The 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park features programmed nodes of concentrated activity.
Timothy Hursley The 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park features programmed nodes of concentrated activity.

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 linchpin for the greening of the region. A true 21st-century urban park—and recent recipient of a 2019 AIA Award for Regional & Urban Design—it has already boosted the quality of life for citizens of western Tennessee.

A master plan process for the park began in 2007 through an international competition sponsored by the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy; it was won by James Corner Field Operations. The conservancy approached the process with a clearly defined set of principles and turned to the design team—which included Marlon Blackwell Architects—to suss out a program that resonated with their vision.

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 were focused on Heart of the Park, the 195-acre core that opened in 2016. 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 than ever before to the water and offer discrete architectural spaces that clearly mark key locations around the lake.

Through thorough analysis of the site and its character, the design 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 Memphis’ vibrant culture and food scene, developing a hub for nature-based recreation, and creating gathering places for all members of the community.