If you are looking to talk to the smartest person about city parks in the U.S., that person is Peter Harnik.
He is director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, his books and reports are must-read, his research is considered the seminal information about great parks systems, and his key note speeches are highlights of meetings all over the country. What comes through in Mr. Harnik’s work is not just his expert professional credentials but his passionate about doing whatever he can to inspire and encourage great parks in American cities.
In addition, he is familiar with parks in Memphis – from his advice to Shelby Farms Park in 2005 as it was developing its vision; a 2014 report about options for the Memphis park system, “The Parks of Memphis: Past, Present and Future,” and his report last year, “Public Spaces/Private Money: The Triumphs and Pitfalls of Urban Park Conservancies,” that included a case study about the Overton Park Conservancy.
I recently had a conversation with him about Overton Park, greensward parking, and the Memphis Zoo:
I know you’ve been closely following the emotional debate here about greensward parking in Overton Park by the Memphis Zoo. So, first, does the Overton Park controversy have any relevance to others cities?
It has tremendous relevance outside Memphis because it’s not the only place where conflicting interests exist because of a zoo, planetarium, museum, or large facility that brings in lots of users in a burst of cars.
The epicenter of this particular cultural debate is that it represents such differing viewpoints of what a greensward is for – a beautiful field, centerpiece, and gathering place in an iconic central park or a utilitarian piece of ground for overflow uses.
What happened in Memphis is that the beloved, noble, high-ranking purpose of Overton Park, which was created in 1901 with so much pride and civic boosterism, was gradually allowed to erode to where people did a handshake agreement with the zoo that didn’t recognize the value of the central park because it had sunk so low in the civic consciousness.
Now, a new generation of Memphians, with new pride in their city and neighborhoods, recognize the competitive advantage of a central park for their neighborhoods, for jobs, and for young people and empty nesters you want to move into the city.
What’s ironic, Peter, is that when I was a fledgling reporter, I was assigned to cover the federal court hearing about a freeway through Overton Park. There were days of testimony about the negative impact of the interstate highway on the behaviors, life expectancies, and breeding habits of the animals in the zoo. Sometimes, it feels like Memphians saved the zoo from the highway and now it has to save the park from the zoo.
Overton Park is famous for stopping a freeway and increasingly recognized for stopping cars from overwhelming the park. Overton Park has been featured on PBS as one of the “Ten Parks That Changed America,” because of the Citizens to Preserve Overton vs. Volpe that kept the interstate out of the park. Everyone recognizes the irony now that it prevented the freeway but now the park is being threatened by cars again.
Everyone loves the zoo. Part of the responsibilities of the zoo is figuring out its transportation and parking needs. It is happening in other places and there’s no reason it can’t happen in Memphis.
There are those who say to people who care so deeply about the park that they should care as much for rising childhood poverty. It seems to me that if we are to ever improve Memphis’ neighborhood parks, we have the opportunity to leverage Overton Park to elevate understanding of their importance. On the other hand, if we can’t protect a high profile park like Overton Park, it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to protect and improve neighborhood parks in neglected parts of the city.
I was in the park two years ago. I visited the playground which was being used by children, including poor children. There are a million problems that we have in our cities and in our country, but that doesn’t mean that we can only deal with one at a time.
There are experiences in other cities when conservancies do of course raise standards for iconic parks – like Central Park in New York City or Piedmont Park in Atlanta or Forest Park in St. Louis – but there is a psychological impact of seeing what a park can be that rubs off on the others.
There was a time when Central Park was run down. No one wanted to go there. No one had a mental picture of what a great park is. But, when others saw what it could be, they said, “we want a better park, too.” It raises the bar for everybody and raising ambitions, and that’s important.
You wrote a definitive report about conservancies last year that featured Overton Park Conservancy as one of your case studies. A year earlier, you helped write a report about Memphis parks that painted a picture of unmet need and an underfunded system. One television station here had a report suggesting that every park in Memphis should have a conservancy. Is that an answer to the improving Memphis parks?
I have the feeling that for many years, Memphis has had a low self-image. Now because of Overton Park Conservancy, the Greenline, Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, and some stuff along the riverfront, people are saying, “We can be a city that people look to for great parks.”
