Overton Park has been a special place in Memphis for more than a century, but it’s rapidly becoming the exemplar for the top priority set out seven years ago in Sustainable Shelby: creation of a great public realm.
It was a conclusion that surprised many who worked on the project. After months of discussion and debate on everything from smart zoning to neighborhood planners, from a bike-friendly city to community gardening, from energy audits to the Major Road Plan, and from hiring a bike/ped coordinator to public art, it was expected that the #1 priority from the 150 strategies in the plan would likely be something along those lines.
And yet, once the 130 people who worked on seven committees had voted and their votes were combined with the results of a scientific poll, public realm moved to the top of the list.
The votes by the committee members and the votes by the public in the poll were equally weighted. Each accounted for 50% in the voting for priorities. It was the first time this approach in planning had been used in Memphis, however, in updates and reports now, the public polling component is often forgotten.
We’re thinking about Sustainable Shelby’s public realm priority as we walk through Overton Park with Tina Sullivan, executive director of the Overton Park Conservancy. In an extremely short time, she, her staff, her board, and supporters have become impact players with a vision that will fulfill the park’s history as Memphis’ great public space.
Letting Overton Park Be What It Wants To Be
The 184 acres of Overton Park’s 342 acres under the Conservancy’s control, according to its 10-year agreement with City of Memphis, are the Greensward, Rainbow Lake, the formal gardens, Veteran’s Plaza, the 126-acre Old Forest State Natural Area, and the East Parkway picnic area.
Already, there have been tangible improvements in all of these areas, and listening to the Conservancy’s capable, passionate, and inspiring executive director, it’s impossible not to be caught up in the excitement for a park reaching for its full potential.
Our friend, Jeff Speck, former National Endowment for the Arts director of design and co-author of Suburban Nation and Walkable City, often asks when considering the future of a road: What is the road wanting to be? That’s the question being answered by the Conservancy: What exactly is the park wanting to be?
Clearly, Overton Park wants to be the great American park envisioned for it when it was purchased by City of Memphis in 1901, but more to the point, it’s the great park that symbolizes Memphis’ renewed confidence in itself, embraces its growing emphasis on livability, and elevates opportunities for memorable experiences in public space.
With apologies to our neat, well-dressed friends, Overton Park these days reminds us of friends who got married and suddenly showed up at parties better cared for and dressing better. These days, it’s obvious that someone is taking loving care of Overton Park.
Winning the War Rather Than the Battle
Overton Park, like Shelby Farms, represents one of our community’s proudest chapters of grassroots advocacy, and because of it, both of them exist today. We all know the story of the way community activists backed down state and federal officials headstrong on running I-40 through the park, protecting it for future generations, but there were also fights to protect the forest and an ecosystem dating back 10,000 years and the current battles advancing the principle that parks aren’t parking lots.
Because of it, the park is blessed with strong community and grassroots advocates who are passionately committed to it, and the zoo’s parking on the greensward is a galvanizing issue about the importance of Overton Park’s original purpose – a park. It’s hard to deny that the controversy has not been exacerbated by the Memphis Zoo’s dismaying attitude – sometimes accompanied by ham-handed actions – on this issue.
That said, we suspect the Conservancy at times feels slings and arrows from both sides as it does its best to navigate the varying interests and find a solution that makes sense for the future rather than engaging in a war that the park could conceivably lose. There’s no denying that many of us who are unyielding greensward supporters want solutions tomorrow and sometimes see the world in shades of black and white rather than gray.
But, we have a high level of confidence that Ms. Sullivan and her colleagues will come to a solution that makes sense and protects the park. It seems to us that her their actions so far indicate their sincerity and their dedication, and hopefully, they’ll be judged by the totality of their work and efforts rather than by an impatience in finding quick answers to the damaging zoo parking on the greensward.
Back to the Future
That said, Overton Park will also pay homage to its history.
