Case Study: Government – Sustainable Shelby

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Case Study: Government – Sustainable Shelby

Case 1: Sustainable Shelby — A Sustainable “Smart Growth” Program for Creating a Community That Is More Livable, More Competitive and More Successful

Before Hiring Ethridge

One of the most important government agendas worldwide is “sustainability,” which has environmental, economic and quality of life implications. In general, government and business leaders have recognized that past choices have led to consequences like environmental harm, lower life expectancy rates, higher obesity rates and unacceptable infrastructure costs being transferred to our children and grandchildren.

In 2002, the forward-thinking Mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee, the largest county in the Memphis region and the 44th largest county in the nation, discerned that such problems were especially true in Shelby County. Mayor Wharton, called the current course of the region unsustainable on the basis of environmental and land use, disposable neighborhoods, deteriorating health, declining quality of life and public finances.

To address these major problems, A C Wharton, launched an ambitious smart growth program, called “Sustainable Shelby.” Having championed the Memphis region’s first smart growth program since taking office in 2002 by an executive order, Mayor Wharton launched a smart growth summit in 2003, followed by regular meetings that led to the beginnings of developing a new Unified Development Code.

To make sure the voice of the public was heard as part of the Sustainable Shelby process, Ethridge & Associates, L.L.C. a public opinion research and consulting firm, was asked to assess Shelby County citizens’ level of interest and support for guiding principles, specific strategies, and overall values of the Sustainable Shelby initiative.

After Hiring Ethridge

Ethridge & Associates, was hired by Shelby County Government to conduct custom-designed public opinion research, the objective of which was to create the foundation on which policies and programs were to be built; specifically, to:

  • Determine public opinion on guiding principles adopted in 2003 for smart growth
  • Determine public values affecting development — neighborhoods, “green” buildings, cost of sprawl, density, walkability, etc. — that should be incorporated into the proposed new development code
  • Identify key elements of sustainable development — land use, neighborhood reinvestment, green assets, and environmentally sensitive building
  • Gather information that becomes a frame for the development of the agenda for the future

Steven C. Ethridge met with the heads of the seven committees that Mayor Wharton had organized as part of the Sustainable Shelby agenda to combat the disturbing trend. These committees were: transportation and traffic, public buildings and public purchasing, neighborhood rebirth, public incentives, building codes, and land use and development. The purpose of these meetings was for Ethridge to consult with and advise the committee heads on how to gather information from their committee members on what each committee’s priorities were for the specific issue questions that needed to be included in the survey questionnaire.

As a result, the committees each turned in a list of question priorities. Because many of these questions were in scientific or technical language, Ethridge conducted secondary literature reviews and consulted further with each committee head to design survey questions that the average citizen would easily understand. Ethridge then drafted a questionnaire, pilot tested it to make sure that it communicated clearly to the public and submitted it to the committee heads for approval before interviewing began.

After questionnaire approval, Ethridge & Associates, L.L.C. conducted a scientific telephone survey of Shelby County residents based on a random sample of 610 completed interviews. This sample was reliable within +/- 3.9 percentage points with 95% confidence.

The next steps used a “break-through” process and technology that was in a news press release written by the County Mayor’s Office, as follows.

Since the March 6 kick-off, 130 people on the committees — transportation and traffic, public buildings and public policies, neighborhood rebirth, public incentives, environment and natural resources, building codes, and land use and development — have met to set goals, values, and specific recommendations in each of their areas.

All committees will meet together Thursday to rank the priorities for immediate action. They will use wireless keypad technology to vote on priorities at a meeting from 9 a.m. until noon, Thursday, June 19, at The Zone at FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis.

In addition, Memphis pollster Steven Ethridge will present the findings from a survey gauging public support for the general principles of smart growth, for sustainability principles, and for specific strategies. As part of the process Thursday, he will cast votes on behalf of the public based on the polling results.

“We wanted to be sure that the public had a voice in the setting of this agenda,” said Mayor Wharton. “This was the most scientific way of doing that, because the public input did not depend on who could get to a meeting or respond to an online survey. This is a breakthrough in setting public priorities in conjunction with a committee, and to me, the addition of the technology and the scientific polling is a new way of public decision-making.”

Following presentations by Mayor Wharton and Ethridge, each committee will present its top recommendations, and all committee members will give each of them a value from 1 to 10 on a wireless keypad until all recommendations are ranked and final priorities are set.

With the priorities, Mayor Wharton said his staff, principally members of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, will develop an implementation plan in the next 90 days.

“I have never been more certain of anything than I am on the importance of this agenda,” he said. “Our citizens want a sustainable community. They may not call it that, but they want a future of walkable, healthy neighborhoods, vibrant public spaces, energy efficient buildings, and streets that serve alternative transportation like bikers, pedestrians, and public transit. Most of all, they want a community that can meet its present needs but makes sure that future generations can meet theirs.”

The 90-day priorities will be part of a complete agenda to be presented at the Sustainable Shelby Call to Action public meeting on July 8 at 2:30 p.m. at Memphis Botanic Garden. At that session, Mayor Wharton will be joined by Doug Farr, author of Sustainable Urbanism, which has been used as a framework for Sustainable Shelby’s work.

(click here for link to Press Release)

Ethridge presented the results at this Memphis Botanic Garden meeting, as described below.

Results of Ethridge’s Work

The results as summarized in Shelby County’s publication, Sustainable Shelby: A Future of Choice, Not Chance — A Call To Action (July 8, 2008), were as follows.

These results were not only used as the foundation on which committees built their recommendations, but they were used to develop the final ratings themselves. At the Sustainable Shelby Digital Congress, committee members rated each of the top recommendations, and their votes were equaled by those cast on behalf of the public based on the polling results. All in all, the public was strongly supportive of programs to make Shelby County more sustainable.

Although these issues clearly are not top-of-mind, they are nevertheless serious concerns for the public. In particular, the polling showed that the people of Shelby County are particularly prepared to support programs that create walkable neighborhoods, better coordination within government, incentives for better neighborhoods, and more attention to bike lanes.
Because the Guiding Principles from Mayor Wharton’s 2003 Smart Growth Summit formed the framework for the work of Sustainable Shelby, the public was asked if they supported them. The polling showed overwhelmingly strong agreement with no fewer than 90 percent of the public agreeing with them:

  • We should maintain the vitality of existing neighborhoods. Maintaining appropriate infrastructure and intervening early when signs of decay become evident are two techniques that would help affect this (94% agreement).
  • Social capital—ties among neighborhoods, active citizen involvement in neighborhood planning and improvement—strengthens neighborhoods (93%).
  • We want to build a community that attracts and sustains people, and a competitive city built to accommodate the new economy, meaning a knowledge and technology-based, global economy (92%).
  • We now have a bias that favors scattered development at the perimeter. We should make redevelopment or urban infill development, that is, redevelopment of existing neighborhoods and adaptively reusing existing buildings equally feasible (91%).
  • In evaluating development, we should calculate the total cost of development and maintenance, including the capital and operating cost borne by government, development, and the ultimate user (91%).
  • Identifying, marketing, and leveraging civic assets strengthens neighborhoods (90%).
  • Public discussion of public and private development and spending patterns should be promoted to tie spending to public policy (90%).

For a copy of the full report from report written by the Shelby County Government in which Ethridge & Associates, L.L.C.’s research was published, click here.

For a copy of Ethridge & Associates, L.L.C.’s complete report as made available by Shelby County Government, click here.

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