In my opinion, every park should have a “Friends” group. Conservancies basically need fairly sizable financial heft. They raise money and they raise park standards, usually for a major park. Realistically, not every neighborhood can pull it off. In most cities, there’s a conservancy in one major park, and in Memphis, there are two – Overton Park and Shelby Farms Park. In New York City, there are two.
But, even parks that are just playground parks need “Friends.” They may or may not have money, but they have political influence and can lobby City Council as a voice for parks.
Every city should also have an umbrella “Friends” group for all its park friends groups, something like Memphis Parks Friends Association. It needs one or two staff members, and it’s an umbrella organization that alerts all the groups to threats and opportunities. It notifies everyone if there’s something coming up on the City Council agenda that requires their input.
Friends groups can actually raise money like they are doing in New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago and it’s growing. It’s not realistic to have a conservancy for every park but it is realistic to have a “Friends” group for every park.
Some people are dismissive about the parking problem on the greensward by saying that it’s a good problem to have and we should all just get along. What’s your response to that?
It is a good problem to have but you can’t just say we should all get along. You have to move up to the next level of problem-solving.
The greensward parking is ecologically damaging and it’s socially damaging to all people using the park.
There are transit solutions, off-site parking solutions, and on-site parking solutions. The very fact that the zoo and the park are so beloved, there should be money available. There are zoo ticket sales, Conservancy funding, or political funding. Memphis is in a lot better shape than many cities without the economic input to pay for solutions. Memphis just has to make the hard decisions.
San Francisco went through a huge debate about parking in Golden Gate Park, and they built an underground parking garage. They accomplished two things: they built it under the park so it wasn’t seen and they decided to remove the same number of parking spaces on the surface roadway of the park that they had added in the parking garage.
Atlanta basically did the same thing in Piedmont Park. There, it’s not a zoo; it’s the Atlanta Botanical Garden. They ended up putting the garage in the hillside. It’s not hidden but it is unobtrusive. It took all the parking out of the park and turned it into green space.
Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries relevant to Memphis.
Memphis is once again receiving national attention with regard to its treatment of Overton Park. The question is whether we receive that attention for doing the right thing and developing a creative win-win solution to the “problem” of increasing park use or for blind obstructionism and a desire by some to live in the past. How we handle will have a major impact upon whether Millennials decide that Memphis is a Go To or a Run From city.
Thank you for sharing Peter Harnik’s opinion; I hope it carries as much weight for others as it does for me. I would like to point out that Memphis is in the beginning stages of the type of all-encompassing “Friends” group that Mr. Harnik mentions: http://innovatememphis.com/parks-advocacy/
John: Sorry for the late posting of your comment. I’m not sure why WordPress required me to approve it. Thanks for your continued wise comments on this issue.
Cort: Great news. Thanks for sharing.
Behind Closed Doors – When it was learned by the members of CPOP that many of the on/off ramps to the interstate across the country were constructed in violation to the national highway engineering standards, the issue of I-40 through Overton Park went away. Perhaps the zoo should be investigated to be certain it is meeting all EPA, OSHA, and other government ordinances before any final decisions are made.
Peter Harnik makes good points especially his comments about San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Atlanta’s Piedmont Park where park surface parking was eliminated in favor of the new parking structures.
In addition to eliminating parking on greensward, the paved parking in front of zoo entrance should also be eliminated or maybe made smaller for handicapped only. There should be a driveway drop off and a better view created of the entrance to zoo. In addition to removing unattractive car parking, this will eliminate the frustration of finding the lot full and having to go elsewhere. Parking structures should be built at appropriate locations with golf cart train shuttles used to drop zoo patrons at entrance.
The City should not only take control of the parking solution but should stop the cutting down of any more trees in the forest until an environmental impact statement is prepared.
