Creating Places: A Citizen Observer's Look at Nashville's Built Environment

Writer's Note: William Williams' interest in the manmade environment dates to 1970, at which point the then-young Williams started a collection of postcards of city skylines. The collection now numbers 1,000-plus cards. Among the writer's specific interests are exterior building design, city district planning, demographics, signage, mixed-use development, mass transit and green/sustainable construction and living. Williams began his Creating Places column with The City Paper in February 2005. The column in its original form was discontinued in September 2008 and reinvented via this blog in November 2008. Creating Places can be found on the home page of the website of The City Paper, at which Williams has worked in various capacities since October 2000.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Memphis: Orderly with a Vintage Touch


For those who relish a traditional and old-school manmade environment, there is no Tennessee city that can rival it.

Not even close.

Recently, a long-time friend and I took a day trip to the Bluff City. My buddy — a “city hobbyist” who nonetheless knows a good bit about the fundamentals of a quality urban built fabric — had never truly explored Memphis. After six hours of aggressively driving the city’s parkways and avenues while clinically dissecting vintage structures, 1960s-era office buildings and fabulous streetscapes — and after enthusiastically exploring (both via car and on foot) the Pinch, Cooper-Young, Harbor Town, the south side, Midtown and the Central Business District — my dear friend came away impressed.

So, too, did I — even though this was my fourth visit (in four years) to Memphis, including one stay during which I drove about 100 miles throughout the city’s dense central core.

Given my familiarity with the buildings, streetscapes, planning efforts and mixed-use districts in both Memphis and, of course, Nashville, what follows is one man’s comparison of Tennessee’s dominant cities.

Memphis: More than any other characteristic, “orderliness” dominates Memphis much more so than it does Nashville. Within 30 minutes of our “tour,” my friend noted how consistent and clean the Memphis streetscape is. And how, unlike in Music City, the Memphis core is so much more building dense. He’s dead on.

Within the city’s Interstate 240 loop — an area covering a minimum of 70 square miles (and maybe as many as 80-85 square miles) — nearly every street offers proper sidewalks and curbing. Street signage is consistent. Mailboxes, one of the great culprits of street-side clutter, are typically placed on front porches. Alleys, which eliminate the need for front-yard driveways (another cause of visual clutter, particularly when of the gravel variety), are much more common in Memphis than in Nashville. Housing styles flow smoothly from district to district. Numerous Memphis buildings are sited at the sidewalk, thus minimizing huge surface parking ponds that (here we go again with the visual clutter theme) allow for unsightly auto storage. Memphis, compared to Nashville, has far less “dead space” and fewer swaths of unused or underutilized real estate. In short, Memphis historically has been vastly better planned than Nashville (notorious for its many old neighborhoods and commercial districts with ramshackle vibes). This foresight, courtesy of Memphis leaders since the early 20th century, has resulted in a much more efficient maximization of space, with the Bluff City’s manmade environment acting in a more urban manner related to is surrounding natural environment.

Another noticeable Memphis built environment trait is the city’s impressive collection of pre-1950s-constructed buildings. Downtown, of course, offers many of the best examples. However, various Midtown stretches of high-profile streets, including Madison, Poplar and Union avenues, are framed nicely by such vintage building stock. Even the inner-I-240 rectangle bordered by Summer Avenue on the north, East Parkway on the east, Park Avenue on the south and Perkins Avenue on the west offers a respectable number of charming old commercial/retail buildings.

Next, and related to the second element just mentioned, Memphis contains much more “grit” than Nashville, more historic water towers, smokestacks, factories, storage facilities, industrial sites, old viaducts, etc. This gives the city a certain authenticity and “coolness” that the more “sterile” and generic Nashville simply cannot match.

Lastly, the Memphis built fabric fans from downtown and the Mississippi River. So you cannot encircle the city's downtown for a variety of angled view. However, if you are driving via, say, Poplar Avenue and from I-240, the stretch of urban mass is quite eye-opening.

Nashville: In comparison to Memphis, Nashville showcases significantly more contemporary buildings. Though Nashville’s urban core (the area with decent building density, street grid and orderliness) spans a modest 25 to 30 square miles, it has seen a mini construction explosion of sorts since the late 1990s. This architecture and development frenzy has rendered Nashville somewhat similar to Atlanta and Charlotte, the two Old South cities that best define a “New South architectural design vernacular.” During a mere 10-year span, Music City’s downtown, Midtown, Vanderbilt/West End corridor, Gulch, SoBro, Germantown and Five Points have added no fewer than 100 buildings (many of them sleek and bold). In contrast, there is, at best, a minimal “21st century architectural vibe” within Memphis’ massive inner interstate loop. A smattering of recently constructed buildings is simply too randomly place or blandly designed to command attention.

A very specific characteristic of Nashville’s manmade environment (and somewhat connected to the previously noted trait) is the number of buildings 100 feet or taller. It’s difficult to accurately compare Memphis and Nashville in this category, but based on personal observation and lists found at and, Nashville offers at least 33 percent (and maybe 50 percent) as many “tall” buildings than Memphis. The difference is noticeable.

Next, Nashville’s downtown is like a wheel’s center, with the mass of the city dispersing like spokes from that core and the Cumberland River snaking through its gut. To an extent, this minimizes the impact of what little street griddedness the city contains (or could ever have boasted). But it does provide for multiple viewing angles of the Central Business District.

Lastly, because Nashville is extremely hilly, the “built environment vistas” offered to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike — and courtesy of the rolling natural environment — can be quite visually striking. Navigate Nashville, and big buildings and cool urban massings can literally “pop up out of nowhere.” In contrast, Memphis is fairly flat, with modest changes in topography and street bends offering rather predictable viewsheds.

In summary, my good friend and I spent at least an hour of our 3:15 drive back to Nashville comparing and contrasting the manmade fabric of the state’s two most prominent cities. Both have their strengths, and warts. From a planning, layout, topography, architecture and development perspective, Memphis mirrors a mini-St. Louis; Nashville, a mini-Atlanta. No doubt, the two Tennessee cities are very different regarding their physical arrangement and feel.

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