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George Abbott

George Abbott is director of external affairs for Memphis River Parks Partnership. Before arriving in Memphis in 2018, Abbott was director of community and national initiatives for the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Why we need Memphis 3.0

By Published: April 10, 2019 5:21 PM CT

As the Memphis City Council prepares to consider the city’s first long-range plan in decades, advocates have raised their voices in support or opposition. The plan has been compared to “genocide” and the specter of “gentrification” has been raised. The debate over what is, essentially a guiding document for the growth trajectory of the city has become hyperbolic and divorced from reality.

<strong>George Abbott</strong>

George Abbott

First of all, it’s important to consider what the plan actually does (and doesn’t) do. It lays out a vision that will guide city leaders, developers and investors as they consider where investments are made. The plan is guided by the thesis that Memphis is a city of equity and opportunity.

It calls for connected communities that are sustainable, thriving and provide opportunity for all. A plan does not gentrify neighborhoods and displace existing residents. In fact, it seeks to provide the framework to avoid exactly that happening and to guide and coordinate investment so that it has broad-based benefit.

Since 1970, Memphis has doubled in size geographically, but added only 4% more people. That means that we have much more land and infrastructure to maintain but we haven’t grown our population commensurately to provide the revenue to do that.

The complaints about potholes or lack of city investment in amenities like parks and libraries are a symptom of the sprawl that has stretched the city’s budget so thin. Sprawl also places strain on social infrastructure as residents must spend more time commuting from place to place instead of enjoying time with friends and family. Memphis 3.0’s focus on “building up not out” is an attempt to reverse this trend.

As we’ve spread out, we’ve also become more divided economically. We’re losing mixed-income neighborhoods and self-segregating into communities of similar economic status. That’s bad for opportunity.

The Harvard economist Raj Chetty’s work has demonstrated that there is a strong link between the economic circumstances that a child grows up in (the surrounding neighborhood, not just their parents economic level) and their future success, or otherwise. Poor kids who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods tend to earn more, and are less likely to be incarcerated, than children who grow up in exclusively poor neighborhoods.

So, if we care about expanding opportunity, and giving everyone a fair shot to succeed, we need to create more mixed-income neighborhoods. Economic segregation entrenches privilege and harms lower-income communities.

But won’t all of this investment gentrify communities and displace longtime residents? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Memphis is a long way away from rampant property speculation and accelerated development patterns that we hear about happening along the coasts. This is still a city where residential development Downtown – the city’s hottest real estate market – requires subsidy in order to be economically viable. The one benefit of the aforementioned sprawl is that we have a lot of space and, according to the plan, an “overwhelming number of vacant and blighted structures.”

Neighborhoods are not static. They’re constantly evolving. The urban economist Joe Cortright’s "Lost in Place" report found that from 1970 through 2010, the number of poor Memphis residents living in high-poverty neighborhoods rose by about 10% (from 93,000 to 104,000) but the number of high-poverty neighborhoods almost doubled (from 42 to 78).

That's a clear signal of economic segregation. Only six neighborhoods in Memphis “rebounded” to move from a high-poverty neighborhood to one where the poverty rate is below average. Of far greater concern is the 45 neighborhoods that declined in that time to become high-poverty neighborhoods.

Without focused investment, neighborhoods are likely to continue to lose population and stifle opportunity for the people within them. And we can’t afford for that to happen. We’re already a city with a poverty rate ten points higher than average in the state of Tennessee and median incomes are almost $15,000 lower here than they are across the state.

Memphis 3.0 is not a perfect plan, no plan ever will be when it has to balance so many constituencies and long- and short-term priorities. Memphis 3.0 also doesn’t give everyone what they want. It can’t. Government (and planning) is a series of compromises that seek to chart the best path forward for the majority of constituents. What it does is lay out a vision for how we want to grow.

And it’s important. Without a structure, planning and zoning decisions are made in a vacuum without consideration of long-term benefits or hindrances. This means that decisions can be influenced by those with the loudest voices or deepest pockets. Memphis 3.0 lays out a long-term structure and vision that will guide decision-making.

Should a deviation from the plan be recommended, it will need to be publicly justified, thus increasing transparency and accountability. As we step boldly into the city’s third century, let’s commit to how we want to build our city for the long term.

The Daily Memphian welcomes a diverse range of views and invites readers to submit guest columns by contacting Peggy Burch, community engagement editor, at pburch@dailymemphian.com.

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Memphis 3.0

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