Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is Memphis a Fitness Friendly City?

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2012 at 2:20 PM

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Surveys of America's fittest and fattest and park-friendly cities are a dime a dozen, and I see about one a week. Here's one that came in today from the Trust for Public Land. I don't read most of them any more. But public sports facilities — that means anyplace you can use for free or by paying a fee — have played a big part in my life and they are part of our lifestyle and our personal and municipal budgets.

Most surveys lie. Fat cities are not fat due to a lack of public facilities. The problem is diet, personal motivation, and access. Ours is a disposable city, and the facilities and the people are not always in the same place. Here's my Memphis survey. It is personal, subjective, anecdotal, and uninformed in some categories, less so in others. But in most cases I have seen 'em and and used 'em, which is more than most of the surveys can claim.

Public parks: Oversupplied. Shelby Farms is four times bigger than Central Park. Overton Park is getting better year after year. There are riverfront parks from Mud Island to Tom Lee Park to Crump Park near the Ornamental Metals Museum, some of them rarely visited. Mud Island River Park is closed half the year. Greenbelt Park on Mud Island is the best of the lot. Tiger Lane at the Fairgrounds is for the football crowd. Kennedy, Willow Road, Bellevue, and Leftwich/Audubon serve multiple needs. There are probably too many parks for a disposable city to maintain adequately.

Walking trails and running: Adequate. Put your shoes on and take off. True story: a former colleague was so obsessed with training for a marathon that he ran hundreds of laps around his living room when it rained. There are oval tracks at the fairgrounds and many high schools. There is an organized race of some kind nearly every weekend.

Fitness machines and structured programs: Unbalanced. Suburbs oversupplied with clubs and community facilities, inner city Memphis is undersupplied. Kroc Center, Streets Ministries, Memphis Athletic Ministries, and Church Health Center are helping a lot.

Tennis: Oversupplied in both indoor and outdoor courts. High schools and colleges that emphasize tennis build to tournament capacity, which leaves a lot of courts unused at other times. The University of Memphis has moved its tennis operations to the Racquet Club, leaving several perfectly good courts on campus for everyday players. Memphis has more public indoor tennis centers than Chicago. There are unused and deteriorating but still playable courts at Frayser Tennis Center. There is no single public center to compare with the biggest public centers in Little Rock, Mobile, Murfreesboro, and Nashville but overall Memphis is still oversupplied.

Racquetball. Oversupplied. A dying sport that thrived in Memphis 30 years ago, but plenty of courts remain at University of Memphis, Racquet Club, downtown YMCA, and some of the fitness clubs and community centers.

Outdoor basketball: Adequate. The cheapest sport around, requiring only nets, backboards, level rims, and a ball.

Indoor basketball: Adequate. Schools, churches, and community centers meet the need.

Bicycle riding: Oversupplied. If you want to ride a bike, there's nothing stopping you, assuming you can afford one, and if you can't there are organizations that will help. The dedicated bike lanes, bike paths, and sharrows are nice but a city-wide grid is unnecessary. Memphis is mostly flat and the weather is more conducive to riding than in the Snow Belt.

Football: Oversupplied. Liberty Bowl Stadium is used nine times a year. Football defined the fairgrounds. Most high schools have a field, and some of them are putting in artificial surfaces.

Baseball and softball: Oversupplied. Baseball is a suburban game, and teams migrate to the suburban baseball fields for tournaments and leagues. An unkempt field and backstop is a typical scene at most Memphis parks and high schools, a relic of another day. Good fields like the ones at Rodney Baber are expensive to light and maintain and lightly used.

Soccer: Equals suburban, although some of the world's greats came out of poor Third World countries. Adequate to oversupplied, thanks to Mike Rose Fields.

Golf: Adequate. Memphis had to close public courses, which are magnets for wasteful spending and political squabbles on the City Council. Galloway serves the high end, and if you are willing to spend $40 you can play just about anywhere. Overton Park needs real greens.

Swimming: Undersupplied, but expensive, seasonal, and fraught with liability. The Kroc Center will help when it opens next year. Closing the Mason YMCA hurt. High marks for suburbs, downtown YMCA, University of Memphis, and Rhodes College which offers a summer membership.

Others: volleyball, skateboarding, squash, lacrosse, field hockey, rugby, bowling, Ultimate. You want to play it, you can find a place. It may require some effort and practice but that's the point. And it may require some cash and a car, but if you don't have those there are less expensive or free alternatives. It comes down to motivation and lifestyle. A new building or a new facility — or a survey — is usually not the answer.

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