Since our very first city plan in 1819, Memphians have been designating public land for public use. In fact, that first plan laid out a public landing, promenade and several squares in Downtown Memphis. By the 1890s, Memphis was growing and so too was the national City Beautiful movement. In 1900, the Memphis Park Commission was formed. In 1901, we purchased the land for our first two parks: Overton and Riverside, known today as Martin Luther King Riverside Park.
George Kessler was appointed planner. Over the next decade, more land was purchased to connect Overton and Riverside Parks via a grid of lushly landscaped avenues. That’s right—the parkways you travel regularly today were created as routes to the parks designed by Kessler. To this day, our parkway medians are classified as parkland. Kessler’s master plan is considered one of the earliest examples of modern urban planning in the South, and certainly a model for the state of Tennessee.
But our park system wasn’t inviting to all citizens of Memphis. It wasn’t until the 1960s that our African-American population was given unrestricted access to the same parks white Memphians had been enjoying for decades. Perversely, the integration of our parks came at a time when, neither locally nor nationally, green spaces were much of a priority. At home, Overton Park and the land that would become Shelby Farms Park were threatened, sparking high-profile battles between our citizens and the news media, development interests and all levels of government.
In the 1970s, the trend started to reverse. Grassroots groups, encouraged and assisted by crusaders including Charlie Newman and Lucius Burch, made crucial strides to preserve local parklands.
In the 1980s, volunteers founded the Wolf River Conservancy to protect both land and waterways within the river’s corridor. In the 1990s, they rescued the Ghost River section of the Wolf from destruction.
Through the years, our efforts to promote environmental preservation and outdoor recreation have made us famous and infamous. You’ll read about those stories, including our shift to a bike-friendly city, on the following pages. Time and time again, we’ve managed to turn potentially negative outcomes and bad press into positives. As with all wins in Memphis, it’s been an exercise in dreaming and doing.
Wolf River Revival
The Wolf River Conservancy’s mission is to protect and enhance the natural assets within the river’s corridor. In 1995, that mission became laser-focused on the Ghost River section of the Wolf, nicknamed by paddlers who found its navigation tricky to follow. When private owners sold a five-mile section of the Ghost to a timber and development firm, the conservancy kicked into action: initially by running trips through the mystic, swampy section of the river to raise awareness; then by raising $4 million in four months to purchase the land from the firm. It was a Herculean task for the all-volunteer organization, aided by strong public response and pledges of financial support from Gov. Don Sundquist and local business leader W.S. “Babe” Howard.
In 2010, the conservancy began unveiling its latest gift to Memphis section by section. The Wolf River Greenway, a protected path along the banks of the Wolf River, will ultimately extend 36 miles from Downtown Memphis to Shelby Farms Park, Germantown and Collierville.
A Park Worth Fighting For
When George Kessler set to the task of planning Overton Park, his “canvas” was a 342-acre tract of old-growth forest. In time, the park would house our city’s zoo, an amphitheater, a nine-hole golf course with a clubhouse, an art museum and a college. Yet Overton Park was nearly erased from our cityscape just decades after it appeared. The effort to preserve it resulted in the Supreme Court’s first-ever decision on the side of citizens—Memphians—in an environmental case.
Preserving Our Park
In the late 1950s, the Federal Highway Administration was adding the final links to our nation’s interstate system. One major missing piece was a Memphis-to-Arkansas connector via Interstate 40. The most logical link would barrel through the center of Memphis and connect to a new proposed bridge over the Mississippi River, where it would tie into I-40 and I-55 in Arkansas.
The problem was that the route would intersect Memphis neighborhoods and our primary city park. A small group called Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) foresaw how disastrous this would be. At this time in the history of our city and our nation, however, conventional wisdom said that progress followed interstates. Local and state governments, as well as many of their fellow citizens and the Memphis media, opposed CPOP’s efforts. The group enlisted the assistance of local attorney Charlie Newman. After more than a decade of lawsuits and trials, advancing all the way to the Supreme Court, CPOP prevailed in 1971. In 1979, Overton Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2011, significant changes swept Overton Park. A 126-acre tract of parkland was designated as the Old Forest State Natural Area, permanently protecting it from future development and preserving its ancient, diverse ecosystem. Before the year was over, our City Council voted unanimously for the nonprofit Overton Park Conservancy to assume management of the park through 2021. Today, park-goers enjoy a colorful new playground at Rainbow Lake, a dog park, public art and paved and unpaved trails through the Old Forest, among other amenities.
The Memphis Zoo
In 1906, you could find a black bear tethered to a tree in Overton Park. Col. Robert Galloway began looking for support to create a home for Natch, as the bear was named. Two years later, the Memphis Park Commission allocated $1,200 and the Memphis Zoo Association was formed. By 1910, the association had incorporated as the Memphis Zoological Society, generated additional funds and developed what we know today as the Memphis Zoo.
