The path to connectivity: Greenprint maps a 25-year vision

After extensive planning on how to best connect major parks and greenspaces throughout the city, the Mid-South Regional Greenprint now hits its final review phase. The ambitious vision to better connect the communities of the Mid-South could have broad impact for the city, from environmental protection to economic development.
The Memphis of 25 years from now will undoubtedly be a much more connected place, thanks to the Mid-South Regional Greenprint 2015/2040 initiative, which seeks to enhance livability and sustainability of the area by expanding the number of greenway trails from 50 miles to 500 miles in the next 25 years.
 
The Memphis-Shelby County Office of Sustainability is requesting public feedback on the initiative until October 3.
 
"We've focused on connecting the major green spaces and large park spaces that we have here," says John Zeanah, Administrator with the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Sustainability and Program Manager for the duration of the Greenprint project. "Green space is something everyone can agree on, and there has already been a good deal of momentum with greenways throughout the three Mid-South states in the past several years."
 
The highly collaborative process involved bringing together a consortium of more than 80 organizations and 300 individuals from the region, including groups like the Memphis Area Transit Authority for transportation issues and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center for equity matters. Other key partners along the way included ULI Memphis, DeSoto County Greenways, Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation, Hyde Family Foundations, Wolf River Conservancy and a number of municipal partners from the four-county area.
 
"It's been a very ambitious project, and I think Shelby County and our community should be proud of the results," says Keith Cole, Executive Director of the Wolf River Conservancy and Chair of the Executive Committee for the Greenprint organization. "Many committed citizens and organizations gave timeless volunteer hours and input into the project."
 
He explains that the conservancy, which has protected more than 14,000 acres in the Wolf River watershed, staffed the resource conservation group for the project and was very active with greenway planning. "We are currently positioning ourselves to make public plans soon to build out the Wolf River Greenway, continuing our partnership with the City of Memphis," Cole says.
 
He believes that project will be completed in fewer than ten years.
 
Today there are about 50 miles of greenway trails in the Mid-South. By 2040 there will be more than 500 miles of greenway trails, along with on-road connectors for green spaces, communities and employment areas across Shelby County and Fayette County,Tenn.; Crittenden County, Ark.; and DeSoto County, Miss.
 
"We're covering a broad range of benefits and impacts that the plan can have beyond creating a network only for recreational purposes," Zeanah says. "The network of green space comes together across the three states to link natural spaces, employment centers, communities and opportunities for transportation choices."
 
Zeanah estimates the cost of developing each mile of greenway trail at roughly $777,000, and he feels each section presents its own set of unique challenges.
 
"Every section, every link will be different," he says. "We tried to create a framework for the different ways the system gets built over the next 25 years and provide as much information as we can to the municipalities, non-profits and private organizations that they can implement over the next 25 years."
 
In November 2011 Shelby County Government received a $2.6 million HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant for the Mid-South Regional Greenprint & Sustainability Plan, and the planning process began in August 2012. "We've had close to 90 meetings over the last two years in communities all over the region," says Zeanah. "We tried to get into the community as much as possible to get their take on the plan and their priorities."
 
Public engagement included meetings at community centers, getting on the agendas of neighborhood associations, and even talking to people at transit centers as they changed busses. Targets for action in the first few years of the plan include a goal of 50 miles of new trails in the first five years and creating more neighborhood access to green spaces.
 
"We have a really high amount of park acreage as a region--in fact, very high compared to other regions. But when you break it down in terms of where those acres are, a lot are in some of our larger spaces like Shelby Forest or Shelby Farms Park," Zeanah points out. "And when you look at neighborhood access to green space, we have several gaps within the region with communities that do not have a green space within a half-mile/ten-minute walking distance."
 
To remedy that problem, another early goal is to also create 25 pocket parks in the first five years of the plan. Other focal points include access to healthy foods, economic development, expanding green technology workforce development, long-term housing and land use, resource conservation, environmental protection and transportation choices.
 
"When we drew the network and thought of the broader transportation network, we layered in bike lanes and bus routes so we could see how greenways, bike lanes and bus routes overlap to create some interesting multi-modal corridors," Zeanah explains. "As a community redevelopment strategy, we get a lot of vibrant streets that come out of that."
 
One-third of the regional grant budget was awarded to 20 community partners to use for demonstration plans that would advance the regional vision concept at the local scale. Designs are due by October 1 and will include ideas for improvements to Overton Park to improve pedestrian and bicycle connections into the park and a West Memphis ecological nature park plan. 

The draft will be posted online through October 3, and Zeanah will be at Pizza With Planners at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on September 18 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. to meet with people and listen to feedback. The plan should be published in November.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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