You will be happy to know that those ideas and many other innovative ideas were presented last night by the team conducting the study on behalf of the Overton Park Conservancy. These ideas included circulators that connect destinations within the park and parking resources associated with the park as well as re-establishing the circulator between Overton Park/Zoo and Overton Square. Ride-the-Roo was included in the team’s research and the extension of that service into the park was presented as a very viable action item. Other ideas presented included a valet service (specifically at peak times) which would support parking cars at more distant locations than many patrons are willing to walk as well as designated uber/lyft stations to encourage ride sharing. The team also presented the creation of a park-wide smart parking app (similar to that already found in many other cities) that would offer real time parking information for the zoo lots, on-street parking availability throughout the park as well as real-time traffic information. The solutions offered also addressed the disconnect that exists between Overton Park and the neighborhoods to the north, east and south- all of which are separated from the park by 6-7 lane high-traffic roadways. The concept is that by improving pedestrian and bike connections to these areas, nearby residents (within a 3/4 to 1 mile radius) will be less inclined to drive to the park and far more likely to walk or ride their bike. In addition a volunteer corp. similar to the Blue Suede Brigade found downtown was promoted as a means of active wayfinding, a good source of general park information and a source for traffic/parking control and management during high demand periods not to mention the safety such a group would be able to provide during the day and after sunset. I might add that instead of being disappointed in a plan and solutions offered at a meeting you did not actually attend, you instead should be disappointed in the totally inadequate and pitiful excuse for an article offered by the Commercial Appeal.
It is also worth noting that Mr. Harnik did not state that “park surface parking was eliminated”, the degree of surface parking was reduced in the example parks in conjunction with creating additional parking capacity. Golden Gate Park to this day includes massive amounts of on-street parking within the park itself. Even in Central Park in New York City includes surface parking lots capable of supporting some 300 vehicles. The key in that case is the land has been sculpted and landscape designed in such ways as to conceal the vast majority of these spaces form view of the public.
A couple of key issues presented at the meeting by the team- one which was repeated in both the presentation and the accompanying the verbal description- was that there are basic deeper issues at work in Overton Park. One of the ways these issues are manifesting themselves happens to be the use of the Greensward as overflow parking. One issue was made plainly obvious by the team (and was reported as such in the Flyer): there is a LEADERSHIP crises at work and it is rooted at City Hall. Why? The City of Memphis owns the park in its entirety including the zoo itself and is ultimately responsible for maintenance and improvements. The city can outsource some of these responsibilities (as it has done) to second parties such as the Zoo and the OPC. However, at the end of the day attractions such as the Levitt Shell, the Memphis College of Art and the Brooks are all closer to being tenants than they are owners. That said, parking has been a known issue for close to 3 decades with several solutions offered over the course of those years, many of which did not involve confiscating the Greensward for overflow parking. City Hall has thus far refused to act to resolve the issues of parking and access for a handful of reasons depending on when and who has been questioned. The current condition where parking overflows onto the Greensward and multiple parties contest who has the authority to dictate the use of various spaces has evolved because of the deafening vacuum at City Hall since the late 1980s.
A second issue which looms almost equally as large is COMMUNICATION amongst the various parties and with the public in general. The OPC has begun to erode a few barriers, but even they have drawn very solid lines in the dirt as opposed to taking a completely holistic approach (may be justifiable based on issues I will not discuss here). Simply looking at the websites for the Brooks, the Shell, the MCA and the Zoo clearly demonstrate that these attractions and institutions see themselves not as a larger and far more grand civic space, but as individual destinations that happen to be situated in Overton Park. One might say they have settled into their individual silos and it is understandable. The Brooks is a museum of art and thus it is almost entirely focused on its immediate facility and the activity within its galleries, not on the condition of the golf course. You can extrapolate that same stance to the other institutions in the park. Clear, effective and regular communication must be established among these various organizations in order to create a more unified voice for the park. Once that has been established, an aggressive communication campaign must be launched to engage the average citizen and patron that conveys everything from a broad vision for the park as a whole to intricate mundane details such as where is parking located and how much is there. Even as I type, did you know there is not a single universal map shared by all parties at Overton Park (let alone the public) that depicts where parking can legally occur in the park and how many spaces are available?
