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VOL. 123 | NO. 135 | Friday, July 11, 2008

Wharton Unveils Initiative For Sustainable County

By Andy Meek

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“If you’re thinking, ‘We’re unworthy, we’re just Memphis, we can’t do it’ – stop it.”
– Doug Farr
Chicago-based urban designer

Over the next three months, the administration of Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. will be creating plans of action around several of the top “smart growth” recommendations that emerged from a four-month planning effort spearheaded by the county mayor.?Those recommendations were unveiled this week by Wharton, who addressed a packed auditorium Tuesday in what was the culmination of Wharton’s “Sustainable Shelby” initiative.

The finished product is a development blueprint built around suggestions for making more of Shelby County walkable, centered around eco-friendly neighborhoods and increasingly free from the effects of suburban sprawl.

When in Stuttgart

Wharton, who returned a few days before the presentation from a fact-finding trip to Germany to study transportation issues, even managed to stay on-message when joking about why audience members were only given excerpts of a 52-page report outlining the effort.?

“At a time that we’re planning to plant a million trees at Shelby Farms Park, we didn’t want to cut down a few thousand to print the full report today,” he joked.?The full report, which also was shaped by a telephone survey of local households conducted by pollster Steve Ethridge, can be found at www.dpdgov.com.?

“We completed a scientific survey of Shelby County residents to see what they thought about this whole issue,” Ethridge said. “Our firm was asked to develop a public research study. … Respondents were selected at random from the White Pages.”?

The survey found more than 90 percent approval for several of the effort’s broad goals, such as the idea that a renewed emphasis should be placed on maintaining existing local neighborhoods.

Green-tinted lenses

Among the recommendations regarded as most important by participants in the planning effort is the creation of and reinvestment in “a great public realm that includes parks, schools, streets and plazas that are appropriately scaled.”

Other recommendations at the top of the list include neighborhood reinvestment, producing a comprehensive development plan for Memphis and Shelby County and designing new public buildings that are flexible and can adapt to potential future changes.?

To get an idea of the intellectual framework of the planning process, Portland, Ore., economist Joe Cortright pointed out at the “Sustainable Shelby” kickoff event in March that if Memphis-area residents cut back the average daily mileage they drive by 1.6 miles, it would generate $260 million in annual savings.?

“I just spent a week in Germany, a country that’s losing population and where gasoline is now past $8 a gallon,” Wharton said.

“But guess what? They’re not whining. The only whining sound you hear in Stuttgart is a train going by that’s jam-packed. … One guy told us years ago people said you look stupid riding a bicycle. Now the only people who look stupid in Berlin are those driving to work. Alone. In a car. I say that, because it provides the backdrop for our deliberations today.”

The world according to Farr

Architects, developers, city planners and a host of other local stakeholders participated in the planning discussions over the past few months.

Wharton called the book by Chicago-based urban designer Doug Farr titled “Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design With Nature” the textbook for the planning effort.?In remarks at the Memphis Botanic Garden this week, Farr urged audience members to pursue sustainable design for a variety of reasons, including the public health benefits.

And he challenged doubters that it can be done in Memphis.?“If you’re thinking, ‘We’re unworthy, we’re just Memphis, we can’t do it’ – stop it,” he said.?

Wharton organized the planning effort to develop “smart growth” recommendations around seven committees. They covered the areas of transportation and traffic, public buildings and public purchasing, neighborhood rebirth, public incentives, building codes and land use and development.?

Each of the committees ranked a series of recommendations, which members of the public then ranked by importance at a June forum at the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis.?

“Today, for the first time in our history, we have a sustainability agenda and a clear message,” Wharton said. “That this has been done in only four months – some of you said I was crazy for suggesting that – (it) speaks as much to the urgency of our mission as to the ambition of our schedule.?

“Shelby County is now on an unsustainable journey to the future. But with this new roadmap, we have the chance for a different destination. One with walkable and bikeable neighborhoods … so we can quit bequeathing the cost of our lifestyle to our children and our grandchildren.”

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