Urban forest II: Growing a green giant in South Memphis

In a previous article, High Ground News explored the benefits of green space in Memphis' urban environment and the beginnings of an effort to plant four million trees across the city of Memphis over the next 10 to 15 years.
In the second installments of this series, we’ll focus how on numerous efforts are converging to create a new narrative that places South Memphis as a world-class place to live as well as a leader in green infrastructure.

Tourists. We all know what they’re here for. Barbecue, Elvis, maybe a Grizzlies game.

They’re likely not coming to visit South Memphis.

Years of heavy disinvestment have left the area south of downtown with little commerce, copious blight, and with the exception of the Stax museum and Soulsville area, seemingly few reasons for tourists or even other Memphians to make the trek.

But there’s a synergy happening in South Memphis. Organizations and individuals are merging efforts and ideas to grow the area’s health and wealth through investment in green infrastructure.

Residents and community organizations have worked for years to identify development priorities. Repurposing vacant land, improving health and property values and creating jobs top the list.

Roshun Austin, president and CEO of The Works, Inc., a South Memphis nonprofit.

“We want to beautify South Memphis and provide economic opportunities for our residents,” said Roshun Austin, president and CEO of The Works, Inc., a powerhouse nonprofit involved in dozens of projects from housing loans to the South Memphis Farmers Market.

This new green initiative started with a brainstorming session to identify current assets and ways to capitalize on them. Residents and representatives from education, nonprofits, healthcare, and philanthropy identified major opportunities; chiefly, abundant vacant land and an unparalleled ability to quickly grow hardwood trees thanks to our ideal soil, water, and weather.

Leaders of that initiative to beautify South Memphis banded together as South Memphis Trees.

Related: "Urban forest I: Push to plan 4M trees in Memphis promises natural health benefits"

A question emerged. “We have this incredible asset in potential to grow and we have all this vacant land. Can we figure out a way to put it together?,” says Steve Barlow, president of Neighborhood Preservation Inc.

South Memphis Trees researched different approaches and took a field trip to Detroit to observe firsthand urban tree farming and reforestation. They sought guidance from local urban ecologists, Chris Crosby and Mike Larrivee, as well as a large-scale farming expert.

Their findings show that Memphis needs 40,000 additional acres of large trees for a healthy canopy. If 40,000 to 50,000 trees are planted each year, the city could reach optimal tree density in 10 to 15 years.

Despite Memphis' incredible growing potential, there are no local suppliers. Trees have to be trucked in from as far away as California.

“We’re talking about a farm with hundreds of acres and thousands of trees where we can create jobs,” said Austin of the group's vision for South Memphis as the region's tree farm. 

 Nonprofits, school groups, community groups, builders, and gardeners from across the city could come to South Memphis’ new tree farm to pick their trees and get help with planning and planting.

Neighborhood kids help to grow, harvest, and sell produce, like lettuce, at Greenleaf Learning Farm, a "green oasis" surrounded by art and neighbors. (Greenleaf Learning Farm)Agrotourism booms. People travel from all over the world to learn about the farm’s innovative design and collaborative nonprofit model.

Residents of South Memphis would manage operations and sales and maintain the environment. In summers they use the shade of the trees as a gathering place for family reunions, church picnics, and games of tag.

Looking longterm, the activity ripples, as once-vacant lots fill with new homes, businesses, and parks, all featuring young trees from the farm.

“When people see something positive happening, that may promote them to put a coat of paint on their door. People who may not know about South Memphis, maybe they come to volunteer, and they look around and think, ‘Man, this might be an option for me if I’m looking for a house,’” said The Works Inc.’s Gregory Love.

The vision of a lush and thriving South Memphis also includes also includes existing assets, like Knowledge Quest’s Greenleaf Learning Farm.

“If you go down to Greenleaf, you feel like you’ve walked into a green oasis. Green matters and design matters. You put the two together, and it’s kind of unbeatable,” said The Kresge Foundation’s senior fellow, Carol Coletta.

Greenleaf’s farm teaches neighborhood kids how to grow, harvest, and sell their own produce. Knowledge Quest is also on a mission to repurpose 30 vacant lots and three vacant buildings near the farm for housing, farming, and communal use.

Related: "Knowledge Quest shapes home, health life of Soulsville"

It’s easy to envision the learning farm and the future tree farm as anchors for a groundbreaking urban agricultural community.

“Collectively in South Memphis, all of these things begin to interweave,” said Marlon Foster, Knowledge Quest’s executive director. “This awesome greening, beautification effort that has elements of employment, entrepreneurship, housing, and of course, overall, just quality of life.”

The South Memphis Trees initiative is still in its early stages. While It has a vision and a name, a formal business plan is in development.

The partners — a large and diverse network of supporters with The Works Inc., NPI, Knowledge Quest, and The Kresge Foundation representing the core of the collaboration — are comfortable with the growing organization's careful pace. 

Volunteers plant native hardwood trees at a once-vacant lot on Kerr Avenue. The planting event was a way for South Memphis Trees to demonstrate what community-led reforestation could look like were a local supplier available. (South Memphis Trees)

In December, the South Memphis Trees partners cleared two vacant lots on the south side of Kerr Avenue, creating pocket parks with native hardwood nurseries. This proof of concept meant hands-on experience with transplanting the young trees they hope to soon grow themselves.

“There was so much connection there between volunteers from outside the neighborhood and people who live in the neighborhood ... When you start moving dirt and they see people coming, people kind of brighten up,” says Love.

Those projects bring investment not commonly seen by neighborhoods like South Memphis, and that effort can be transformative.

Despite its potential, the partners know that a tree farm alone isn’t enough.

“This is about elevating a narrative of South Memphis, a really positive narrative as a place that contributes to what this city is trying to be,” said Coletta.

In the final piece of this series, we’ll look at the other green investments that in aggregate amount to a major investment in South Memphis’ public infrastructure and a chance to transform South Memphis into a ecological oasis for its residents, fellow Memphians, and those who wish to learn how South Memphis got so green.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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