The third issue is FUNDING. The whole city can unite behind in a single harmonious voice to indicate our shared preference for a solution, but if we are not willing to financially support that solution either via public or private funds, then resolving issues such as parking will becomes extremely difficult if not impossible. Thus making the decision to simply “build a parking deck (be it above or below grade)” at this particular point is uninformed at best and unwise at worst. A bare bones parking garage costs somewhere in the vicinity of $15,000 per parking space(on average). I would assume that we would want something a little more than bare bones or perhaps even place such a garage below grade which would drive that average cost up. Financially, it would be difficult to make a parking garage work unless the price to park is increased significantly (thus making the zoo less accessible to those of limited incomes) or we must be willing to at least partially subsidize the facilities construction and operations. How much is a car free Greensward worth to you? What would you (the reader) be willing to contribute every day- whether you venture into Overton Park or not- to building and operating such a structure so that we can create the world class park we all deserve? We can be as lofty in our language as we want, but at the end of the day concrete, steel and electricity cost money and someone must pick up the tab. Currently, parking in the Memphis Zoo parking lot is a flat $5. The Golden Gate Garage costs $4.75/hour weekdays and $5.50/hour on weekends. The SAGE Garage (Piedmont Park) costs $2 per hour.
There are many other issues people need to consider as they form their opinions but I believe are being largely ignored. A parking garage is a good example. If we continue with the garage approach there are issues of location. Simply locating a garage on the existing lot on Prentiss will limit its usefulness to the Zoo alone and will have limited benefit for the exceptional parking demand generated by the Shell and virtually no benefit for the MCA and the Brooks let alone the rest of the park. The most beneficial location for a garage where it would be most likely used on a daily basis and thus becomes financially viable is in the park itself. Even if we were to find a suitable location in the park (presumably below grade in a perfect world), do we really want to dump all of the extra traffic that would access the facility into the park itself? Of course both of the example decks at Golden Gate and Piedmont caused epic battles in their communities. These facilities were heavily opposed by those in adjoining neighborhoods and park advocates as traffic that had previously been largely dispersed via multiple egress points in and around their respective parks is now entirely focused on one or two adjoining streets. No solution will be perfect, but we must consider all impacts and be prepared to make compromises.
I have understood that a single story parking deck, like in front of Dillard’s at Oak Court Mall, is cheaper per space than a garage. A deck over the street Prentiss Place in addition to its adjacent surface lot would serve all facilities in OP with use of tram. Also, a deck at the City’s maintenance yard, after it moves, could accommodate the Eggleston facility, and a tram to all park facilities could enter on path through the golf course.
True, and all of those locations and options were included in the solutions presented at the meeting Thursday night. There is still a “catch” in each case. In order to provide a lasting solution parking capacity needs to be increased by providing additional parking, eliminating existing demand or a combination of the two approaches. A single additional level on Premtiss would provide roughly 200 spaces and thus would come nowhere near solving the problem. Neighbors to the south of Prentiss oppose even a single deck unless it is entirely below grade which negates any cost savings. The tram is a good idea but has received a cool reception from the zoo and feedback at the meeting was luke warm (at best) as many oppose any motorized vehicle use of the existing road/trail network through the golf course and/or old forest. I am glad you mentioned the Eggleston facility as it will create the need for additional parking in some form no matter where it is built.
Of course I mention all of this not to throw up road blocks but to illustrate that there is not a solution that will be free of controverssectors rial negative impacts and will completely resolve all issues. It seems obvious, but not everyone has come to terms with that yet.
Sorry, for some reason auto added “Ramey” to my name. Weird.
Maybe the Eggleston facility should not go in OP because of too much traffic added to the current traffic. The deck over Prentice AND current surface lot would add more than 200 spaces. The design of the deck might be acceptable to the residents south of Prentiss if done right.
I don’t understand the problem with a deck at the City’s maintenance facility and trams through golf course based on my view on ground and from google maps? The tram would serve the two parking decks, zoo, MCA, Shell, Brooks, golf course and greensward.
But I wouldn’t mind parking at Overton Square if shuttle was frequent and on time because I like to go to Overton Square and OP.
This is my opinion regarding destroying ANY part of our Park for a parking lot or parking garage. It is wrong.
“They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot…,” Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1970.
Turning our beautiful Overton Park into a parking lot or building a parking garage is a sacrilege. Since 1901, 115 years, visitors to our park and zoo have fared on their own to find parking and it has proven to be the best plan for our park. Our Park was not created and formed for automobiles. Never was. Should never be.
