Germantown: Model for Sustainability

Josh Whitehead
AICP, Planning Director, City of Germantown

I first started hearing the term “sustainability” in reference to the built environment about 10 years ago when I was in graduate school. I suppose it wasn’t until then that Americans began witnessing the same kind of disinvestment in suburban communities that had been ravaging the nation’s urban cores for decades. The idea of creating sustainable developments arose out of the concern that we were simply building new communities that were cannibalizing old communities. To make matters worse, since the new places we were building were not designed for the long haul, most of them ended up getting cannibalized themselves, usually within a decade or two. I think one of Germantown’s strongest attributes is the number of young families moving into the same neighborhoods they were raised in and often where their parents and grandparents still reside. The ability for a community to serve multiple generations over a course of generations is a strong indicator of sustainability. As Planning Director of the City of Germantown, part of my job is to ensure that our new residential developments are designed to continue this trend. This task is made much easier by the fact that the city has, over the years, developed some of the most envied development guidelines in the nation. These guidelines have given Germantown a solid reputation as one of the most sustainable residential communities in Tennessee, with home appreciation rates far exceeding the metropolitan, state and national averages. But, a city in Tennessee cannot rely solely on residential property taxes and achieve true, long-term sustainability. This determination was made with great foresight several years ago by the citizen-led Germantown Vision 2020 strategic plan. Vision 2020 charted a road to comprehensive municipal viability by envisioning a Germantown that was not just a city of excellent residential neighborhoods, but also one with a strong, mixed-use city center. This city center includes shops along sidewalks with condos above, pedestrian-oriented streetscapes and buildings exceeding the long-standing three-story height limitation. With a clear signal for the revitalization of the core of Germantown from Vision 2020, the city then embarked upon the adoption of the Smart Growth model of growth for the area roughly within a half mile of the intersection of Poplar and Germantown Road. A whole new set of zoning restrictions, collectively known as the SmartCode, was established in this area to usher the kind of development called on by Vision 2020. The SmartCode strongly encourages LEED buildings, a designation of green, sustainable construction. The City is currently in the planning phase of constructing the first LEED municipal building in Shelby County, its new fire station on Forest Hill-Irene Road. With these solid foundations, Germantown will become a sustainable, well-rounded community where people will not only want to live, but also work and play.