Staff Spotlight: Q&A with Susan Dalton
Jackson McNeil riding a bike

Susan Dalton is Innovate Memphis’ Director of Strategic Initiatives and was recently recognized in Memphis Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 class of 2024. Since starting at Innovate Memphis in 2017, Susan has led a range of innovation projects for parks & public space, neighborhood vitality, civic data, food security, and worked with government partners to improve processes and service delivery. Get to know Susan’s contributions and insights here with our Staff Spotlight Q&A: 

What do you enjoy most about working at Innovate Memphis?

I’m naturally very curious and enjoy learning. The first two years at Innovate Memphis felt like five years’ worth of experience – I learned so much from observing and doing. I love that my job necessitates that I learn about new topics, explore literature, learn from practitioners and community members, dive into rabbit holes, and then resurface with our innovation tools to provide the capacity to structure, develop, and support new programs and catalyze change.  

While many government services may go unnoticed, I’ve had the privilege of working on physically tangible projects. Every time I walk in River Garden, Tom Lee Park, or the Cossitt Library, I am inspired by the vibrancy in these public spaces. I take pride in knowing people from across the city have such a beautiful space to create connections and moments of joy. 

Tell us a little more about Reimagining the Civic Commons. How are our local parks and public spaces innovating to make these active, inclusive places for the Memphis community?

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a grant-funded national initiative to revitalize our shared civic assets —  parks, libraries, trails and community centers. Memphis is one of the cities working to transform the design, programming, and management of a portfolio of civic assets to achieve four key outcomes: civic engagement, socioeconomic mixing, environmental sustainability and value creation. 

The initial demonstration area was a four-block area of underinvested and disconnected assets that had great potential to transform the downtown riverfront – River Garden, Memphis Park, the Cossitt Library, and the area now known as the Fourth Bluff. We used an innovation technique called tactical urbanism – low-cost, quick-to-implement ways to enhance the physical design of these spaces and rebuild community excitement through activation events and pop-ups. We collected data through survey feedback and observations of how the community interacted with these public assets to build the case for more investment. This work served as a catalyst for larger-scale strategies and investment in Memphis’ riverfront transformation in more recent years. The intentional design of our public spaces influences how people use the space, and programming invites a variety of uses. As a result of these efforts, we saw a five-fold increase in visitors in our four-block demonstration site downtown from 2017-2021, and they’ve become essential to our city’s culture.

Since the initial demonstration project downtown, Memphis received additional funding and expanded a partner network to include practitioners across the city. Our local network of partners are learning together, sharing tools and practices, and identifying opportunities to prioritize, fund, manage, and operate public space as a critical element of community development and civic infrastructure. 

What keeps you motivated as an individual?

I took an atypical career path with winding side paths, but I think that diversity of experience is a strength. I’ve learned something from each role that applies to all the following. I worked in the hospitality industry for over ten years and that service mindset became ingrained in me and strengthened my resilience.  

What are you looking forward to during the rest of 2024?

Although the City of Memphis was an early adopter, the civic innovation sector is still developing, with a growing body of research, resources, and practitioners. I’ve been fascinated by its evolution over the years, and I’m inspired by peers across the country raising the bar. Government agencies are uniquely positioned to deliver meaningful social impact at a scale that no other entity can. I am confident in Mayor Paul Young and his administration to advance Memphis and I’m especially looking forward to seeing advances in environmental sustainability and community development.