Memphis Wants To Shrink

February 13, 2017

After decades of sprawl, Memphis begins to reconsider its growth pattern and chart a new course towards fiscal sustainability.

Most visitor's know downtown Memphis' Beale Street, pictured, but the sprawling city is one of the largest in the country in terms of land mass. Image Credit: Andreas Faessler / Wikipedia

The City's task force has recommended that seven areas be considered for de-annexation. Most the areas recommended are low density, rural areas with little infrastructure- like sewer systems. If approved, de-annexing these areas would reduce the city's footprint 8 percent, its population 1.2 percent and its operating revenue 1.1 percent. In real terms, $7.6 million in net revenue and 10,672 residents would no longer be on Memphis' books. However, factoring in savings from a decrease in public safety and infrastructure costs, almost $1 million in net savings would be realized in the short term. In the long term, not being on the hook for deferred infrastructure maintenance costs and planned public safety facilities could offer the potential for significant cost-savings over the next 30-40 years.  

A map showing areas where de-annexation has been proposed in Memphis. Image Credit: City of Memphis

But the recommendations signal a sea change for a city that for decades grew through sprawl, spreading itself thinner as it annexed often unwilling new territories like the South Cordova and Southwind-Windyke neighborhoods.

Density has decreased by 56% in Memphis between 1960 and 2016. De-annexation is seen as an important step in correcting density issues putting a strain on municipal budgets. Image Credit: City of Memphis

More so than just the short-term cost savings, shrinking the city for the first time in decades represents a monumental change in the mindset of city officials. Memphis is larger in size than Chicago, but with only a fraction of the density of the Windy City, the city has spread itself too thin. A conscious recognition of the perils of this sprawling growth model means that municipal budgets can be re-prioritized to enhance services to existing neighborhoods instead of looking for new areas to swallow whole.

Image Credit: City of Memphis

The areas considered or de-annexation still require public input and approval from state lawmakers. Pending consensus at both of these levels, voters would decide on de-annexation in 2019. If approved, these changes would go into affect in 2021. It is thought that waiting until 2021 would give sufficient time for city officials to renegotiate agreements with bonding agencies and align public safety budgets within this new construct.

Cover Image: Larry Donald, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library

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