SPRAWL CITY 

SPRAWL CITY

Historic preservation is not little old ladies in tennis shoes who want to save rare historic buildings. It is instead a part of an array of tools to be used to sustain, preserve, and conserve our urban environment. The planning ideals of the early twentieth century are being re-examined in the aftermath of the urban sprawl of the post World War II automobile era. Communities of mixed use, modest lot sizes, parks, schools, churches within walking distance and more pedestrian friendly streetscapes are all features of the neo-traditional developments such as Harbor Town. However, preservationists recognize the same Old-Traditional elements that still exist in the neighborhoods of Midtown, the University District, South Memphis, and North Memphis. Preserving Memphis neighborhoods helps conserve our uniquely Southern landscapes, protects our aquifer, reduces the use of building materials needed for development, and reduces our dependency on automobiles. Historic preservation helps in urban revitalization and preservation and conservation of parkland, farms, roadways, trail systems, and scenic areas. Memphis Heritage Inc. (MHI) is a historic preservation organization but we join with local conservation organizations in advocating smart growth for the entire West Tennessee area since sprawl is a regional issue. I feel that sprawl negatively affects us by diminishing our greenspace, clean air and water supply locally. Sprawl also robs us of our most precious resource Ñ time Ñ and therefore diminishes our society. Time that could be spent bonding with our families, pursuing hobbies, or engaging in civic activities. In Robert Putnam’s new book, Bowling Alone, the author states that “Every ten minutes of commuting time cuts all form of civic engagement by 10 percent.” It seems clear to me that the rebirth of downtown Memphis with its thriving residential base proves that there is a market for urban living. The compact, pedestrian friendly downtown area is attracting a diverse group, including recent college graduates, working singles and couples, retirees, and even traditional families. They are attracted to the historic buildings, the Mississippi River, and such amenities as the trolley. Preservation offers many tools for revitalization such as tax credits and easements. These can and have been used effectively by some perceptive developers in our own city and should be acknowledged, promoted, and advanced. Another less obvious economic benefit is the retention and use of all the energy that has already gone into building construction. Historic preservationists often are scorned because we try to protect the old, the historic. But our allegiance is actually to the future, not the past. Not every old building is historic, certainly not every old building is worth saving, and sometimes places are of great historic or cultural significance even if they are not old. Preservation values diversity in place. Knowing and appreciating the heritage context of place offers future generations a broader array of choices and preserves the possibility of a fuller experience. What is the sprawl problem? Sprawl is the uncontained bleeding edge of urban development. At its worst, sprawl serves to disconnect people and place. Consider how very different the George Kessler Plan of 1901 for the creation of the Memphis Parkway System is than the reality of the Nonconnah Parkway. Obviously cities depend on growth and development but edges do not have to endlessly bleed. They do not have to result in sameness everywhere. There is no rule or market that says defining landscape character must be re-configured so that stands of oaks and hickory must be uprooted or that existing roads must be rerouted to make way for the new. I believe there is no single correct answer to today’s sprawl problem. Growing “smart” means that there are smart, thoughtful citizens engaged in preparing for growth and dedicated to creating an opportunity for a sense of place to evolve. Consideration of mass transit, downtown and neighborhood housing, and the relationship between workplace and home place is fundamental. Issues of safety, tax incentives, design control, public amenities, and livability factors such as view and watershed protection also need to be weighed. Sprawl is not just a city-county issue; it is of regional consequence. Policies and procedures for conserving open space and distinctive landscape elements need to be incorporated into urban development practice. Our city/county government needs to recognize this and take on the challenge of beginning to work with surrounding counties. MHI has in the past, and continues to be, a strong advocate for the preservation of suburban open spaces such as Shelby Farms, and in the preservation of the character of historic farms such as the Fleming Home Place and DeLoach House in Collierville, Davies Manor in Brunswick, Mount Airy Farm at Pisgah, and others. While considered rural properties today, these are the places for the retention of open space for the future, and many are already facing development pressures that may diminish their historic, open space character. Isn’t it interesting that sprawl is most insidious where landscapes are becoming sub-division. Sprawl arises where fragmented private interests are advanced without representations of the common interests of the future. Places arise because of connections Ñ connections to the past, connections to the present, and connections making way for the future. When a distinctive historic structure is defiled with an insensitive new addition, it causes a visual disconnection. Something is out of place here. Likewise, sprawl reflects insensitivity at the edge of urban development. Historic preservation seeks ways to fuse the old with new to allow the transition without jarring the senses. The benefits of alternatives to sprawl would be stronger, happier citizens and families, more convenience, more choice, and a greater sense of community. The quality of life issues that currently plague overgrown areas such as Metro Atlanta and Southern California are going to plague Mid-Southerners unless we retake control of our built and natural environments. Careful planning for future growth requires envisioning ways for places and communities of distinction to emerge. Preservation of historic structures and neighborhoods within the developed city is a vital part of this consideration and at the heart of the Memphis Heritage mission. Even with our current unchecked urban sprawl, the successes of the Cooper-Young and South Main Street neighborhoods serve as useful guideposts to building places with lasting value. Maintaining distinctive landscape features and preserving historic schools and commercial buildings can turn the sameness of sprawl into planned growth. The philosopher Santayana observed that people who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Often with sprawl, we know what happened before and we are just replaying the same bad outcome repeatedly. I think there is a better way. Imagine what we could do for our inner city if our political and business leaders would champion against unchecked sprawl. It will take great vision and leadership to do this but until we do, our efforts to revitalize poor inner city neighborhoods will be like putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage. We have to stop bleeding at the edges before we can strengthen and heal our heart. [Judith Johnson is executive director of Memphis Heritage, Inc., a private, not-for-profit historic preservation organization. This article originally appeared in Memphis magazine.]

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