The parks are packed as Memphians look to work and play safely

Memphis has seen a surge in park usage this spring due in no small part to the pandemic and economic recession.

Parks are free, fun, healthy, and safer for gathering than indoor spaces. On a higher level, they're a piece of normalcy that people are desperate for after a year-plus of isolation. 

Rebecca Dailey, communications and creative specialist for Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, said they've seen their patronage double since 2019.

“Parks have always played an important role in the community's health and well being, but we have really seen that come to life in the last year, especially this past spring,” said Dailey.

Shelby Farms Park isn't alone. Other entities that manage or support areas park—including the City of Memphis, Memphis River Parks Partnerships, Memphis Tourism, the State of Tennessee, and individual park patrons—are saying the same thing. 

High Ground’s own research showed some of the new ways people are using the parks to adapt to pandemic life. 

Over two weeks, High Ground staff visited eight Memphis-area parks: Audubon, Douglass, Gaisman, Lewis-Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., Overton, Sea Isle, and Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. 

Alongside a ton of the more typical biking, walking, sports games and practices, cookouts, fishing, picnics, hangouts, and playground antics, our team spotted: three birthday celebrations, two family reunions, two study groups, an office meeting, a food relief distribution event, Central High School’s band practice, and an after-work meet up for local professionals. 

Across all eight parks, there was a palatable feeling of a new normalcy and a city in recovery.  

On the May 3 episode of the Memphis Metropolis radio show and podcast, Nick Walker said the city's parks division and others they've spoken with have agreed they're seeing a roughly 60% increase in activation of public spaces over the last year. Walker is director of Memphis' Division of Parks and Neighborhoods, which oversees more than 150 greenspaces and 5,600 acres of parkland. 

“The one that we measure quite a bit because it's our highest usage park for the last year and a half is David Carnes park in Whitehaven. And it's probably close to 100% increase, which is crazy because it was already really heavily utilized," Walker told High Ground.

Walker said the city has also moved some programming to the parks that would have been indoors pre-pandemic, like yoga that was previously held at community centers and an outdoor concert series that is sponsored by the city's senior centers. 

“From the city's perspective, there was a lot of stuff we had to close down. So the fact that we were able to take some of our programming and put it out in the city in the parks was just incredible,” said Walker.
Park goers walk the path at Audubon Park between a picnic to the left and cookout to the right. Classic soul music plays from a second cookout, which they've just passed. April 2021. (Cole Bradley)

Believe What You See
The various park agencies are leveraging technology to collect data on the surge in park visitors, including eco-counters and geo-fences. Some devices can count park usage by tracking how cell phones move. Others are embedded in trails and use vibrations to determine if the patron is on foot or biking. Above-ground gate counters can also count basic car traffic.

Nicholas Oyler is the bike and pedestrian manager for the City of Memphis. His team saw the increase in bikers and foot traffic but wanted to confirm with real numbers from available tracking tools across the city. 

"Sure enough, the data revealed what we had suspected and what we were observing casually—that there had been a tremendous uptick," said Oyler.

Dailey, whose organization manages Shelby Farms Park and Shelby Farms Greenline in partnership with the county government, said there are limitations to the technology. Counting a car, for example, doesn't count how many people are in the car. 

"So we're not able to exactly know how many people are in the park,” Dailey said. “But we've tried to do our best guesstimating at least two passengers average per vehicle.”

Both Walker and Ashley McHugh, research director for Memphis Tourism, told High Ground that most parks in the city don't have technology-based counters, but they know the increase in use is a significant and consistent trend based on available data and the direct observations of both park workers and patrons. 

“What you're seeing with your eyes matches what we're seeing on the ground. I don't think there's a single park that is getting less activation today than it was this time two years ago.” said Walker. 
At Gaisman Park, a Friday night pickup game draws spectators. In the background families play games in the field in front of Gaisman's playground. The new mini-kick soccer court was sponsored by the U.S. Soccer Foundation and Target. May 2021. (Cole Bradley)

“I don't think it's a mystery, right?"...
Local park are always popular in spring and early summer, but this extreme usage is no doubt fueled by the pandemic. Many indoor spaces are closed or unsafe and money's tight for a lot of Memphians, which has put a high demand on free ways to have fun and escape the stress of pandemic life. 

“I don't think it's a mystery, right?," said McHugh of the pandemic's influence. "We were told to go outside and social distance."

Dailey also pointed to social distancing. She said parks, particularly Shelby Farms Park with its 4,500 acres, are the perfect solution. Meanwhile, Kim Schofinski pointed to the health benefits.

"The outdoors can be a sanctuary for mental and physical health and are extremely important to Tennesseans," said Schofinski, deputy communications director for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees the state's park system.

George Abbott is director of external affairs for Memphis River Parks Partnership. That partnership manages five riverfront park districts of 250 acres, which includes Big River Crossing and Greenbelt, Mud Island, Fourth Bluff, and Martin Luther King Jr. parks.

Abbot pointed to pandemic-related shutdowns of many entertainment and recreation opportunities as a key factor pushing people to the parks.  

“The parks never closed, you know. The parks and public [spaces] were always there for people to use in a number of different ways,” he said.

A Curious Note on T. O. Fuller State Park  
Memphis has two state parks in its metro area, Meeman-Shelby Forest to the north and T. O. Fuller to the south. 

T. O. Fuller State Park was dedicated in 1938 as the Black-only sister park to Meeman Shelby Forest, which was all-white at the time. T. O. Fuller is also home to the The C.H. Nash Museum and Chucalissa archaeological site. Its earthen mounds date to around 1500 AD and were built by the people of the Mississippian culture. 

Tennessee's state parks can offer day activities, camping, and cabins. Some activities have fees, but there are no fees for general use like cookouts and hiking and state residents get a discount on overnight stays.

Across the state, a comparison of overnight rentals in March and April of 2019 versus 2021 shows double-digit occupancy rate increases as high as 23%. Schofinski said a comparison of May and June is still speculative but they're expected to follow suit.

But Schofinski said T. O. Fuller's numbers seem to be an anomaly.

Back in 2019, T. O. Fuller had much higher rates of campsite occupancy than Shelby Forest. 

But in 2021, T. O. Fuller's rentals were down 23.6% in March in 19.3% for April. Data on Shelby Forest showed the expected double-digit occupancy increases. 
[High Ground's signature On the Ground series goes deep into Memphis neighborhoods with months of embedded coverage followed by ongoing check-ins. Some of the parks we visited for this story are in or serve these OTG communities: Hickory HillUniversity District, Orange Mound, North Memphis, South City, and The Heights. Click the links for more neighborhood stories.]
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Read more articles by Chris Jones & Cole Bradley.