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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