Designing the Medical Center for Creative Collisions


Archie Willis III

The Memphis Medical Center near Downtown is currently in the midst of a significant building boom. Major new facilities by Southwest Tennessee Community College, University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the Bioworks Foundation are underway or nearing completion, joining successful hospitals, clinics, educational institutions and many other great small businesses.

Unfortunately, however, this area also contains underused public parks, vacant lots, and blighted eyesores that keep the district from meeting its full potential.

The area’s dense concentration of researchers, academics, and skilled knowledge workers makes the Medical Center ideally suited to develop into a thriving center of innovative businesses. In order for the district to reach its potential, it must be designed in a way that facilitates “creative collisions” – the informal but often amazingly productive interactions between concepts and capital. Where sound ideas that meet the needs of tomorrow’s market encounter the material resources they need, our economic future grows brighter.

How can we use this district’s momentum to develop more properties and accelerate the creation of innovative new businesses in the growing healthcare and life sciences industries?

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and the Urban Land Institute (ULI) are eager to tackle this challenge. ULI is a research and leadership institute dedicated to the responsible use of land and creating thriving communities worldwide; ULI’s Memphis chapter was founded seven years ago. Late last year, Wharton was invited to join ULI’s prestigious Daniel Rose Fellowship program along with the mayors of Indianapolis, Honolulu and Portland, Ore.

Wharton will use this one-year experience to address a unique challenge for the Medical Center. The work begins this week, as ULI is sending some of the brightest minds in the country in the fields of real estate, city planning and architecture to Memphis for a visit. Their task is to familiarize themselves with the Medical Center area and develop a sound understanding of what is already working there – great hospitals and schools, successful life science companies, proximity to Downtown, and one of the most progressive building codes in the city.

This initial study visit culminates in a public presentation of their findings on Friday. What will this initial study visit yield? We don’t know – and that is precisely the point. This week’s work represents only the beginning of a long process that will lead us to a new understanding of how to approach one of our city’s most critical and potentially vital areas.

How can we shape our city’s built and regulatory environments to make it easy for businesses to start and grow? How can we bring more workers and their families to live in and around the district, adding to area’s 24/7 vibrancy? How can local government, nonprofits and developers work together on a vision for shared prosperity and job growth in this part of our city?

Answering these questions and others is the goal of the ULI Rose Fellowship, and they are fundamental to making sure that the momentum we achieved last year in Memphis’ Medical Center and Downtown core can be sustained, built upon and advanced in the year ahead.

Archie Willis is the founder and president of Community Capital and a board member of the ULI Memphis District Council. More information about the Rose Fellowship’s work in Memphis can be found at