Monday, March 26, 2007

An Urban Designer for Memphis

During his interview with the Memphis Business Quarterly, Frank Ricks of Looney Ricks Kiss noted one of Memphis' shortcomings:
Memphis doesn't have an urban designer. Austin, Texas, has three on its city payroll. So somebody wakes up in Austin every day and says, "what do I have to do to make this street or this neighborhood better." Somebody's tending the garden and we're not.
An urban design team for the city of Memphis would be great. Frankly anybody in city government who considers the quality of the built environment would be great.

However I am a little skeptical of the idea for the same reason I am little skeptical of the idea of a Design Center -- because I believe much of the ugliness stems not from artistic or technical but political shortcomings. Developers run amok through our cityscape and our leaders can't say no to the crap they build, nor demand -- as a matter of economic life and death -- better.

An urban designer will have to work for someone in city government. And if that someone -- the designer's boss -- doesn't want to say no to developers (very likely in the present system) then the urban designer could be either be ineffectual or an arse-kissing apologist for the status quo.

That's skepticism, not cynicism. It could happen, but doesn't have to happen.

Another possibility is the convergence of a city urban design team, a Design Center, the potential new Unified Development Code, an architecture school at the University of Memphis and activist architects could positively transform the political and civic mindset about our built environment.

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Blogger bob said...

Well put.

The developers do run amok, but its not only the politicians that can't say no. Memphians have a weakness for bright shiny objects. We dream of having all the wonderful things that those other cities have -- even if we can't really afford them. Our politicians take advantage of our weakness to propose and carry out grandiose schemes that drive us deeper into debt and eventually leave us with empty shells of our dreams.

10:59 PM  
Blogger gatesofmemphis said...

Well put yourself. I've been thinking about posting on "our weakness for bright shiny objects" and its evil double first cousin "our hatred of old things" for some time.

Great give and take over at Smart City and 55-40, by the way. I appreciate the conversation and the passion.

11:42 PM  
Blogger autoegocrat said...

Urban design would be nice, but I'll settle for someone who can just fix the effing roads.

Take the I-40 to 240-S interchange, just for example. Interstate traffic feeds into local rush hour traffic, trucks are told to merge right while cars are trying to get into the fast lanes, and then at the moment of peak congestion, the goddamn right lane ends.

Go out to Germantown or Cordova, and you'll see the resiedntial roads wide enough to run a herd of cattle through on either side. Too bad they couldn't give some of that space to Perkins, one of the major North-South roads on the East side of town. It goes from a seven-lane thoroughfare in Parkway Villiage to a two-lane soda straw just North of the ramp. If you consider that one of the lanes is a left turn lane with no arrow, it's really just a one-lane road.

I could go on and on about the horrible road planning in Memphis, but I think I can make my point well enough by simply repeating the Midtown mantra, "Three lanes, both ways, all day." Thank God that nightmare on Union is over.

6:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


So true. Memphis has a weak foundation. You can build all the stadiums, office buildings, condos, and entertainment districts until you are blue in the face. But, if you do not change the perception of crime and corruption in Memphis to those who spend their money in it, you will NEVER be successful at developing it.

I have a question that I would love to have someone look into. This condo boom downtown, how many are waiting for tenants?

It is just like coaching a good basketball team, if you work on the fundamentals, the rest will fall into place.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Len said...

Quoth the autoegocrat: Urban design would be nice, but I'll settle for someone who can just fix the effing roads.

I hadn't even moved to Memphis, yet (I was on a trip looking for a place in lieu of living out of my car after the company transferred me), and had maybe been driving here about 10 minutes or so when it dawned on me that the job requirements for highway engineers here must specify that the successful candidate must have graduated in the bottom 15% of her/his civil engineering class, with no higher than a D+ grade average. I can't otherwise explain how incompetently the roads are done here.

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, Perkins Road.

Was established as a "Residential corridor" sometime in the 1980's by the Silly Council. Means it couldnt be widened.

Always remembered council shiznit billy hymen (sp?) ranting that 'they done promised the mall of memphis developer thet perkins would be widened all the way to Poplar'-cept the silly RULES done got in his way. radio theatre hasnt been the same since he and Corneila Shaw and shiznit bob james traded barbs all those years ago.

3:04 PM  

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