Equity In Practice
Restorative Planning in Action: Lessons from Mound Up!
In recent years the planning field has come to terms with the deleterious impacts the field at-large has had on urban communities of color, specifically Black neighborhoods. In Orange Mound, one of the country's oldest Black neighborhoods in Memphis, Tennessee, a community organizer sought to kickstart a restorative planning process that could heal the wounds caused by traditional top-down planning regimes.
Melrose Center for Cultural Enrichment's Angela Barksdale says it best, "There's a lot of issues that need to be addressed in Orange Mound and it is going to take a form of collective construction." In creating the "construction team" Orange Mound (yet again) situated itself at the forefront of Black agency and autonomy in the context of neighborhood planning and development.
The Mound Up Story
In 1892, a group of Black families convinced Elzey Eugen Meachem to go against the promise they made to the Deadrick family who owned the plantation that became Orange Mound until 1889. When Meachem created the subdivision he sold 62 acres divided into 982 parcels and made many of these lots available to Black Memphians, thus creating the first Black neighborhood in Memphis and one of the first in the country at that time.
There is a legacy of ownership and self-determinism that flows through Orange Mound. It's led to W.C. Handy finding the sound that would go on to become Blues music and then creating a theatre for Black musician to perform in Orange Mound when they had few other places to play in the city. It led to the creation of an Olympic-size swimming pool during the Jim Crow era. It led to instance after instance where Orange Mound leaders have defied the racial hierarchies and created a strong quality of life by the community, for the community.
By 2019, the realities of racialized disinvestment and decades of dispossession and disinvestment took a once mixed-income Black neighborhood and turned it into a community where more than a 1 out of every 4 properties is vacant, the occupied ones are mostly renters, and the median household income is less than half of what it is in adjacent neighborhoods.
To do something about this, native Orange Mound millennial, Britney Thornton, was tired of the racial disinvestment and launched JUICE Orange Mound in 2016 and connected with friend and colleague Austin Harrison in the fall of 2019. Together they pitched the idea of a bottom-up, anti-colonial community-university partnership to Rhodes College, a private PWI about 3.5 miles north of Orange Mound.
The project was shaped in the mold of Paul Davidoff's advocacy planning but with a more explicit restorative justice approach. It also benefited from a culture of advocacy planning in Memphis started by the work of Ken Reardon and many others who had led numerous community-university planning processes.
Restoration in Action
The explicit racially restorative framing was necessary not only because of the past deleterious decisions made by top-down planning regimes, but also the current moment. Simultaneously, Orange Mound was becoming land-locked by appreciating markets and various government entities were leading land development strategies that had more of a macro-market framing than a community-centric framing. For example, Memphis' first comprehensive plan in nearly four decades (Memphis 3.0) had just wrapped up and local officials thought in many ways Mound Up! Neighborhood Revitalization Plan "picked up" where these land use, zoning, and infrastructure plans left off.
So there needed to be a clear vision for the grassroots social and economic processes that would be impacted by the larger, institutional efforts. Thornton and Harrison led two classes and four separate practicums involving over 30 different students across two years. The result was a detailed neighborhood revitalization plan driven by a steering committee of topic leaders focused on six key areas:
- Community Health
- Crime + Public Safety
- Economic Development
- Cultural Preservation
The six areas were selected by the residents and matched up with best practices in comprehensive community development. The Mound Up! plan intentionally took an asset-based approach recognizing the resiliency of these community organizations, understanding that there was very little "wrong" with Orange Mound that re-engineering a restorative neighborhood ecosystem could not fix.
Key Takeaways & What's Next?
Britney's hope is that Mound Up! becomes a restorative planning model that other community orgs working in racially disinvested contexts can learn from. In particular there are three key takeaways:
First, the plan benefited from a project-centric and asset based framework that centered the existing visions and ideas, as opposed to an additive or deficit framing.
Second, working with a university without a vested self-interest, allowed for Rhodes College Urban Studies to instituionally "safeguard" the community vision process, as an objective third party resource following the residents.
Third and finally, the role of qualitative and quantitative data allowed for residents to really begin understanding the impacts of uneven development and residential segregation.
One Orange Mound elder left a community meeting saying "I finally understand what is really going on in my neighborhood."
Now in year three of the project Thornton and Harrison's class has turned to implementing the plan and students/community leaders are now learning the ins and outs of community development finance in hopes of garnering the resources needed to implement the Mound Up! vision of a vibrant, self-deterministic, and restored Orange Mound.
Living Version of Plan
Plan Wins TN APA Project of the Year
Local News Coverage on Plan Reveal
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Bratt, R. G., & Reardon, K. M. (2013). "Beyond the ladder: New ideas about resident roles in contemporary community development." Policy, planning, and people: Promoting justice in urban development, 356-381.
Dantzler, P. A. (2021). "The urban process under racial capitalism: Race, anti-Blackness, and capital accumulation." Journal of Race, Ethnicity and the City, 2(2), 113-134.
Davidoff, P. (2015). Advocacy and pluralism in planning. In The city reader (pp. 525-535). Routledge.
Krumholz, Norman, and Kathryn Wertheim Hexter, eds. Advancing equity planning now. Cornell University Press, 2019.
Schweitzer, L. (2016). "Restorative Planning Ethics: The Therapeutic Imagination and Planning in Public Institutions." Planning Theory, 15(2), 130-144.
Williams, R. A. (2020). "From Racial to Reparative Planning: Confronting the White Side of Planning." Journal of Planning Education and Research, 0739456X20946416.
Top Image: Mural commissioned by a local artist to help raise awareness for neighborhood inequities.