After providing a fun family amenity for decades, the zoo fell into decline. Then in the 1980s, one idea inspired a world of change. Ed Sapinsley approached Charlie and Nick Vergos about raising money to get the zoo’s big cats out of their inadequate cages. Months later, Nick, Thomas Boggs, Don McLean and others spearheaded the first Zoo Rendezvous. The event raised funds and an even bigger idea: in 1986, the Memphis Zoological Society commissioned a master plan to transform the zoo. The society didn’t want ours to be merely a good zoo; they wanted ours to be one of the best. Even if it seemed like a moonshot, the public sector got on board under the leadership of Jim and Carol Prentiss, Scott Ledbetter, Roger Knox, Peggy Seesel, Boggs and others.
The plan began materializing to the public in 1990 when a new entrance welcomed visitors to the zoo. The Egyptian design linked the zoo to the city we’re named for, Memphis, Egypt. In 1993, Cat Country opened, emphasizing the presentation of the zoo’s big cats in environments that mimicked their natural habitats. Primate Canyon and Once Upon A Farm opened in 1995.
Improvements continued at a steady pace. Then between 2002 and 2003, the zoo unveiled the most ambitious piece of its transformation to date: the CHINA exhibit. The exhibit was added along with a commitment on behalf of the Memphis Zoo to contribute to the global understanding of giant panda ecology. When move-in day arrived for the exhibit’s inhabitants—two giant pandas named Le Le and Ya Ya—a FedEx Express jet dubbed “The FedEx PandaExpress” transported them from Beijing, China, to Memphis alongside veterinary escorts provided by the Memphis, Beijing and Shanghai zoos.
And with that, the Memphis Zoo joined an elite company as just one of four zoos in North America to house giant pandas. We were proud, and perhaps a tad anxious, to welcome them to their new home. On the day of the pandas’ arrival, radio DJs Steve Conley and Ron Olson told early-morning listeners that the animals had escaped en route from Memphis International Airport to the zoo and were wandering the woods behind Christian Brothers High School. Listeners believed the ruse and a crowd started forming in the area to catch a glimpse!
Before the decade was over, the Memphis Zoo expanded its footprint with Northwest Passage, home to polar bears and sea lions, and Teton Trek, featuring grizzly bears and timber wolves. The Great Lodge at Teton Trek, inspired by the architecture of Yellowstone National Park, has become a popular spot for weddings and for children, who like running through the 40-foot geyser out front on hot summer days.
In spring 2016, Memphis Zoo revealed its latest addition: Zambezi River Hippo Camp, providing a new habitat for resident hippos, Nile crocodiles, okapis and flamingos. I think this is a good time to run the numbers:
Start with one bear and one tree.
Add millions of dollars in investment from the local community over a period of 30 years.
Expand to house 4,500 animals on 75-plus acres.
Factor in one million visitors per year.
What do you get?
One of the strongest, and longest-running, public-private partnerships in Memphis history.
A Park in Bloom
In 1947, former Mayor Edward Crump wanted to see our park system expand beyond our city limits. His influence led to the purchase of some 350 acres near Southern Avenue and Perkins Road, to be named the gardens of Audubon Park. In 1953, the first plantings were made thanks to a gift of thousands of iris rhizomes. An arboretum; a magnolia grove; roses transplanted from Overton Park; gardens for native and water plants—all were focal points by the time one of the gardens’ most iconic elements was added. The Japanese Garden, designed by Dr. P.T. Tono of Tokyo and accented by a picturesque red bridge, debuted in 1965. By the summer of 1966, the gardens had grown into a new, more descriptive name: the Memphis Botanic Garden.
At the same time, new and existing areas—and ways to connect them—were developed. Over the next 30 years, collections of azaleas, daffodils, daylilies and dogwoods flourished. A sculpture garden added interest outside of the Goldsmith Civic Garden Center, which had been dedicated in 1964 as the first building onsite. A Sensory Garden with raised beds enhanced the attraction’s accessibility for all Memphians.
In 1996, one great and generous act emboldened an era of capital improvements at Memphis Botanic Garden. The catalyst? A gift from Helen and Jabie Hardin enabling the construction of a new visitor center and special event hall onsite. In 2009, My Big Backyard opened. Nearly $5 million in the making, the 2.5-acre array introduced space for educational programming and creative ways for younger guests to interact with the garden through play. In 2014, another capital campaign gave a permanent and impressive presence to the Live at the Garden concert series. Maybe you were there for the series’ first season (2001), when Isaac Hayes performed with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. The 2014 renovation added a new stage, but some things never change: Live at the Garden concerts are still one hot ticket, with thousands of guests gathered on the lawn to appreciate music under the stars.
