Shelby Farms Park
On the site of a former penal farm on the east side of Memphis, the 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park blends pastoral landscapes with an active central park to form the lynchpin for the greening of the region. A true 21st-century urban park that recently saw the completion of phase 1, it has already boosted the quality of life for citizens of Memphis and western Tennessee.
A master-plan process for the park began in 2007 through an international competition sponsored by the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy and won by James Corner Field Operations. The nonprofit approached the process with a clearly defined set of principles, and turned to the design team to suss out a program that resonated with the conservancy’s vision. Through thorough analysis of the site and its character, the team identified the major challenges that threatened the park’s long-term viability and role as a driver of the region’s economic and environmental health.
The final plan directly addresses those challenges—including the absence of a strong identity, fragmented habitats, and deficient public access—to transform the park into a showcase of the region’s geography and ecology. It calls for embracing the city’s vibrant culture and food scene, creating gathering places for all members of the community, and developing a hub for nature-based recreation.
At more than five times the size of New York City’s Central Park, the project’s scale was simply too large to spread resources and social energy throughout its entirety. To that end, the team programmed nodes of concentrated activity, allowing for quiet spaces to remain as such and for active areas to bustle with energy. Investment and infrastructure is focused on Heart of the Park, the 195-acre core that opened in 2016. Following several early projects, Heart of the Park is the jewel of the master plan. Centered around Hyde Lake, which was expanded from 50 to 80 acres, it is ringed by a two-mile pathway filled with seating, pavilions, and plantings. A new boathouse, visitor center, and restaurant bring people closer to the water than ever before and offer discrete architectural spaces that clearly mark key locations around the lake.
The team brought a threefold approach to the park’s sustainability. Perhaps most critically, Heart of the Park is designed to be revenue neutral, ensuring its success. The conservancy is not able to raise operating funds to support so large a park solely through charitable support and business capital. Earned revenue from rental events and additional sources covered nearly 60 percent of the operational budget within the first year of operation, a figure the conservancy expects will continue to climb.