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How Memphis lets neighborhoods drive revitalization work

Submitted by douglas cooley on April 16, 2014

Neighborhood revitalization work in Memphis underscores the idea that community involvement is key to creating better cities.  

In its article, What smart cities can learn from Memphis, High Ground News examines how that city set aside its standard planning process in favor of neighborhood-driven projects -– projects that have begun to transform several districts and curb urban sprawl.

As an example, the report looks at the creation of the Broad Avenue Arts District in the neglected neighborhood of Binghampton in Midtown Memphis. “Through a series of festivals, pop-up markets and the unwavering dedication of a handful of restaurateurs and retailers -– and one gutsy action of citizens hand-painting bicycle lanes and head-in parking spaces along the street –- the stakeholders proved to the city what could be done and made clear what it was they wanted to see in their neighborhood.”

Such grassroots efforts prompted the city to adopt a Unified Development Code that brings neighborhood representatives into the design process sooner and establishes greater flexibility for redevelopment in the city.

Some key takeaways of the Memphis story are:

  • Rigid long-range planning can miss the mark. City planning departments may achieve better results if they adopt a nimble and flexible position toward redevelopment.
  • Encouraging small neighborhood improvements such as pop-up shops and street festivals is a good way to start when trying to gauge a neighborhood’s interest in revitalization. If residents respond to these types of improvements, cities may want to consider moving forward with infrastructure upgrades such as better sewers, street lights, and pedestrian and bike pathways to connect the neighborhood to other districts.
  • Cities should look to leverage the assets that exist in a neighborhood in the redevelopment process. This might be a built-in feature like spectacular view or waterfront location, or the cultural and historical elements found there.

To learn about practices that support citizen engagement and what other cities have done to bring citizens into their planning work, download the Smart Cities Readiness Guide (a free, one-time registration is required.)  Another great resource on this topic is EcoDistricts, a member of the Council's Advisory Board and an advocacy group equipped with the people, tools, services and training to help cities and urban development practitioners create the neighborhoods of  the future.