This era of improvement touched even the smallest details at Memphis Botanic Garden. Visit today and you’ll discover hosta and holly trails, an extensive herb collection and gardens themed around hydrangeas, butterflies and Delta heritage plants—all evidence of an amenity that has grown, and grown on us, by sticking to its roots.
A Park for the 21st Century
To imagine the origins of Shelby Farms Park, you have to go all the way back to 1918, when local leaders bought land to develop a prison farm. By the 1960s, we decided that we wanted to monetize the land somehow. You’ve read what public opinion was at the time on Overton Park; maybe, some thought, the Memphis Zoo should relocate to the land. Others pushed for the land to be cultivated as a large-scale residential development. Once again, attorney Charlie Newman stepped in. He received help from other community and business leaders, including John Vergos and Lucius Burch. Their campaign protected the land from harmful development. But what could become of it? Pitt Hyde and Ron Terry shared an idea: to build a new park onsite, one capable of capturing national attention.
To advance this idea, they built a board of directors and relied on volunteers. Laura Morris was one. She threw herself into grassroots organizing and developed a case study in support of the would-be park, activism that she likes to call “tree-hugging with a purpose.” In 2006, the efforts of volunteers and the board, led by Calvin Anderson, reaped a fundamental win: the County Commission approved a conservation easement, protecting the land as a park.
In 2007, a new nonprofit, the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, was established to manage and operate the park in partnership with the county. With Barbara Hyde as board chair, the conservancy wasted no time. In 2010, the group debuted the Shelby Farms Greenline, a 6.5-mile, $7-million rails-to-trails project that allowed Memphians to walk, run and cycle right through the center of the city. They erected the $2-million Wolf River Pedestrian Bridge, connecting the Shelby Farms Greenline to the Lucius E. Burch Natural Area and surrounding neighborhoods. In 2011, the conservancy unveiled the Woodland Discovery Playground, a $3.5-million investment that has won awards for its creative, sustainable design. All the while, the group was gathering public input and raising $70 million to fund the initial phase of its master plan. By September 1, 2016, park-goers were enjoying an enlarged Hyde Lake surrounded by brand-new amenities: visitor and events centers, two restaurants, an outdoor stage, a boat rental kiosk and launch, picnic pavilions, trails and plantings.
What does Morris, now retired as executive director of the conservancy, think when she visits the park today? “Through this park, we were envisioning a better Memphis. The greatest accomplishment was to be a perfect reflection of the diversity of [our] people. Shelby Farms Park is accomplishing precisely what was hoped for,” she says.
In 2008, Bicycling magazine named Memphis one of America’s worst cities for cyclists. The Shelby Farms Greenline helped flip the script. Local cycling enthusiasts rallied around the new amenity and city leaders noticed: together, with a strong push by the administration of Mayor A C Wharton, a plan was designed to add 50 miles of bike lanes throughout the city. In 2012, Bicycling magazine gave Memphis a new distinction: the country’s most improved city for cycling.
You see, when the Shelby Farms Greenline opened to pedestrians in 2010, the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy didn’t call it complete. The group continued working in partnership with donors and the county, extending the line to a distance of more than 10.5 miles long. Today, you can follow it from Tillman Street in Midtown all the way to Old Cordova, stopping at Shelby Farms Park in between. A two-mile protected path called the Hampline connects the western terminus of the route to Overton Park.
Meanwhile, another rails-to-trails project was unfolding in town: breathing new life into the Harahan Bridge, once a bustling corridor for train and automobile traffic between Downtown Memphis and West Memphis, Arkansas. Charlie McVean was considered the father of the movement to convert the abandoned line into a path for pedestrians and cyclists. It debuted in 2016, the Harahan’s centennial year, as Big River Crossing. At nearly one mile in length, it is the longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge across the Mississippi River. It’s also a key to connectivity for Memphis. Already, the path is part of a 10-mile “Main to Main” connector between the downtowns of Memphis and West Memphis. It also links to Arkansas’ levee trail system and a grand plan: to tie into a thousand-mile levee trail along the lower Mississippi River to the headwaters of the Gulf of Mexico.
In the spring of 2018, Memphis implemented another amenity for cyclists that put us in a class of progressive cities nationwide. Explore Bike Share launched with 600 bikes across 60 stations, giving locals and visitors access to bicycle transportation for work and play. Located from downtown and midtown to Orange Mound and South Memphis, the stations connect riders to neighborhoods, attractions, parks, shopping and more. And with two stations in West Memphis, Arkansas, accessible via Big River Crossing, ours is one of the few bike share programs in the country to reach across state lines.