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 Memphis.ULI.org for more information.