Maybe, as local architect Lee Askew put it the other day, Memphians simply can't see the forest for the trees. Literally.
Though residents may not notice just how many trees grow in Memphis, visitors are often surprised at how green the city is. Maurice Cox, a former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, and associate professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, was certainly surprised. "This seems like a city within a park," he said.
Cox and Askew were two panelists at the University of Memphis' "Urban Design and Placemaking: A Dialogue for Change" symposium last week. Held in connection with the university's Turley Fellowship (created last year by developer and Flyer board member Henry Turley), the symposium brought local leaders together with experts from Harvard and the cities of Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Nashville to start a dialogue about placemaking in Memphis.
"Every building has to be understood as a building block of the community," said J. Stroud Watson, an architect in Chattanooga. "The streets, the sidewalks, parks, and plazas are all public space, but the buildings are what frame it."
During a day-long discussion, the panelists spoke on a variety of topics, including the importance of building structures that can be used for more than one purpose, both for the sake of the physical environment and the city's collective psyche.
"Yesterday we were shown a historic building that the developer wasn't sure could be saved," said Cox. "I was looking at a building that I know can be saved and is the very embodiment of the downtown fabric."
According to Ann Coulter, the visiting Turley Fellow and the driving force behind the symposium, the panel did not have a set goal when it began. "We didn't want to hem in the discussion," she said. "The focus is not just on what you do, but how you do it."
Recently, in partnership with neighborhood groups, the University of Memphis launched the University District Initiative to address social, health, urban design, and safety issues in the neighborhoods surrounding the school.
"I crossed the street yesterday to go to the Holiday Inn," said panelist William McFarland, director of the Atlanta Renewal Community Coordinating Responsibility Authority. "[We're] on a college campus?! It was frightening."
Even though only 10 percent of students live on campus, the University of Memphis has tried to create an environment that doesn't shout "commuter college." The school doesn't want students to feel like they could simply drive up to their classes. But that perhaps has created a sea of parking lots surrounding the campus, which, to some of the panel, isolated the school from the rest of the city.
"Universities have a way of weakening and collapsing the neighborhoods around them. No one wants to live near loud parties," said Askew. "There used to be houses from here to Poplar. Now there's a parking lot."
But if there's a time for change, it's now. "These were professional observers, and they saw it immediately," said Coulter. "The panelists from out of town commented over and over how the timing is right. The city is ready. The university is ready. The development community is ready. Everyone's really excited about the opportunities they see."
Coulter said the group is first taking time to reflect — and to transcribe all the comments — before they decide their next steps. I hope it somehow includes Cox's idea of Memphis as a city within a park.
I've heard enough people mention the city's wonderful tree canopy to think that Memphis may be overlooking an untapped opportunity.
Frank Ricks, principal of Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, mentioned that he has heard that one of the main reasons people leave Memphis is a lack of recreational activities. But maybe the city needs to frame the question — or the answer — better.
"Instead of wishing for mountains or an ocean," added Askew, "we should see what we have."
What if the city committed to the vision of a city inside a park? What would it be like to live in a uniformly lush, yet urban environment? Would people feel more inclined to visit Memphis? It may be last week's Earth Day talking, but tree-lined streets seem marketable to me. Especially as the country becomes more urban.
A group of arborists and activists recently approached the City Council about applying for the Tree City, U.S.A. program, a designation that says a city commits to a certain level of tree management.
Memphis is the largest city in Tennessee to not have this designation. The administration didn't make any promises — cities have to spend a certain amount on tree maintenance each year — but it could be a good first step.
Especially if it would mean turning a concrete jungle into an urban forest.