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The Mid-South Regional Greenprint Plan: Connecting the region’s green spaces

Green spaces are helping cities attract new, green dollars into their economies and helping them keep the ones they already have. The Mid-South’s “ambitious” Greenprint plan may be one of the biggest such projects in the country.

The Mid-South Regional Greenprint Plan is a set of 150 recommendations to help connect green spaces in four MidSouth counties: Shelby, Fayette, Crittenden, and DeSoto. The two, blockbuster proposals of the plan seek to implement 500 miles of greenway trails and 200 miles of bicycle lanes in the Mid-South by the year 2040. Even the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Sustainability (MSCOS) – the agency attempting to implement the plan – calls it “ambitious.”

But local elected officials are on board. Governing bodies from places as different and spread outas Millington, Hernando, Piperton, West Memphis, Memphis, Collierville and Germantown have approved the plan. By now, the MSCOS has approvals from nearly all of the four counties and 23 municipalities they need to move the plan forward. And that is no small feat.

“I don’t know, at least in the recent history of our region, that we have come together so uniformly on one thing across three states,” said John Zeanah, administrator of the MSCOS. “We have all of these jurisdictions adopting and signing on and saying, yes, we want to participate in making our region better through the Greenprint plan.”

There’s no doubt the Memphis business community is on board for creating better access to green spaces here. One of the moon missions for the Chairman’s Circle of the Greater Memphis Chamber is to “advance green space for citizens and retain local talent.” Through that, the progress of the Greenprint plan is tracked closely by Chamber members and officials.

Robin Smithwick, managing principal at Diversified Trust, leads the Chairman’s Circle’s moon mission on green spaces.

“If we accomplish implementing the plan, it will be one of the largest green infrastructure amenities in the nation,” Smithwick said. “The idea that we did it as a master plan, rather than having each organization do different portions of it along the way, is really what was interesting to the Chairman’s Circle. The Chairman’s Circle has coalesced around it, moved it forward, and we are now working with all the organizations that are involved in it.”

The Greenprint plan was born from a $2.6 million regional planning grant won in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). From the beginning, Greenprint sought to improve regional sustainability through a region-wide network of green spaces that would address issues ranging from resource conservation and accessibility, to transportation alternatives and social equity.

Zeanah said focusing on green spaces was a “no-brainer.”

“If we were going to come together, truly, and work together across the region on one thing, it needed to be something that had broad appeal, something that had unique benefits to each community,” Zeanah said. “Whether it’s urban parks or rural wildlife areas, it seemed to have an appeal that had something for everyone in it.”

Parks and revenues: connecting the dots between the wild and the bottom line

So, how do government officials think a bunch of greenways, bike trails, and parks are going to help the MidSouth economy?

The short answer: placemaking.

Placemaking is no doubt in the buzzword lexicon of anyone promoting economic development these days. Even though it’s far from new, placemaking has become a hot trend in cities across the country. Leaders have used it to attract companies and their employees, and to keep local talent from moving someplace else.

Simply said, placemaking is creating a city where people want to live, work and play.

“In placemaking, communities use what they have, whether it’s arts, cultural amenities, parks, architectural design, lakes or walkable streets to create a strong bond between people and the places they live,” said Tom Ivacko, administrator and program manager for the Ford School’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan.

Use of placemaking in economic development is alive across the country. There’s a wave of urban renewal and civic pride charging through most American cities right now. Just consider all of the downtown revitalization projects that have been recently completed or are underway.

But does it work? Anecdotal evidence seems to say it does. On the past few years, more than $500 million has poured into the South Main neighborhood alone. If that’s not enough proof, skeptics should pay heed to at least this well-worn anecdote from Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.

He said city leaders there prepared a huge deal – $150 million in 1990 – to attract a major United Airlines facility, one that promised a $1 billion annual economic impact there. Later, airline officials went on live television and announced that the facility was awarded to… Indianapolis.

The mayor at the time asked company officials why they lost the deal. The CEO said a group of executives and their wives had secretly spent a weekend in Oklahoma City.

“The CEO told him ‘we just couldn’t imagine our employees living there,’” Cornett said. “Wow! Was that the kick in the gut the mayor needed to hear?”

Since then, Oklahoma City has transformed its city through a series of public projects and now finds itself topping national lists for best places to find a job, best places for millennials and for having one of the strongest growth economies in the country

Greenprint and the Memphis Economy

At its core for economic development, Greenprint is a placemaking tool.

Greenprint coordinator John Michels remembered Oklahoma City’s experience with United and said creating usable green space here simply creates a better quality of life that companies are now looking for.

“So many of these decisions about where business are locating or choosing to place or expand their operations or where business leaders are looking to bring their families – they’re looking at quality of life, not just for them but for their employee base, too,” Michels said. “A lot of cities are seeing that now and I think that’s the basis behind why the Chamber and Chairman’s Circle selected advancing green spaces as one of their moon missions.”

But Zeanah and Michels also expect Greenprint will catalyze private investment and redevelopment around its trails, bike lanes, and open spaces. Residential property values around the Shelby Farms Greenline have already gone up, they said, and bike infrastructure around Broad Avenue has helped bring millions of private investment dollars to Binghampton. On a larger scale, they point to the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile loop of trails around the city that has attracted more than $1 billion in new development since 2005.

And, of course, the Greenprint will attract tourists, Zeanah said. Bike tourism is already a big business elsewhere and Memphis could have another hit on its hands, Michels said, if you couple the Greenprint’s potential with the Big River Crossing project (the bike and pedestrian path across the Harahan Bridge) and the prospect of having a city-wide bike sharing program.

But no matter what angle you take on it, Zeanah said the Greenprint has broad appeal across the community.

“Green spaces are something that practically everyone in the community values in one way or another,” he said.

Photos by: Troy Glasgow
Story by: Toby Sells


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