story & photos by Tricia Dewey
Every great city has its great park and for Memphis that park is Shelby Farms. More than five times larger than New York’s Central Park with 4500 acres, and one of the few urban parks that is home to a herd of buffalo, Shelby Farms contains more than 40 miles of multi use trails. Park visitors can still walk, run, hike, fish, bike, frisbee golf, and generally play (as long as they are six feet away from one another). The current times serve as a reminder of just how important this public open space is, even essential.
How did this forestland become a protected recreational and environmental resource? Originally this land, which contains a variety of habitats including Wolf River watershed and hardwood forest, was deforested for agricultural use. From 1928 to the 1960s the land was used as a model penal farm where Shelby Farms Penitentiary prisoners worked the land and sold the surplus produce. The penal farm eventually closed, and the land was open for public use but not legally protected in any way. The Friends of Shelby Farms championed the idea of protecting the land and worked to prevent pieces of the park from being sold to developers.
The Shelby Farms Park Conservancy (SFPC) was formed in 2007 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit primarily to care for the property on behalf of the community. As its first order of business the conservancy helped establish a conservation easement to legally protect the park land from development. The park is a public-private partnership. Shelby County government owns the property and the SFPC manages daily operations, conducts long range planning, and fundraises.
After SFPC staff secured the conservation easement they started to work on a master plan. At community meetings they invited everyone to participate in the future of Shelby Farms Park to share their hopes and dreams about what the park could be. World-renowned landscape architects James Corner Field created a master plan with a centralized hub for activity within the park while allowing the vast majority of the park to remain as a retreat and escape from urban life.
Successful completion of three key demonstration projects, Woodland Discovery Playground, Wolf River pedestrian bridge, and Shelby Farms Greenline, kicked off the park improvements. With the addition of the Wolf River pedestrian bridge and the Greenline, park users could now for the first time enter the park on foot and bike. In 2016 after two years of construction the park reopened as a world class public green space. The improvements were world class–the central Heart of the Park plan expanded Patriot Lake now known as Hyde Lake, and made it more ecologically sustainable, and created a new visitors’ center and event center, both LEED-certified buildings. The project was on time, on budget, and paid for by SFPC fundraising efforts. Since then, the average number of yearly park visitors has jumped from 1 million to 3 million.
According to Rebecca Dailey, SFPC Communications and Creative Specialist, “Our goal is for people to say this feels like Memphis. It was an incredible interpretation of what we heard people say in those public meetings…. In the next couple of years we’ll be looking at revisiting [the master plan] to see what we can still accomplish from our original plan, what we need to change, and where we go from there.”
Dailey says, “We’re working right now on materials for our website that anyone could access from home or eventually mobile phone from the park to help them learn about the park life around them…. It’s called Learn and Play and it’s a section on our website.” They have also worked in the last few years to reconnect some of the ecosystems within the park that were separated over the years.
According to Governor Lee’s Stay-at-Home order, “engaging in outdoor activity” is considered “essential” as long as it is not conducive to congregating. Dailey says that “getting out and getting moving is something that can benefit your health not only in
the short term but in the long term…. [But] right now that looks a little different at the park.” The park has taken measures to discourage people from gathering, like removing or roping off benches, and shutting down the pavilion, playground, restrooms, and some parking areas. Since early April when the weather warmed up adjustments have been made. “We are keeping a close eye on our visitor counts. We do have a counting system within the park and we try to set the stage for visitors to make the best decisions for themselves.” With small adjustments people can spread out into less populated trails and corners of the park and use the park at off-peak hours.
Like other nonprofits, Shelby Farms Park Conservancy is currently taking a hit to its revenue streams. Tax dollars provide 17 percent of the park’s budget but SFPC raises $5 million a year to care for the park and the Greenline. SFPC raises funds through donations, rentals–facility, boat, bike, and park-produced events. That funding goes back into caring for the trails, creating conservation lawns, keeping the buffalo fed, and caring for the landscapes. This year they have even had to postpone what would have been the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, one of the largest events in the park celebrating itself. Even though they are facing large monetary losses Dailey says, “It’s a little uncomfortable for us to ask for donations in a time of uncertainty for so many of our visitors. But we have been able to ask, and we have been so moved by the people who have stepped up to donate because the park is and always will be a free community resource but it really is powered by donations…. We encourage anyone who loves the park, who visits the park to think about supporting it if they are able. We have one- time donations available, monthly, and no gift is too small. Small gifts have a really big impact over time.”
Although fundraising is tough right now Dailey sees a sunrise peeking over the horizon in this changed economic environment. “In the past few weeks the number of visitors that we’ve seen is really a testament to how important parks and public spaces can be to the community. We’re seeing more and more people turn to spending time outdoors as a means to bettering themselves and I think that really speaks to the work that we do to keep this space open and accessible when they need it the most.” It’s the people that power this park she says. “We hope that more and more people are falling in love with the park in ways that will keep them connected to the park and to each other. We hope that at least some of those people will be able to become supporters of the park to help care for the spaces they love so much.” With any luck, Shelby Farms rescheduled Earth Day “Down to Earth Festival” on August 29, 2020, will be an event to remember and will remind us that as Henry David Thoreau said, “We need this tonic of wildness.”