VOL. 130 | NO. 88 | Wednesday, May 6, 2015
By Don Wade
When John Michels was a kid going to nature camps with his family and hiking with his brother and cousins, he was taking the first steps along his career path.
“We’d sort of learn how to survive in the woods and build shelters, learn about ecosystems,” Michels said of his days growing up in New Jersey, and then later trips to upstate New York by Lake George. “I started doing a lot of hiking in the Adirondack Mountains.
As the Greater Memphis Chamber’s greenprint coordinator, John Michels, 27, will oversee the Mid-South Regional Greenprint Plan. “Memphis is just so full of potential and this plan is illustrative of that,” he said.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“From a young age,” Michels added, “that instilled in me a sense of environmentalism.”
Those experiences started the journey to where he is now: beginning his position as greenprint coordinator with the Greater Memphis Chamber.
Michels most recently worked as the director of communications and trail programs for the American Hiking Society in Washington, D.C. He graduated from Vanderbilt University with a degree in economics and environmental public policy.
At AHS, he led national outreach to federal and state agencies, trail and recreation clubs, national nonprofits and outdoor retailers. He also helped coordinate the launch of the “Families on Foot Initiative” and facilitated the National Trails Fund grant program.
Since 2011, the Mid-South Regional Greenprint Plan has involved more than 80 organizations and included more than 100 meetings with 4,000 citizens. The Greenprint Plan will connect 95 percent of existing parks and will create 500 miles of off-street greenway trails and create 200 miles of on-street bike lanes. The plan is one of the moon missions of the chamber’s Chairman’s Circle.
The plan, which began with a $2.6 million federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, covers 25 years and is currently operating under a two-year grant from the Hyde Family Foundations. So Michels, 27, has signed on for a big job.
“What we’re trying to do in this transition phase in the next two years is to go ahead and get projects on the ground,” said John Zeanah of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Sustainability. “But we also want to structure the long-term administration and funding of the greenprint initiative so we can be sure the plan gets implemented over its 25-year horizon rather than just end up sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
“So what we wanted to see for this position was someone who had a background of being able to leverage funding, create program opportunities, keep people engaged and excited about projects so we can carry the momentum from the planning effort.”
Kelly Rayne, senior vice president of community development at the chamber, said one of Michels’ primary tasks will be to develop “collaborative partnerships to get the public and private sector to come together.”
That fits with the Greenprint Plan itself, which has 34 on-street connectors stretching through the Memphis suburbs, north Mississippi and eastern Arkansas. The greenprint here is similar to Atlanta’s Beltline, which ultimately will be a 22-mile loop but only has two miles completed so far. Zeanah says Michels will reach out to officials there and in St. Louis, which also has a greenway network, to learn more.
The Atlanta Beltline follows former train tracks, which served as intentional lines of separation between neighborhoods, Beltline CEO Paul Morris told the National Journal.
“In most cases, those neighborhoods on one side of the railroad not only were across the tracks from another side, they literally did not connect – nor were they intended to connect,” Morris said in the article. “That was a social decision, as well as a physical infrastructure decision.”
Michels sees the Mid-South Greenprint Plan as an avenue for enhancing transportation options, not merely a means for recreation.
“We took the transit map and made that one of the layers of consideration,” Zeanah said. “Not everybody can realistically bike from their home to their job. But every MATA bus now has bike racks on it. So you could ride your bike one segment, put your bike on the bus and take the bus down Poplar, and once you get off at the next Greenprint link, get back on your bike and get to your job.”
In Washington, Michels said, the Capital Bikeshare program has been very effective; citizens rent a bike at one station, ride to another and drop it off.
“It’s first people seeing it as a possibility,” Michels said of the effort to increase the number of Memphians biking, or walking, to work.
Which is sort of what happened with Michels when he was a boy. First, he experienced nature as part of family trips and vacations. Then he worked at a summer camp and for the Lake George Association to help keep the lake and surrounding landscape beautified and preserved.
“That was when I really started to see the outdoors as a potential career opportunity,” he said. “Memphis is just so full of potential and this plan is illustrative of that.”