Reversing Sun Belt Growth Model, Memphis Looks to Shrink Its Footprint

Memphis swallowed territory at a rapid pace in the 20th Century, and policy makers now believe the city is spread too thin. Image via Modern Cities
Memphis swallowed territory at a rapid pace in the 20th Century, and policy makers now believe the city is spread too thin. Image via Modern Cities

Like many Sun Belt cities, Memphis owes its population growth over the last several decades to outward expansion. Since 1998 alone, the city has overseen 15 annexations, reports the Jacksonville-based blog Modern Cities.

But while it was sprawling (it now occupies a larger footprint than Chicago) its population density was decreasing by about half. Now the city believes that some of its farthest flung territory is more liability than asset.

Modern Cities explains:

In essence, Memphis is looking to slowly de-sprawl itself. If [a Memphis task force’s] recommendations on de-annexation are approved, such actions would not be enacted until 2021, after the next municipal election. Memphis’ sprawling landscape happened over several decades, so it would be reasonable not to expect the unfurling of these corrections to happen overnight.

The timing of the task force also coincides with the formation of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first comprehensive strategic plan since 1981. If all goes according to schedule, Memphis 3.0 would be voted into law in 2019 — the same year Memphis celebrates its 200th birthday. The population of Memphis would have shrunk since the end of World War II if not for the costly and often unpopular annexations that are now being considered for reversal. The non-organic nature of this growth scheme, coupled with decreases in average per capita income within these new city limits, has meant that less tax revenue is available to pay the costs of running a city whose footprint (and per-capita expenses) has ballooned to unsustainable levels.

The City’s task force has recommended that seven areas be considered for de-annexation. Most the areas recommended are low density, rural areas with little infrastructure — like sewer systems. If approved, de-annexing these areas would reduce the city’s footprint 8 percent, its population 1.2 percent and its operating revenue 1.1 percent. In real terms, $7.6 million in net revenue and 10,672 residents would no longer be on Memphis’ books. However, factoring in savings from a decrease in public safety and infrastructure costs, almost $1 million in net savings would be realized in the short term. In the long term, not being on the hook for deferred infrastructure maintenance costs and planned public safety facilities could offer the potential for significant cost-savings over the next 30-40 years.

More so than just the short-term cost savings, shrinking the city for the first time in decades represents a monumental change in the mindset of city officials. Memphis is larger in size than Chicago, but with only a fraction of the density of the Windy City, the city has spread itself too thin. A conscious recognition of the perils of this sprawling growth model means that municipal budgets can be re-prioritized to enhance services to existing neighborhoods instead of looking for new areas to swallow whole.

More recommended reading: At Planetizen, three professors recommend policies for cities in response to the potential introduction of self-driving cars. Transport Providence says city residents should call their their representatives in Congress and insist on a “fix it first” policy for infrastructure investment. And Reinventing Parking says that rather than lowering parking minimums, cities should be entirely eliminating them, like Buffalo.

  • New York should take this approach, and should rid itself of Staten Island.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The only problem is that despite all that sprawl, the tax base is still moving over the city line. Bartlett, Germantown, and Southaven and Olive Branch Mississippi are separate, and attracting office, stores and warehouses.

    So Memphis annexed an narrow area between them that doesn’t make any sense.

    For now the main office and retail tax base of the metro is in East Memphis, within city borders, after having left downtown, and the main industrial tax base is still in south Memphis, around the airport.

    Tennessee has one of the lowest state and local tax burdens in the country. But even at that, businesses and the affluent will still move a few more miles to avoid sharing a municipal tax base with the poor.

  • Memphis doesn’t really qualify as a “Sun-Belt” city, though it is an old riverboat city a lot like Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Vicksburg. Memphis has a fair amount in-common with Cleveland for that matter, as a hub of water-borne and later railroad and highway commerce that has seen better days thanks to unfair trade and corporate merger that haven’t gone as well as hoped-for.

    Now Pontiac, MI downsized some since several General Motors plants that had been there closed, robbing the city of the continuing ability to plan for any growth, and perhaps even Cleveland might consider selling off some of its suburban fringe to any interested buyer in order to concentrate on strengthening its core too?

    How about Cleveland selling off its far west side to Lakewood, Fairview Park, Rocky River, and Berea and trying to concentrate on rebuilding and strengthening core neighborhoods, or perhaps some of its southern fringe neighborhoods down by I-480? Could the southern part of Old Brooklyn become part of Parma?

    Maybe divest the University Circle area to Cleveland Heights or the eastern part of Kinsman to Shaker Heights, in order to get suburban help in strengthening those neighborhoods, and/or maintaining crumbling infrastructure?

    I still can’t understand the millennial craze with self-driving cars as we already have self-driving cars. Just call Yellow Cab and one will show up at your door, and take you wherever you want to go Do you honestly think that self-driving cars will be some vast improvement over taxicabs?

    Remember that people have to have enough money to rent a taxicab no matter who are what is driving it. Remember what happened when Arnold didn’t want to pay his Johnny Cab driver?

    The question all comes back to income or lack thereof. Why not turn the worst-off part of Cleveland’s east side into several 18-hole golf courses, such as Chicago did around its former industrial harbor there along the Bishop Ford freeway? Either that or try to turn large areas into urban farms such as a recent program in Detroit is trying to do?

    How about instead of building casinos downtown you build them right on Cleveland’s border with its suburbs and make it as easy as possible for suburban residents to come gambling? How about bringing a decent-sized motor speedway to inner-city Cleveland just like Chicago did out on its southwest side, that would take-up some vacant land and bring more money into the city?

    Do anything at-all possible to bring in outside spending while at the same time finding a paying use for currently under-occupied land. Remember that it takes money to make money and Cleveland will be a lot better off.

  • Fred

    Are you talking about Chicagoland Motor Speedway? It’s in suburban Joliet, almost 50 miles from downtown.

  • No, the former Chicago Motor Speedway at Sportsman Park., which was a mile banked oval on Cicero north of the Stevenson, north of where Hawthorne race track is. It was only open for a few years from the late 1990s through 2004. Allegedly the declining economy did it in.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Motor_Speedway

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