Ben Schulman is a writer and editor based in New York's Hudson River Valley. When not writing about cities, he works with Small Change, an equity crowdfunding platform dedicated to building better cities.
Shelby Farms Park and the Shelby Farms Greenline demonstrate a civic interest in landscape design not seen in years.
In the opening pages of his magisterial book, It Came from Memphis, historian Robert Gordon writes, “If aerial photographs could reveal energy the way infrared photographs reveal heat, Memphis would be surrounded by vectors pointing toward it.”
Gordon was nodding toward W.C. Handy, Elvis Presley, Al Green, Johnny Cash, Alex Chilton, and innumerable others who have made the city the most significant contributor to American music outside of New Orleans. Those vectors vibrate toward Memphis for other purposes as well: the design and development of urban parks.
Memphis is the place where George Kessler, landscape architect and urban planning pioneer, brought the City Beautiful to the South, pairing pragmatic planning principles and lush, English Romantic-inspired ideas to create the Memphis Parkway System and Riverside and Overton Parks, among others. After decades of conventional sprawl development that planned parks secondarily, the civic spirit of Kessler is being renewed, as seen in the development of Shelby Farms Park and most recently, the extension of rails-to-trails bikeway, the Shelby Farms Greenline.
Shelby Farms Park is massive. At 4,500 acres, it dwarfs Central Park and is one of the 20 largest urban parks in the nation. From the 1920s through the 1960s, the land functioned as a penal farm that grew its own food that went back to the prison maintained by the Shelby County Corrections Center. (The county jail still stands just to the north of the park.) The prison/farm model went into disuse in the mid-‘60s, and Shelby County, where Memphis sits, maintained control of the land. While the county opened the site up for public recreation, it never adopted any official management or landscape program.
Various developments were proposed over the years; a greenfield town, a highway extension that cut through its core, a golf course and conference center. None took hold. It wasn’t until 2006 that a long-term vision for the area as a park was codified, when the county board of commissioners granted a conservation easement protecting the land from development. The Shelby Farm Park Conservancy (SFPC), a non-profit created out of the advocacy group, The Shelby Farm Park Alliance (SFPA), emerged as the steward to lead the public-private process of formally transforming Shelby Farms into Shelby Farms Park.
“There was a small group of us at the same time—all sorts of friends and stakeholder organizations like The Wolf River Conservancy, Greater Memphis Greenline, citizen-activist philanthropists—who were promoting ‘Shelby Farms Park,’ and who really understood the interconnected opportunity,” says Laura Wolff Morris, the former chair of the SFPA who went on to become the first executive director of the Shelby County Park Conservancy. (Morris left SFPC in late 2015; her successor, Jen Andrews, was the first employee of the conservancy, and by serendipity, was selected to replace Morris through a national search.)
“No one anticipated [at the onset of advocating for the park] that we’d be the operating entity, but we understood how to build things,” Morris says. That included awareness. At one of the first public meetings for the park, Morris anticipated that maybe 100 people would show. 1,000 did. “The response told us people were hungry for it,” she says now.
James Corner Field Operations, the New York landscape architecture firm whose distinctively humble-yet-contemporary mark has been left on projects as diverse as The High Line in Manhattan and Busan Civic Park in Busan, South Korea, was selected to lead the master planning. “What struck us was the scale, and how central it was to downtown,” says Richard Kennedy, senior principal at Field Operations and lead designer. “The second-most striking thing was how diverse the uses of the park were already. There was evidence of fishing, kayaking, hiking, jogging, cycling, all of these things without much infrastructure.”
The informal uses led Kennedy to realize that “perhaps the place needn’t be fully remade.” After a period of public input that drew heavily upon what people already liked about Shelby Farms, Kennedy says, “the approach was to make minimal transformations for maximum impact.”
Field Operations made the informal formal, mapping out wayfinding, dedicated spaces for rest, and ecological restoration. They drew plans for the Shelby Farms Woodland Discovery Playground, a two-acre children’s play area that emphasizes exploration and whose design was influenced in part by a children’s charette. Heart of the Park, the literal center of the park, includes an ambitious expansion of a man-made lake, wetland and garden plantings, walking and cycling paths and a number of user facilities such as cobble beaches, docks and a visitor and event center. Heart of the Park is slated to open this fall.
Yet, many of the interventions in the landscape were more about increasing connectivity and creating points of access rather than re-conceptualizing. The Wolf River Pedestrian Bridge offers easy entry to the southern end of the park. The Shelby Farms Greenline, designed by local Memphis landscape architecture firm Richie Smith Associates (RSA), is the most salient of these connective features. A 6.5-mile former CSX rail line that runs completely along the park’s northern border, the Greenline spans westward toward downtown and opened in 2010. A 4.1-mile eastward expansion was completed this June.
Although the Greenline was conceived and built out in two separate phases, Smith and RSA partner, Lissa Thompson, were mindful to create a sense of seamlessness between the western and eastern paths. “For continuity, every design detail, from signage to the custom bollards, was continued,” says Smith. The smooth, consistent aesthetic masks numerous hurdles Smith and Thompson faced. Phase one presented trestles, railroad tracks and bridges; phase two, difficult street crossings, including Germantown Parkway, a six-lane, heavily trafficked arterial. For the Germantown Pkwy crossing, a refuge median was put in place to calm the tension between the suburban-like surroundings and the cyclist. At other points on the map, HAWK signals, a user-activated traffic signal that gives priority to pedestrian and cyclists, were utilized. “There’s an effort to raise awareness of shared streets,” Thompson says.
Over 100,000 pedestrians and cyclists used the Greenline in 2015, according to Rebecca Dailey, who has worked in development and communications for SFPC the past five years. “That number is expected to increase significantly with the trail's recent expansion, which connects 1,000-plus new households to the trail,” she says.
Shelby Farms Park may be Memphis’ largest profile open space restoration project, but it’s far from alone. This October, the Harahan Bridge, an early 20th-century bridge that connects Memphis with West Memphis, Arkansas, will be reopened as Big River Crossing, a 10-mile span over the Mississippi River that accommodates rail, pedestrians and cyclists.
Like Gordon wrote, those vectors still point toward Memphis.
“Memphis got it very, very wrong for a long time,” Morris says. “Somehow we lost our way. But I cannot tell you the excitement I feel for the city now because of the good decisions we’re making. It’s more than the park, the greenways, the Greenline. It’s all these things. They are a part of the same story – and it’s thrilling.”