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That's Sprawl, Folks

Memphis' "growth" is coming from poor land management, not a population increase.



Growth means progress. It's an American myth probably carried over from our frontier heritage -- the taming of a vast, undeveloped continent. But cities across the country are beginning to realize unchecked, inefficient growth, often referred to as urban sprawl, really means a loss of open space, more time in traffic, and higher taxes due to strains on infrastructure.

Recently analyzed data found Memphis' sprawling growth comes not so much from increased population but poor land usage. Between 1982 and 1992, the amount of urbanized land in Memphis shot up 38 percent, while our population grew by only 10 percent. The city's loss of population density ranks third in the nation behind only Nashville and New Orleans. Such a change is an important factor in determining "bad growth," says Professor Rolf Pendall of Cornell University, who analyzed government data on more than 200 American cities in a recent Sierra Club report.

"While population is an important predictor of how much land we will consume, it is only part of the story," Pendall says. "It is clear that population increases are not the only contributor to sprawl. Increasing population growth is most problematic when it happens in regions with poor land-use decision making. In those regions, our open spaces are being devoured at the highest rates in the nation."

Nationally, Pendall says only 30 percent of urban sprawl can be attributed to population growth; most sprawl is a result of poor land-use decisions. The population of Portland, Oregon, and Atlanta, Georgia, grew at about the same rate in the mid-1980s, but Atlanta's lack of growth regulations caused the suburbs to grow at 100 times the rate of the city, while Portland's stricter laws checked the city's sprawl, resulting in a more compact, pedestrian-friendly urban area.

Tennessee requires its cities to submit growth plans, but John Lawrence, director of planning with the Center City Commission (CCC), says suburban subsidies and cheaper construction costs push the majority of the city's new construction projects into the suburbs. Land costs are much cheaper: $2 per square foot in the suburbs compared to $8 downtown. Renovation of historic buildings is even more expensive, Lawrence says -- around $60 or $70 per square foot, compared to less than $50 in the suburbs.

The CCC is trying to level the playing field for downtown development with special loans and tax freezes. Though it may be more expensive in the short-term, downtown projects are a better investment, Lawrence says. "It is cheaper to build in the suburbs, but our community, through taxes and utility costs, is also subsidizing it," Lawrence adds. "This prices many [developers] out of new, more costly inner-city opportunities and leaves much of the existing infrastructure in disrepair. It also adds to increased traffic congestion and longer commute times. The result is higher taxes, higher utility costs, and lower quality of life for all citizens."

Though Memphis' remaining undeveloped perimeter continues to be gobbled up by mini-malls and housing tracts, the recent development boom downtown shows some Memphians are trading sprawling, car-dependent suburbs for more space-efficient, pedestrian-friendly downtown living.

Born and raised downtown, developer Kevin Norman of BHN Corporation says it's just a matter of time before people realize how much nicer it is to have your office, home, and living needs all within walking distance of each other.

"Have you ever been downtown on Main Street on a Saturday afternoon?" Norman asks. "It's got this relaxed, easy-going pace. Compare that to the traffic happening on Germantown Parkway and you'll understand why I'm living down here."

Norman says he believes so strongly in Memphis and the benefits of downtown living he bought the old Tennessee Brewery. Built in 1890, the brewery's neo-gothic architecture and commanding river views are a historical treasure Norman thinks the city shouldn't lose.

"Nothing has been done with the brewery up to this point because the numbers don't immediately work," Norman says. "But I have faith that this city will come around and the brewery will be an important part of downtown's redevelopment."

Norman says workers are finishing up the "mothballing" phase, which will keep the brewery's structure from further degradation until a development plan is established. Though he encourages suggestions from the community, Norman says he is considering making the brewery a combined living and working space for artists.

Lawrence says mixing retail, office, and living space is what is most encouraged for downtown. Having everything an individual needs in one location cuts down on the need for automobile transportation and simplifies living.

Sprawl is one of the most important issues communities are facing today, Lawrence says, whether they know it or not. But by recognizing the problems associated with suburban growth and encouraging smart downtown re-development, Lawrence says Memphis can learn from the mistakes of the past and rebuild on the foundations once left abandoned.

You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at

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