Memphis was a star of the Progressive Era a century ago, building a national reputation for parks, parkways and city beautiful programs that ushered in an era of economic growth.

History does indeed repeat itself, but normally, it needs people to make it happen. Today, the first signs of a similarly historic parks agenda are coming into focus, but before it becomes reality, Memphis will have to shift its traditional love for building projects to a newfound love of place-making.

A committee is overseeing development of a plan by an internationally known designer for the 4,500 acres of Shelby Farms Park – twice as large as New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park combined – that will maximize its fortuitous location near the center of the county.

Grand Plans

The Wolf River Conservancy is making progress with its 38-mile greenway connecting the eastern edge of Shelby County to downtown Memphis, and it’s already given birth to the magnificent Wolf River Wildlife Park, a 2,167-acre park in Collierville.

The Greater Memphis Greenline is envisioned for an abandoned 13-mile CSX rail line, creating a “Rails to Trails” project to include light rail and connect Cordova and Shelby Farms Park with Midtown and Orange Mound. (First, the railroad must quit looking to gouge local government and get reasonable about negotiating the price for the acreage.)

The Riverfront Development Corporation has already upgraded the appearance and maintenance of riverfront and has plans for improvements that would elevate the city’s waterfront (and hopefully bring a water fountain to Tom Lee Park).

Alone, each of these projects is a valuable and distinctive asset for Shelby County, but together, they could become an embarrassment of riches, a network of green resources that unite the new county with the old. While the Progressive Era proved how parks can transform a city, more to the point, a number of our regional rivals are today showing how investments in parkland pay dividends, including quality of place, recruitment of talent, urban neighborhood redevelopment, and economic growth.

Parks As Priorities

That’s why a renaissance of city parks is already under way. Since 1995, more than $25 billion in new funding for parkland has been approved at the polls, where more than 80 percent of all park referenda are passed.

Meanwhile, according to the Trust for Public Land, the minimum threshold for city spending on parks is $64 per resident, and Memphis doesn’t even come close. Also, the average percentage of a city’s land area dedicated to parkland is about 10 percent, and again, Memphis falls short by half. it’s no coincidence that Memphis ranks low on the list of cities investing in parks and high on the list of unhealthiest cities in Self and Men’s Health.

In the heated competition between cities for the 25-34 year-old, highly-educated workers who are the gold standard for the New Economy, outdoor recreation is proving to be an irresistible competitive advantage. That’s why Louisville is creating thousands of acres in new parks, Nashville has announced a $151 million park program; Atlanta is beginning a $2 billion, 22-mile linear park; the Research Triangle is adding 158,000 of green space over the next two decades; and Chicago built the incomparable Millennium Park which has already generated more than $3 billion in economic spinoffs.

Here, we have a chance to compete at that level. All of the projects under way can be completed and become part of an interconnected outdoor recreation system for a cost that is less than half of the FedExForum. The patron saint of the environmental movement, John Muir, said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else.” That could be especially true in Memphis, but it won’t come without an unprecedented level of cooperation between government, green groups, and business.

Greening Memphis

Preliminary indications are promising, as some major environmental groups and Leadership Memphis have begun talks about the best way to create and stimulate a countywide “greening” movement.

Those involved in these talks can look to the research laboratories of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital if they ever question the importance of their discussions. Every year, about 250 of the smartest post-doctoral graduates in the world are recruited to the hospital, where its positive reputation for its working conditions and support for its researchers make it a highly desirable assignment.

Unfortunately, at the end of their research period, about the same number of researchers leave. When a representative of the graduates was asked recently what could convince them to stay in Memphis, the answer was quick and direct: “More outdoor recreation.”

That’s why in the end, we need to build more than projects. More to the point, we need to invest in the quality of place that ultimately is the difference between a good city and a great one.