South Memphis

Urban Land Institute studies South Memphis parks, makes suggestions for key improvements

Parks are not just a place for children to play. They're spaces for relaxation and community building for people of all ages and backgrounds. 

The national Urban Land Institute was in Memphis last week to study the parks in South Memphis.

ULI convened a group of experts who spent three days in South Memphis examining its parks and talking to stakeholders. They then presented their research findings at a public meeting on January 31 at the Gaston Community Center.

The National Study Visit explored the role parks play in neighborhood revitalization and how to activate parks with limited resources and gave specific recommendations for greater investment in South Memphis' parks.

Daniel Betts is the director of the Cincinnati Recreation Commission and was one of the eight experts. 

“We wanted to come in and help the current leadership in Division of Parks & Neighborhoods to look at how they can improve these assets for the betterment of folks who are in the community and folks trying to move back to the community,” said Betts.

The researchers noted several benefits of parks, including community cohesion, health, equity and inclusion, environmental sustainability, and equitable economic development.

The meeting is part of the 10-Minute Walk campaign. The campaign hopes to rebalance access to public space and address the fact that one in three Americans don’t have a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. The campaign’s goal is to see 100% of people in urban areas living within a 10-minute walk of a high-quality, public green space by 2050.

In winter 2019, the City of Memphis Division of Parks and Neighborhoods received a 10-Minute Walk grant.

ULI, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the Trust for Public Land are partners in the grant and campaign. The funding is used to support city planning and policy efforts that increase access to convenient, high-quality public parks and green spaces.

“As part of that grant, they were awarded a National Study Visit from ULI National,” said Anna Holtzclaw, director of ULI Memphis. “The national ULI staff brought together a meeting of eight experts and parks from across the country.”

What The Experts Recommend

The experts made a number of key suggestions for the parks of South Memphis. They based their recommendations on their engagement with community members, their existing expertise, secondary research, and benchmark examples from other cities.

First, they recommended that the parks become an integral part of the city’s economic development strategy and park maintenance not be deferred when the economy is slow.

“We gotta make South Memphis a priority in terms of deferred maintenance in their parks. It’s not going to be easy [when times are tough],” said Betts.

They also recommended the city work to remove barriers like title issues, financing, and policies that keep community members from purchasing and developing parcels for pocket parks.

The experts encouraged the city to identify ways to bring comprehensive and collaborative public and private development to South Memphis that includes housing, small-businesses, parks, and more. They suggested the city continue to embrace its Memphis 3.0 plan and mission of strategic public-private investment.

“We think that if you pair the vision for that park with big community goals like redevelopment, and affordable housing, that gives you a vision of how to handle small park spaces,” said Ryan Cambridge, planning practice leader for Browning Day in Indianapolis, Indiana and South Memphis parks study expert.

Their last recommendations focused on connectivity. The researchers suggested the city connect South Memphis’ parks with its existing cultural assets via streets that offer safe and beautiful spaces for pedestrians to move from place to place. They further suggested those connections extend to other areas of the city like Downtown.

What the Experts Found

The researchers paired off and spent three days observing South Memphis parks. They interviewed community members at the parks and met with residents, government representatives, and city planners for broader community input.

“We saw a lot of challenges like high vacancy rates and infrastructure challenges in the areas around the park. Things like that are pretty common in urban environments,” said Cambridge.

The experts found South Memphis as a whole is a closely-knit community with residents who want to help their community grow. It has community assets including schools and places of worship, and most of its existing parks are well-maintained even if they aren't well-appointed

“Just the proximity of the South Memphis neighborhood to the river to Soulsville to Downtown … you have all these great assets,” said Cambridge. “From a geographic standpoint it's a really desirable location.”

They also noted that South Memphis has high levels of vacancy and poverty and that widespread vacancy and disinvestment affects parks. When neighborhoods struggle with basic needs like transportation, jobs, and safe housing, parks hit the bottom of funding priority lists.

The researchers found several parks with fewer amenities and fewer visitors. They noted that some South Memphis parks are tucked away deep in neighborhoods. With little visibility, many people don’t know they’re there.

“There’s not a lot of amenities in them. They’re generally underutilized. They don’t have a lot of people advocating for them,” said Cambridge of many of the South Memphis parks studied.

According to the researchers, Gaston and Southside Parks were among the best maintained and most well-utilized parks in South Memphis. Gaston Park has walking paths, which Cambridge said are the most desired amenities of any park across the United States.

“Everybody likes walking, and it’s nice to do it inside of a park,” said Cambridge.

From residents, the researchers heard that Memphis has momentum. They want to see opportunities for volunteering in the parks, park ambassadors programs, and youth programs. They also wanted to see the city’s culture of planning and development include community voices in greater numbers and given greater power in decision making.

Residents reported that they were frustrated with poor lighting and a lack of policing at their parks. Residents want to see more equity in the city’s park priorities and budgeting and said they feel the city doesn’t not listen to their suggestions or concerns.

The final report of the findings should be available in the next two to three months.
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Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit (Photo by April Stilwell)