Memphis was a darling of the Progressive Era between 1890 and 1920, and chief among its accomplishments was creation of its parks and parkway system by Kansas City landscape architect George Kessler, one of the fathers of urban planning in America. The Memphis system was one of the first modern comprehensive urban planning and design projects in the South, and Kessler gave it shape based on an earlier recommendation by John C. Olmstead – son of the famous landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead – who designed an alignment of two parks sites – one on Riverside (Cow Island) Road and Lea’s Woods, the farm tract that would become Overton Park – that were connected by parkways.
It was a milestone for the Greater Memphis Movement, a group of well-educated, well-traveled Memphians who drove the Progressive Era in the city. They saw Overton Park, as part of the parks and parkway plan, as the vehicle for a better city, stronger civic leadership, and greater ambitions for the future.
In this way, when it comes to Overton Park Conservancy, it is back to the future, because once again progressive Memphians are doing the same. With a plan for more improvements in the future for the park, the forest, and the golf course, Overton Park is destined to be the high-quality public space that acts as common ground for a diverse city.
Hitting On All Cylinders
It is in this role that it can achieve the public realm priority of Sustainable Shelby while also contributing to other priorities announced by then-Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. when he rolled out the plan:
1. There is strong sentiment for an emphasis on revitalization of neighborhoods.
2. People care deeply about the public realm, and they want to have parks, streets, and plazas that are special in their individuality.
3. There is unequivocal concern about protecting our natural environment – our parks and our green spaces.
4. There is strong support for greater emphasis on walkable neighborhoods and a bikable community.
5. There is an unmistakable call for better planning and more public input into the planning and development process.
6. The public wants government to quit talking about sustainability and lead by example with government fleets using alternative fuels, buildings built to green standards, and adaptive reuse of former public buildings.
Few projects or programs under way in Memphis hit more of these objectives than Overton Park, and because of it, the work of its conservancy is about more than a park. It’s about propelling a new vision for Memphis itself.
Disclosure: Shelby County Government contracted with Smart City Consulting firm and Linx Consulting to produce the Sustainable Shelby plan.
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My blood starts to boil every time I think of AC Wharton delaying a permanent return of the greensward land. I guess he thinks the zoo people are more politically powerful than us ordinary folks.
The overflow parking for the zoo is an abomination and should be eliminated immediately, and some of the paved parking should probably be returned to grass also.
When zoo parking fills up, it just fills up like any parking lot and a sign gets put up saying “Parking Lot Full” so people won’t get frustrated hunting for a space. The shuttle from Overton Square should be given time to work and it should be frequent.
In 2009 Thomas Heineke published a flora study of the Overton Park Old Forest. Per Dr. Heineke, the Old Forest is an Old Growth mature succession forest, in effect an urban wilderness. The wooded portions have been in essentially their current state since the ice sheets receded and civilization began its march “forward” over 10,000 years ago. This is a unique resource to be cherished, protected and expanded.
Since the park was established, 60 of the original 200 forest acres have been destroyed and the 17 acres held by the Zoo remain at risk unprotected as part of the State of Tennessee Natural Area. This is a unique resource. I know of no comparable urban wilderness park in America.
The sustainability priorities you outline focus on making unique resources accessible to the people of our community. The portion of the Old Forest under the custody the Conservancy epitomizes such use. Daily the roads through the forest are frequented by families, bikers, walkers, skate boarders, wheel chair athletes and others representing the full diversity of our community. Those of us who walk or jog the woods are presented with an ever changing panoply of the best the mid-south wooded environment has to offer.
Now picture a walk along the road from North Parkway. As long as you are careful to look left, you can feel part of this primeval wilderness. Look right and you are greeted incongruously first with an industrial fence behind which you will find a junk yard of rusting equipment apparently discarded by the Zoo. Walk a bit further and you enter a world that reminds you of a trip down Mendenhall Road into warehouse land. Virtually no space was left between the chain link fence surrounding the high concrete walls and the road on which pedestrians walk and bikers ride. What planting has been done fails to conceal the worst visual aspects because low lying shrubs rather than shielding trees were chosen for key parts of the planting.
