A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture featuring urban retail expert Robert Gibbs.

Gibbs, an internationally renowned urban retail consultant, focused on the concept of sustainable urban retail and discussed trends that would ultimately impact our neighborhoods. But what struck me most about the discussion were the characteristics he used to describe “great cities”. While some were physical – great streetscapes and unobstructed views of storefronts – most were psychological.

What I took away from the Gibbs presentation is that there are some key underlying behaviors present in cities that are considered great. As I researched for this post, I realized that these behaviors or motivators are eerily similar to those often touted in best-selling management books as the characteristics of great leaders.

Over the next few days, we’ll go through each of these behaviors, breaking them down and discussing how our city stacks up.

The first behavior we’ll discuss is ownership.

During his visit to Memphis, Gibbs walked the streets with city leaders, property managers and predominant real estate owners. As Gibbs recounted his visit to the audience, he said that while our city has some of the most authentic urban structures of any city in the U.S., the number of broken windows and debris littering our streets shocked him. Even in front of some of the city’s most impressive landmarks and dining destinations, he said, there were impressive volumes of trash and broken glass.

As a contrast, Gibbs talked about King Street in Charleston, South Carolina – the holy grail of the modern urban planning movement. He shared slides of Charleston’s unique cluster of shops and how they incorporated big box retail into a historic district by focusing not only on creating strict design codes, but also feverishly enforcing them.

And then he talked about how, because of the street structure of Charleston’s historic downtown, the merchants have to put their trash out in front of their store each morning for collection.

What stuck out to me was the behavior of the Charleston merchants Gibbs cited.

Once the trash is picked up, usually before 10 a.m., the storeowners along King Street clean the area of sidewalk directly adjacent to their shops. They each individually hose down the stone walkways, getting rid of all the stickiness and smell from the trash heaps that cluttered the sidewalks just hours before. The city doesn’t pay for this. The merchant’s association doesn’t mandate it. The taxpayers don’t spend a dime to support it. The shop owners take that responsibility even though the sidewalk is a shared public space. There’s a collective ownership – a feeling of both pride and responsibility – that drives downtown Charleston business owners to clean the sidewalks on a daily basis.

During the presentation, Gibbs shared an observational example of this kind of civic responsibility in Memphis. While touring downtown Gibbs witnessed a member of his host group stop mid-conversation and pick up some litter on a downtown sidewalk. Despite her position or the fact that she was in a suit and heels, this individual felt a responsibility, a pride – maybe even a little embarrassment – about the state of her streets, and despite it not being her job she stopped to pick up trash.

She didn’t think it was beneath her, she didn’t complain about how dirty the city’s streets are and she didn’t ignore it. For some reason, this particular person felt some kind of personal responsibility to keep our streets clean.

In contrast, Gibbs shared an image of a lamppost whose trunk was cluttered with staples and fragments of posters. This particular lamppost, he said, was situated just outside the entryway of one of the Memphis’s most renowned Midtown eateries.

He challenged the room with this question: Why didn’t the owners of this establishment feel responsible for cleaning up this lamppost?

According to Gibbs, great cities share this kind of collective mindset that everyone is as much part of the problem and they are part of the solution. Citizens of great cities – no matter where they fall on the economic ladder – take this kind of pride and do their part in keeping streets clean and safe.

How Memphis Measures Up
So how does our city measure up when it comes to ownership

Depends on whom you ask.

Based on Gibbs assessment, perhaps not as positively as we’d like.

Gibbs hinted that perhaps our city’s greatest challenge could be a lack of the kind of pride and responsibility that creates the feeling of ownership of great cities.

Most interestingly, he perceived this problem up and down socioeconomic and professional boundaries. He stopped just shy of suggesting that some of our city’s leadership – across civic and private interests – take more active, ground-level responsibility in boosting civic pride by leading by example.

Gibbs insinuated that it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, if you were a suit to work or jeans, or even if you have a job, if you have a sense of pride and responsibility to the community you live in, you can achieve greatness.

The contrast Gibbs presented was an interesting illustration of how we view our individual responsibility to the greater civic success of the city. Perhaps it isn’t a judgment as much as a learning opportunity.

As a nearly 10-year veteran of this city, my personal assessment is that civic pride over the last year has been on the rise. The responsibility part, I’m not so sure about.

How do you think Memphis measures up in terms of its citizens feeling ownership?

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