Mayors are the chief urban designers of their cities.
At least that's what Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor Joseph P. Riley says, and it explains a lot about the state of urban design in Memphis and Shelby County.
Riley is the patriarch and guiding spirit behind the Mayors' Institute on City Design, which in the past two decades has organized free workshops of national experts to work on the specific priorities and special projects of city mayors. So far, more than 700 mayors have participated, but not one of them has been the mayor of Memphis.
Mayor Riley's Charleston proves what can be done when a mayor embraces the role of chief urban designer and, as he puts it, pays attention to the small details while keeping an eye on the big picture. Over the years, that same spirit at the Mayors' Institute has produced answers for cities' waterfronts, downtown redevelopment, better connections between neighborhoods and new developments, and stronger design review.
In Chattanooga, its previous mayor, Bob Corker, put all his political capital on the line to get improvements in his downtown and on his riverfront, ultimately parlaying this record into a successful U.S. Senate race. In Nashville, Mayor Bill Purcell ran for office with urban design a major plank in his campaign platform.
Unfortunately, while these mayors were working on their cities, Memphis hollowed out as its middle class fled the city, sprawl threatened local governments with bankruptcy, downtown development failed to keep pace with its major competitors, the riverfront remained underused, and design was an afterthought, if remembered at all.
And yet, there's new hope for Memphis, and it's surfacing on several fronts and hinting at new momentum for high-quality design. First, downtown developer Henry Turley, the closest thing to a philosopher-king in local urban development, endowed the Turley Fellowship at the University of Memphis to spark high-quality redevelopment in the area surrounding the university.
Meanwhile, on the university campus itself, UM is creating a master's degree in architecture with an emphasis on city-building and urban design, and off campus, a local Urban Land Institute (ULI) council organized.
Most importantly of all, there's the probability that Memphis will have its own Civic Design Center as a result of a partnership between the American Institute of Architects, University of Memphis, Ur-ban Art Commission, and the local ULI chapter. So far, it's been painfully slow to get the Design Center up and running and to find an independent place where it can give voice to demands for better design, but finally, it appears ready to launch.
To support this new momentum, the inaugural Turley Fellowship Symposium spotlighted "Urban Design and Placemaking: A Dialogue for Change" in hopes of creating a "conversation about the practice and benefits of urban design and placemaking," according to Ann Coulter, the first Turley Fellow.
The addition of Coulter brings new energy, not to mention practical experience, to the development of a new urban design ethos in Memphis. She was planning director of Chattanooga and actively involved in that city's Planning and Design Studio during its so-called "era of enlightenment."
If Chattanooga is any indication — moving from being called the most polluted city in America in 1969 to becoming a serial honoree for its waterfront and downtown transformation — urban design centers can make a big difference. That's because when they work best, they work cooperatively, but independently, with local government as advocates for better design and to prove the economic wisdom of doing so.
By calling it like it sees it, a Civic Design Center could make its best contributions. For example, in Memphis, it could raise questions on issues like the siting of buildings and the architecture of Memphis Hope VI projects that simulate, but don't quite capture, the principles of New Urbanism.
It also could act as a hit team to identify and solve downtown design faux pas — Civic Center fountains that never worked right; fountain tiles that look like kindergartners tried to match them; a hodgepodge of planters, signage, and construction materials; and a project-by-project mentality that rarely connects projects to the fabric of the city to promote walkable, desirable neighborhoods.
Most of all, design centers are keepers of the vision for high-functioning city designs and serve as the conscience for the public realm. In the end, perhaps the best thing about design centers is that they don't depend on the interest or support of power brokers — or even the mayor.
Based on Memphis history, that may be most important of all.