Post-protests, neighborhoods lead Memphis' greenspace growth

The momentum behind the “Save the Greensward” protests could find positive outlet in a handful of new initiatives to get communities engaged in maintaining greenspaces.
The year 2016 could be remembered as an important period for reimagining what greenspaces can be in the Memphis area.
Possibly the biggest news came when the 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park made its reimagined debut this fall. The $40 million expansion includes a new visitors and event center, a larger and more environmentally sustainable lake and miles of newly-paved trails.
Earlier in the year Overton Park proponents came together to oppose the Memphis Zoo’s use of the Overton Park Greensward for overflow parking.
And as Memphians found some success fighting to protect that open space in the middle of the city, other public and private partnerships have found ways to reimagine ways to use existing greenspaces.

The momentum behind the “Save the Greensward” protests could find positive outlet in a handful of new initiatives to get communities more engaged in maintaining greenspaces.
“The fact is we don’t invest much per capita in parks,” said John Paul Shaffer, Livable Memphis program director. “Think about how big Memphis is from a land area, and it becomes even less of an investment. There is so much blight and vacant land that there are a lot of opportunities to do things with that land.”

A private partnership turned this vacant piece of land into a park dubbed the Medical District Triangle.An example of a partnership at work to create unique greenspaces came Dec. 8 with the debut of the Edge Triangle. What was once a patch of grass where Monroe Avenue Extended meets Madison Avenue, it now has paths, tables, benches, chairs, a sculpture and a dog park.
The University of Memphis Design Collaborative, Edge District, Memphis Medical District Collaborative, Memphis College of Art and Memphis City Beautiful partnered to convert the triangle-shaped lot across from the Trolley Stop Market into a usable space.
“It’s solving two issues,” said Andy Kitsinger, interim director of the University of Memphis Design Collaborative. “One is it’s an underutilized piece of property that’s generally neglected, so it allows for an opportunity for cleanup and improve the neighborhood, and it also gives the immediate neighbors another amenity,” he said.
Converting empty lots into community gardens and dog parks is growing in popularity at the neighborhood level. Larger projects are benefitting the greater community, such as the Dec. 10 opening of an ice rink at Mississippi River Park.
The rink is part of a new beginning for Memphis’ Fourth Bluff project, which recently received a $5 million grant from the Reimagining the Civic Commons partnership.
Through the Civic Commons partnership, four national foundations have charged Memphis and a handful of other cities to foster civic engagement, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability through revitalizing and connecting parks, libraries, community centers and other public spaces.

Memphis Park on Riverside Drive comes alive as part of the Fourth Bluff initiative.

Development related to the Fourth Bluff will renew a cross-cultural connection to the riverfront via Mississippi River Park, the Cossitt Library, Memphis Park and the Promenade. The effort is meant to bring more people to Downtown, which is Memphis’ densest urban area and therefore traditionally thought of as unremarkable in its availability of greenspace.
Memphis Park, an underused swath of green adjacent to the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, is enlivened the last Friday of the month with food trucks and live music. The effort draws families Downtown and renews Memphis’ connection to the Mississippi River.

“What’s compelling for Memphis is three of those four – the two parks and library – are special places close to the river that are assets that also exist all over the city,” said Justin Entzminger, Innovate Memphis director.
“As Civic Commons is executed and we work there to bring more people to the riverfront, there is a real desire to see what works well in a library or what works in a park, whether it’s a program or an investment that could be replicated and taken to other parts of the city.”
The ice rink is just one example of how the Forth Bluff will activate the various assets over the next three years with more events, activities and opportunities. But as seen with other projects across the city, the parks’ focus goes well beyond the riverfront.
 “One of the assets we believe is a benefit to our park advocacy work is that Memphians have a lot of neighborhood pride,” Entzminger said. “Our challenge is what could be available and what could these assets look like for Memphis in the 21st century so we can help Memphis deliver services to people.”
That charge to get Memphians more involved with their parks means organizing on a deeper neighborhood level.
The Hyde Family Foundation has worked on parks advocacy since 2009 when City of Memphis budget woes meant deferred maintenance on parks properties. Last year the foundation asked Innovate Memphis to create a plan regarding how independent organizations can work on parks maintenance via public-private partnerships.
In 2016, Innovate Memphis created a parks advocacy pilot program that is still underway.
Over the summer, Innovate Memphis ran three pilot programs in three parks to see how a local parks advocacy group could fulfill the mission of supporting its neighborhood asset. The parks were Kennedy in Raleigh, Gooch in the Hyde Park neighborhood and Chandler in Soulsville USA.

Innovate Memphis provided information on how to form grassroots groups to support the three parks.
Memphis Park, formerly known as Confederate Park, is rebranded as part of the mutli-asset Fourth Bluff.
“As we worked through this we found it didn’t take much before they were off and running even though groups weren’t organized,” said Megan Higgins, program manager of parks advocacy at Innovate Memphis. “There is momentum to revitalize parks in our neighborhoods. People feel parks are the heart of our neighborhoods so if the parks are a mess it’s not helpful.”
Looking back to the highly-publicized Greensward protests, Memphians from Midtown and beyond felt compelled to protest the Zoo’s use of the greenspace for private parking. Other parks in smaller pockets of Memphis just don’t have the same draw, so advocates need to sprout from within those communities.
Working on that tight neighborhood level gets the users of the park involved. It only makes sense that those people who use a park are best equipped to know the lay of the land. Entzminger said it was impressive to see how quickly the pilot groups created priority lists to better understand short- and long-term goals for the parks.
At this point, final tweaks are being made to the business plan with a hope to launch a program to incubate parks advocacy groups in early 2017. A new program would provide support to future groups looking to advocate for parks, something now in place for Chandler and Kennedy parks.
The Citizen’s Guide to Improving Your Park, a how-to guide put together by Livable Memphis, could help neighborhoods turn blighted lots into greenspaces.  
The Citizen’s Guide came out of work from ioby Memphis, a national crowdfunding organization that has empowered Memphians to come together to focus on neighborhood-level projects, many of which happen to be related to parks.
As people worked to create park spaces out of empty lots in their neighborhoods, roadblocks sometimes appeared including determining ownership of an abandoned lot. Out of that came the solution to provide a resource that helps people navigate the system.
Of course it’s more difficult than just seeing a vacant lot and turning it into a neighborhood dog park. Issues of ownership and what taxes are owed can complicate the issue. And if someone wants to do a vegetable garden on a lot, soil testing for contaminates isn’t a bad idea.
More than providing a roadmap of how to navigate the parks system, the citizen’s guide helps residents cut through red tape to create more greenspace. The Citizen’s Guide shares practical information to make park improvements, provides resources on how to be a park advocate, and helps users navigate government agencies.
“It helps determine scale of what you want to do and goals you’d like to accomplish,” Shaffer said. “It then gives resources, so if you’re working in a public park and you want garbage cans it connects you to those practical resources.”
Kitsinger said greenspace advocacy isn’t exactly new in Memphis. He pointed to the early 1990s when the City Beautiful movement across the country saw the development of parks and green networks, including the parkway system in Memphis. There is a renewed energy in the Bluff City, he added.
“Memphis 3.0 is perfect timing,” he said, referring to the City’s newly-created Office of Comprehensive Planning, which will develop a plan to guide the city’s growth for the next 25 years.
“We’ve been advocating for that for years. The timing is right and overdue. It’s an exciting time with all these renewed interests aligning.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler.