Park It 

When Laura Adams told Inside City Parks author Peter Harnik about Shelby Farms, “he almost hung up on me,” she says.

“He thought I was either crazy or lying. … These kinds of opportunities don’t exist in many places in the United States.”

Harnik came to Memphis last week to speak to Friends of Shelby Farms Park — and to make sure Adams, the group’s president, wasn’t fibbing.

“The opportunity here is mouthwatering,” Harnik says. “On the flip side, it’s also like swallowing a whale.”

The park seems to always be in some sort of limbo. For years, “Don’t Split Shelby Farms” was the rallying cry for environmentalists. Politicians routinely propose selling off pieces of the park to solve county budget woes.

More recently, the Shelby Farms Advisory Committee suggested unifying the entire park under one governing agency, perhaps a public/private partnership, and avoiding any development until a master plan can be devised.

“Part of the challenge we’ve always had here is that people keep asking what it is,” says Adams. “Because of a lack of funding and a lack of vision, it’s never reached its full potential.”

Adams’ words remind me of my reaction when, as a newcomer to Memphis, I heard about Shelby Farms. I remember being a little confused: What do they grow there? Is there an admission charge? There are buffalo?

For longtime Memphians, Shelby Farms is Shelby Farms. For the uninitiated, it’s a question mark. But if there are some things about Shelby Farms that aren’t clear, it’s not the only local park with that problem.

Harnik became interested in city parks after trying to find information on the 15 largest local parks in the country. Data on the national park system was easily available, but data on city parks proved troublesome.

“It turned out nobody knew the answer to this sort of obvious question,” he says. “I thought if we don’t know this most obvious factoid, what else don’t we know?”

Harnik is interested in the interplay between city and parks, how the culture of the city influences the park and vice versa.

“There isn’t a city in the nation whose space, layout, real estate value, traffic flow, public events and even civic culture is not significantly defined by its urban parks, plazas, ... civic centers, and public gardens,” he writes in the introduction to Inside City Parks.

“Traditional, development-oriented people don’t understand that a park adds value to the surrounding community,” says Harnik. “That needs to be articulated over and over with examples.”

After touring Shelby Farms, Harnik said Adams’ group needs to reach people who don’t think of themselves as park people, pointing out to the group that they were “totally white ... in a 60 percent black city.”

Harnik also mentioned the need for active park planning.

“The parks department in a city needs to be a major player at the table, in the way that health or education are,” says Harnik. “Maintaining a park is more than cutting the grass or keeping the roads paved.”

Which sort of begs the question about a vision for Shelby Farms and how the park can meet its potential. It’s 4,500 acres. With community backing, the possibilities seem endless.

More than two years ago, former Shelby Farms board chairman Ron Terry proposed a conservancy that would work like the one that runs Central Park in New York City. He found nearly $20 million in private money for the project. But county commissioners were wary of ceding their authority over the park — as some still are today — and the proposal went nowhere.

When asked about public/private partnerships, Harnik says it was smart to be cautious. “When they work — and they often do — it’s a very dynamic combination of public accountability and private initiative and entrepreneurship,” he says. On the other hand, “If a risk isn’t taken, the park could go 25 years without anything happening.”

To find — and enhance — common ground, it’s a risk I think we should take.

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