Walk on further and you enter the heart of the Old Forest. To the left you can experience to the fullest extent the soul-refreshing benefits of a wilderness experience. To the right the chain link fence continues, crying out to the public users of the park “You are not wanted here” Behind the fence is a bulldozed road to nowhere, presumably to assure that nature cannot do its thing and overtake the fence with luxuriant growth.
Now imagine the forest returned to its former glory. With that fence down, the Old Forest can again become a contiguous whole. Roads designed for vehicular use can be re-imagined for walking, jogging, biking and other people uses. With excess pavement removed, the forest will quickly do its thing, returning to the state nature “planned” for it 10,000 years ago.
Fencing the 17 acres off so the Zoo could put them behind a paywall was a terrible mistake. The Zoo’s priorities seem clear. They talk about environmental trails on elevated platforms designed to keep the users away from the natural forest, but decades later nothing has happened. Open up the forest to the public and there is little question that support can be found quickly for an environmental educational that can provide Memphians, particularly our urban youth, with the opportunity to experience the world as it was and might be.
It’s time we admit our mistake as a community and return the 17 acres to the Old Forest and the people who love it. In about 30 years the bus lane has reverted to forest that is essentially indistinguishable from the surrounding old growth forest. Nature will do the same for the rest of the forest if we just let it.
There was once going to be an expressway through the park. The city had the foresight to admit that the world had changed and its original plan was no longer the best solution; strong leaders found a better solution. Why can’t we admit that the decision to cordon off the 17 acres from the rest of the forest was a mistake and do something better? We have a wonderful zoo that should be cherished. But there aren’t lots of urban wildernesses and this one does not belong behind the Zoo’s fences.
Memphis leaders claim that they want to attract bright young people to our community. Parking on the grass and bulldozing old growth forests do not make Memphis the type of place that attracts the best and brightest. Boldly addressing issues and finding better solutions does.
A few simple critiques…
“In an extremely short time, she, her staff, her board, and supporters have become impact players with a vision that will fulfill the park’s history as Memphis’ great public space.”
Care to elaborate this wonderful vision that they have? There is no documentation or transparency of their so called impact players and vision. Whereas Shelby Farms has released all of their phases, maps, and ideas for master plan.
“These days, it’s obvious that someone is taking loving care of Overton Park.”
I would edit that to [not taking loving care]… go check out the Greensward and it’s skid mark.
“There’s no denying that many of us who are unyielding greensward supporters want solutions tomorrow and sometimes see the world in shades of black and white rather than gray.”
No I understand that the word is not black, and white, but unlike this article understand that we have been waiting for over ten years for a solution.
“But, we have a high level of confidence that Ms. Sullivan and her colleagues will come to a solution that makes sense and protects the park.”
You level of confidence is faux, without transparency, diligence, and integrity there can be no confidence.
The same things were said about Shelby Farms Conservancy when it was getting started. It became what it is now over years of work and trial and error. How about giving Overton Park Conservancy the same chance to mature and grow and reach its potential. It’s easy to take shots but we need to work to support a better park and the conservancy can get us there. You want to put your faith in city government intsead?
As a user of Overton Park, I have been very impressed with the conservancy’s progress.
They solicited public input:
They have continued to execute on a 5 year plan that has included the completion of a new playground, refurbished restrooms, hundreds of new trees planted and a new dog park.
Here is the link to their projects:
As for me, I’ll take this as progress:
Some people would rather fight than fix, but if you don’t think the conservancy is making a difference, you must be blind.
Parking for zoo and environs is very poor. Parts of park are very dark and not well lit at night making it seem dangerous. Same applies to Levitt shell areas. Needs better overall maintenance of the park.
dopers, hackysackers, and boom box devotees can always find another area to do their thing. Zoo goers actually spend money.
Anonymous 1:53, thank you for reminding us that the only important thing in life is whether someone is spending money. The god of money shall be pleased with your wise and timely words.
Anonymous 1:53: congratulations for taking the comments to the lowest and illogical common denominator.