Anyone who parks on the grass at a public park should be towed, ticketed, fined enough to repair the damage done by their parking on our grass, and stiffer penalties for repeaters, like being banned from the Park.
The Zoo is there for the people. I would rather lose the Zoo and free the animals to their natural habitat than destroy one blade of grass for the sake of greed for money. If Zoo management cannot manage their Zoo within moral boundaries of preserving our Park, then perhaps the problem is management, no parking. For crying out loud, it’s a public park, meant for visitors to come and enjoy nature. Nature, not concrete and asphalt.
The Park was never meant to accommodate parking. Visitors have always found parking on the side of the Park roads or on the neighborhood streets surrounding the Park. For 115 years, we, visitors to Overton Park, the Zoo, the Golf Course, the Art Academy, Brooks Museum, the bursting-at-the-seams Amphitheater, and events throughout the year, have preferred to park where we find a spot and walk. It’s a Park, for goodness sake. Walk. Are you really too lazy to walk in a park?
Here is the link to info about the Park. Our Park, not the Zoo’s parking lot. As you can see, according to Park records, that the Zoo is not the controlling interest in the Park grounds.
Old Forest is designated a State Natural Area by the state of Tennessee. Overton Park Conservancy established by management agreement with City of Memphis. OPC assumes responsibility for 184 acres of the park including the Greensward, Rainbow Lake, the formal gardens, Veteran’s Plaza, the East Parkway picnic area, and the Old Forest State Natural Area.”
However…. Flag on the play! As fate would have it, our irresponsible, disrespectful of our heritage, unlearned in our history, City Council, in their great wisdom, doomed our Park to destruction to the point of killing trees, grass, shrubs, (one of the main reason for preserving the Park) and whatever else lives in the way of their determined intent to accommodate the poor mismanagement of the Zoo, allowing the Zoo management to rape our Park and go against the purpose of the Park and the intentions of our City Founding Fathers when they established our Park. We, the Senior Citizens of Memphis, will take our precious memories of our Park and how precious it was to us to our graves. No more generations receiving a gift handed down by the generations and generations of fellow citizens who did their best to bequeath to them this nature preserve in as pristine condition as possible. Goodbye, Paradise. We, the majority and all nature lovers, still love you and we apologize for the dastardly deeds of the few.
Park History | Overton Park
Park History Crowd gathered by the Duke C. Bowers Wading Pool. On November 14, 1901, the City of Memphis purchased a 342-acre tract of land from Nashville residents Ella and Overton Lea (for $110,000) and “Lea’s Woods” became Overton…
The diatribe above is well-intentioned, but completely off-base. Parks have always existed for the public good, and that means they have to flexible to the needs of the public. As times change, the park needs to be adapted to those needs. Overton Park is NOT a time capsule.
The problems with parking do result from a lack of planning and projecting. However, I don’t think many would have projected THIS level of growth and interest in the Zoo and especially the Shell at at time when public funds would have been more readily available, say in the early to mid 90s. By the time the writing was on the wall, the city was budget was in bad shape, and dealing with parking at the zoo was a relatively low priority.
The powers that be deferred action, and now we have a mess. That mess is the result of positive growth and an sharp increase in interest in the park, the Zoo, and the Shell, all of which are positives. However, I can assure you of this. They will NOT remain positives by taking a stand that the park’s mission should remain frozen in 1901. It has to adapt to remain relevant and foster the continued growth of the institutions inside of it. In the 21 century, that HAS to include parking, especially in this city. With so little public transportation here, a problem that is far more difficult to address than issues with Zoo and park auto traffic, parking HAS TO BE A PRIORITY. To disagree is to ignore reality and insure the decline of the park and its resident organizations over time.
If you actually read the article above, you would see that the other urban areas that faced this same problem built parking structures that worked with the landscape and were not destructive or distracting. It can be done, and in this case, this or something else HAS to be done. To take the stance that everyone should just park and walk is just as myopic as the Zoo’s stance that they should get preference to use the park’s green space as they please. Both stances will end up alienating groups of visitors, and in the end, driving them away.