Nashville City Hall sits in the northeast corner of downtown Nashville, presiding over a pristine public square and the Cumberland River. Though just a few blocks from historic Broadway, the Johnny Cash Museum, and other famed tourist attractions, this area of downtown Nashville feels different: grander, and quieter (perhaps less frequented by the average tourist or even resident). City Hall was one of four stops a group of fifteen Master’s Students from the Department of City and Regional Planning (DCRP) at UNC – Chapel Hill recently made during a weekend in Music City. In its second year, this DCRP excursion is primarily designed to expose students to a variety of occupations in planning (though as self-proclaimed city nerds, we admittedly are enthusiastic simply about exploring a new city). Though we had a handful of wonderful networking opportunities over the course of the weekend, I found learning about Mayor Megan Barry and her team’s planning efforts to be a highlight.
As Master’s Candidates, we often put planning career paths and occupations into three groups: the public, private, and non-profit sectors. But as this visit confirmed, in reality those categories are sometimes far too broad to properly describe roles in the profession. Our group was lucky enough to meet with four members of Mayor Barry’s team: Erin Williams, Director of Constituent Response, Adriane Bond Harris, Senior Advisor of Affordable Housing, Morgan Mansa, Housing Program Manager, and John Murphy, Financial Empowerment Manager.
Mayor Barry’s name came up in nearly every meeting we had over the course of the weekend: she is viewed as a progressive leader, and most seem excited by the potential for change in the condition of transportation and housing in Nashville. Ms. Harris and Ms. Mansa, who have planning backgrounds, reiterated this: both seemed optimistic about the possibility of helping to decrease the affordable housing shortage, though they had some concerns about working with the state government on this front. Inherent in their positions within the Mayor’s Office is an agenda that is tied directly to an administration, as opposed that that of a city, agency, or other organization. This was a fascinating point to consider; Ms. Harris framed it as putting money towards an end instead of money to a department.
For Mayor Barry’s Office, this concept of “money towards an end” translates to holistic financial counseling, more detailed data regarding where Nashville residents displaced by gentrification are relocating, and a multitude of projects in between. The team also cited the Public Investment Plan (PIP) as a new innovation; this methodology of budgeting requires collaboration between city and county departments as well as local non-government groups. Even within their storied careers, the team clearly found the PIP to be a novel approach.
Does funneling funds to issues instead of agencies really result in greater change? Mayor Barry’s team seemed optimistic about this, though the evidence may not present itself in full until Mayor Barry leaves office. Some of the pressure to create change in Nashville, surely felt by Mayor Barry and her team, became more personal when we visited the First Baptist Church of East Nashville the next day. I found this to be one of the most moving parts of our visit to Nashville. Completed in 1931, First Baptist Church and its congregation have deep and lasting roots in the quickly gentrifying East Nashville area. As we learned during the first session of a two-part series entitled “Recognize the Struggle,” not every church in the area has been so lucky to withstand urban renewal and other forces. After two presentations on the history of this historically black neighborhood, the Honorable Richard H. Dinkins of the Tennessee Court of Appeals called upon the Mayor’s Office to recognize the consistent and now worsening threat of displacement in East Nashville. I thought back to City Hall, and hoped that they had heard the call to action, too.
Feature Image: Nashville City Hall. Photo Credit: Karla Jimenez.
About the Author: Sadie Nott is a first-year Master’s Student at DCRP. Prior to returning to school, she worked as an admission officer for a liberal arts college, where she first gained an appreciation for shaping communities. In her spare time, Sadie enjoys making art, most recently completing a project involving hiking all forty-nine of San Francisco’s hills.