In the coming days, this blog will be posting resolutions, predictions, or observations by Memphians as they look ahead to the new year.
Carol Coletta: President and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership and Senior Fellow. American Cities Practice, Kresge Foundation:
If all goes well, this will be a big year for the people of Memphis and Shelby County who will, after almost 100 years of plans and promises, see shovels in the ground on the biggest piece of riverfront property adjacent to downtown – Tom Lee Park. When completed in late 2020, the park will be the completion of a long-awaited dream to make our riverfront as majestic and internationally noteworthy as our river.
But it’s not enough to make our most visible piece of real estate a park worthy of its location. It must work much harder than that. It must, at once, serve as the place that brings people of all kinds together, stimulate new investment in neighborhoods along the waterfront north and south of downtown, work as a dynamic year-round STEM classroom for people of all ages, create new opportunity for our workforce, embody the nation’s most aggressive equity plan for a project of this type, be the community’s biggest free gym, mitigate the impact of rising temperatures and threatened water quality, and increase the value of downtown.
Can any park do all of that? This one can. In fact, I can’t think of another civic project anywhere in the U.S. with this kind of potential. Raising the remaining $28 million dollars to get Tom Lee Park underway in 2019 is job one for us at Memphis River Parks Partnership. One hundred years of waiting is long enough.
Terri Freeman, President, National Civil Rights Museum:
2019 will be a year of progress if individuals recognize that community only works effectively when we value all residents and to do that, we must proactively seek to develop awareness and increased understanding of “others.” Memphis is seeing a significant amount of development and change. That must translate into economic opportunities for all her residents, regardless of zip code.
Tina Sullivan, Executive Director, Overton Park Conservancy:
Shortly after January began, after what seemed like weeks of rain, the sun came out again. It was a Saturday, so I hopped on my bike and cruised around Memphis. I’d been suffering a bit from the effects of gloomy weather, a dismal political climate, and the perpetually nagging feeling that the world has more problems than I have the capacity to help solve. Like water carving the Grand Canyon, gloomy thoughts can create a rut in your outlook if you don’t find a way to manage them. Negotiating with aggressive drivers while cycling isn’t always the most pleasant way to spend a day, so I headed to Overton Park.
The park was a typical good-weather Saturday scene, humming with activity – kids testing out the brand-new bikes Santa brought, runners on the trails, the diversity of users reflecting the population of Memphis. Because it’s my job to do so, I often spend my time in Overton Park looking for things that need to be fixed or cleaned up. I focus on what’s broken or missing. This is especially true on bad-weather days when there are few people in the park. But when the park is busy, and it happens to be the first sunny day of 2019, all I can see are people enjoying their park, in their community. All I noticed Saturday was the joy that people were experiencing being outside together in a beautiful and welcoming public place. That joy is contagious, and so it immediately repaired the cynical rut I’d developed in my outlook.
This is not an experience unique to Overton Park. I get similar benefits enjoying the expansive views of the Mississippi River from one of our riverfront parks, riding the Greenline to Shelby Farms Park, or kayaking the Wolf River. Memphis has some incredible natural assets that are free and accessible to the public. We have a lot to offer. Study after study has documented the physical, mental, and developmental benefits of spending time in nature. High-quality parks and green spaces are also economic drivers, create safer and more cohesive neighborhoods, and provide an array of environmental benefits to offset the impact of our urban lives. Working professionals, who can afford to move anywhere they want, choose to live in places with access to quality outdoor recreation opportunities.
And yet, we have a long way to go. Memphis scores very low on the Trust for Public Land’s Park Facts, a publication that ranks the park systems of the largest cities in the U.S. based on criteria such as per capita spending on local parks, the ability of every citizen to walk to a park within 10 minutes, and the number of playgrounds per capita. For some Memphians, the kind of high-quality park experience I frequently enjoy at Overton Park is out of reach on any regular basis. Nationally, only 5% of children are getting the recommended 60 minutes per day of physical activity. The older kids get, the less time they’re spending outdoors, opting instead for screen time, which increases their risk of anxiety and depression. A recent article in The Atlantic discussed the fact that, for generations, many people of color have felt excluded from parks and public natural areas.
There is positive momentum toward a better future for our public spaces, however. From our Regional Greenprint Plan to our Memphis 3.0 Plan to the success of our anchor parks, we are recognizing the importance of investing in our public parks and our nature-based assets. For the smart growth of our city and the healthy development of our youngest citizens, I offer my resolutions for 2019:
1. Rather than focusing 100% on what needs fixing, I’ll celebrate the obvious: Memphis is a vibrant, diverse, culturally rich community that has tremendous assets to be cultivated – its parks and natural areas, its strong neighborhoods, its authentic personality, and especially its people. I’ll continue to be a cheerleader for the city I love, even as I acknowledge and work on needed improvements.
2. I will point to the success of Overton Park to demonstrate the need for increased public investment in quality parks in every neighborhood in Memphis. I’ll ask those who enjoy our anchor parks in Memphis, from the Memphis River Parks to Overton Park to Shelby Farms Park, to advocate for quality parks for every Memphian, by continuing to participate in and support planning efforts, especially as we budget for our collective priorities.
3. I will focus my efforts in 2019 on ensuring that every Memphian feels welcomed at Overton Park, that more children are given opportunities to learn about nature and healthy recreation in the beautiful and safe environment of the Old Forest at Overton Park, that our planning efforts for the future of Overton Park focus on engaging people from all over our city.
Memphis is a city of innovators and entrepreneurs. It’s time we direct our talent and resources toward creating a world-class network of parks and green spaces in our city, so that on every sunny Saturday, we can all shake off the gloom and share some joy together.