the new, far-flung infrastructure. In the short term, this creates an illusion of wealth as everything is brand new and the costs to the local government are minimal. Over time, however, as the maintenance bill comes due, cities find that the spread-out and expensive nature of this pattern of development overwhelms any revenue stream. Instead of building wealth, our post-World War II approach destroys it.

Perversely, the answer to fiscal difficulty has been to generate more growth. More annexation, more subdivisions, more roads, more utilities, and more subsidies provide the quick cash that solves the short-term financial problem. When development inside the core city is considered, it generally takes the form of more massive gambles – new convention centers or huge retail complexes, for instance, driven by loads of municipal debt and tax breaks – that fail to hold their value over the long term. Of course, these exchanges only makes the long-term insolvency problem that much more critical.

Memphis is now six decades into the suburban experiment. We are all experiencing the costs of this American dream; it is time to wake up and understand why. We need to end investments in this experimental pattern of development, along with the many direct and indirect subsidies that make it possible. We need to return to a pattern of development that creates neighborhoods of value, focused on improving the lives of people and not just their automobiles. 

When we build these kinds of strong towns, we will inevitably rediscover our traditional values of prudence and thrift as well as the value of community and place.

Charles Marohn is the president of Strong Towns, a non-profit organization that helps America's towns achieve financial strength and resiliency.  He will appear as part of the Urban Land Institute’s “Bootstrap Cities: The Case For Agility” free public lecture series on Tuesday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the High Point Ballroom. Visit for more information.



Reversing Sprawl through Connectivity

We will try to provide periodic updates here this week from the Memphis Boot Camp, but you can follow everything that is going on at and at #membootcamp.

We will start the week by posting an op-ed by the Mayor of the city of Memphis, A.C. Wharton, Jr..

Last week, Smart Growth America released “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” a report examining development in 221 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. and evaluating development on a national index. With a score of 71, the greater Memphis region ranks near the bottom of the list at number 196 out of 221. Furthermore, Memphis ranks as the sixth most sprawled large metropolitan area.

Photo: Billy Hathorn CC-BY-SA-3.0While these findings are disappointing, they are not surprising. The Memphis region has shown a pattern of sprawled development over several decades. Between 1970 and 2010, the city of Memphis population increased by 4 percent (619,757 to 645,237), while the geographic area of the city increased by 55 percent (208 square miles to 323 square miles). This is why the work we’ve done over the last few years, starting with Sustainable Shelby, to create a more sustainable city and region is so important for our future.

Since 2010, Memphis officials have worked to improve conditions for persons using bikes and have embarked on an ambitious process to create new bike infrastructure throughout the city. The result of 71 new miles of dedicated bike lanes, shared-use paths, and bikes are increased bicycle usage (double the usage in 2008) and improved safety (number of accidents reduced by 35 percent since 2008). Most of these new miles were achieved through coordination with ongoing repaving projects and did not require any new budgetary considerations in order to create on-street bicycle lanes. With an understanding of projects planned for the next three years, Memphis is expected to once again double the miles of bicycle-specific infrastructure within its limits by 2016.

The city achieved national recognition for its rapid progress towards becoming more bicycle friendly. In 2012, Bicycling magazine named Memphis the “Most Improved City for Cycling” after naming it to the “worst” list in both 2008 and 2010.

The city of Memphis is a partner with Shelby County government on the Mid-South Regional Greenprint and Sustainability Plan, a tri-state planning effort to connect green space and bike infrastructure across four counties in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. This ambitious effort not only calls for 400 miles of new trails over the next 25 years, but serves as a framework for managing growth across the region by placing an emphasis on balancing our most critical ecological areas with our population and employment centers to achieve the greatest value from infrastructure investments.

The need for this connection between housing and employment can be seen clearly in the Airport City area surrounding the Memphis International Airport. Considering that the Airport City area is Memphis’ largest employment center, Memphis developed a master plan for the area to encourage businesses and residents to locate closer to this center of commerce.

The plan provides recommendations that demonstrate the benefits of the last mile connectivity for manufacturers and distributors. For those who work in the area, the plan provides recommendations for greater opportunities for decent, affordable housing so individuals can have choices to live near where they work.

The city of Memphis, through the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, is focused on using data to identify those areas in the core of the city where small, tactical investments generate a high return. This has been seen in the revival of Broad Avenue in Binghampton, South Memphis, Overton Square, Crosstown and other citizen-led creative placemaking efforts. Over the past two years, Memphis is cleaning up our older neighborhoods and investing our time and money in our core city neighborhoods that generate high returns. For example, city investments in Crosstown, Overton Square and Broad Avenue are returning people to the core of the city where we have seen a 40-50 percent reduction in vacancy rates in these areas.

These initiatives work in concert with a host of other programs being implemented throughout the region. As we finalize the plans for the Blueprint for Prosperity, a program to reduce the number of Memphians in poverty, initiatives targeted towards reducing sprawl will play an integral role in ensuring that all Memphians have access to jobs and resources. This administration is highly committed to reversing the negative trends of the past decades.