Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Suburbanization is a failing development model in Tennessee

Charles Marohn describes how a city like Memphis got itself into a bind by relying on subsidized suburbanization as an answer to the ills of industrialization. Now with "soft defaults" (vs. hard defaults in Detroit) the chickens are coming home to roost:

Relying on the automobile to facilitate growth by horizontally expanding the city, Memphis shifted away from the traditional pattern of neighborhood development and played its part in building the American Dream of large yards, easy driving, and free parking.

Suburbanization, sold as a way to cure blight and promote prosperity, was radically new and untested. It was also irresistible. Driven by federal programs and financial incentives, Memphis – like most American cities – built highways through the middle of the city, annexed property and extended public utilities outward.

In the process, core neighborhoods were destroyed and residents relocated to neighborhoods built in the new, experimental style. Streetcars were abandoned and the economic activity at the old stops shifted to new commercial corridors. Old buildings were torn down to provide parking and millions of tax dollars were spent widening streets to accommodate the automobiles now necessary for daily life.

Eventually, the vitality of the city was inverted from its traditional historic pattern of a strong core surrounded by incrementally growing neighborhoods to one where most economic activity took place on the edge. While this shift left many people behind and devastated the historic neighborhoods of Memphis, the result was seen largely as a social problem, not an economic one. Easy growth on the periphery – where land is cheap, the development community is ready, and all the government incentives are in place – was then, and remains today, the community’s default strategy for economic improvement.

Somewhat unhindered by the levels of industrialization borne by Memphis, Nashville is no less exposed by its overreliance on exurban expansion and what Mayor Karl Dean embraces as "regionwide growth". Nashville recently depends on gimmicky baubles like the new Music City Center, a "We Are Nashville Promenade" and an east-west rapid transit connector ("The Amp") in order to spike short-term economic activity without reference to long-term viability in the city for its inhabitants.

Marohn warns of "new massive gambles" undertaken by sprawling metros to keep heads above water: convention centers and retail complexes driven by municipal debt and tax breaks for already wealthy corporations. Likewise these conditions also apply to Nashville, where it feels like we are mortgaging our future sometimes to fund huge new capital projects that enable the Dean brand more than aid Nashville proper. We are definitely sacrificing urban services, from which the Mayor perennially demands cuts, in order to bankroll the diversions.

In the end, an emphasis on regionwide growth seems like warmed-over, evangelical suburbanism. It constitutes a doubling down on failing economic policies that hurt both Memphis and Nashville in the long run. Once the smoke-and-mirrors floor show of the Dean administration ends, what will be left with?


  1. Mike, my take on your post is that Nashville has unique characteristics because of being a large Metropolitan area, my part of the city (named by the locals Cane Ridge) grew and is developing its own identity with roots in its farming history and the new suburban neighborhoods. I am concerned about the concept of suburban being portrayed as negative. We have problems but we can also show success.
    Fabian Bedne

  2. Well, if one's focus is the city, suburban neighborhoods are a negative. The farther people are from the city-center, the more (of everything) is needed to support the populace.

    Wouldn't it have been great for Nashville (homes, schools, restaurants, taxes) if many of the businesses in Cool Springs had located in Nashville?

    Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County is too big. You can't be all things to all people or communities, and it shows. I'd cut you and the Joelton area loose.

    That said, I don't intend to question anyone's desire to live in the suburbs. That's a personal choice and I figure y'all know better than I do what you want.