A recent competition asked participants to develop a master plan for Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee. The organizers had quite lofty goals. In no uncertain terms, they wanted the newly transformed park be the Central Park of the 21st century. It has to be everything: “a new regional center for growth, a new destination for residents, a jewel of civic pride, and an attraction to people from around the world.” One shouldn't be surprised if at the last minute they decided not to require that it must bring about world peace and end global warming, because why can't we ask of our parks, especially the future great ones, to induce social equality and be like an ecological beast-machine gobbling up all the CO2 produced by the South.
In any case, how does one design a great park? It's a rather dauntingly complex problem, which, as one might suspect, the three chosen finalists peripherally addressed by focusing on another.
How can the agricultural past inform the design of an urban park?
The answers, as provided by Field Operations, Hargreaves Associates and Tom Leader Studio, are very interesting, if not reminiscent.
For Field Operations, agriculture seems to mean hyper-productivity, virility, each day a rigidly structured set of activities. Thus, a hyper-park.
Shelby Farms Park is already today an amazing reserve of public parkland and amenity. It’s huge scale offers an extraordinary resource for people who are interested in large-scale recreation activities – strolling, jogging, cycling, roller-blading, picnicking, dog walking, swimming, camping, horse-back riding, dog training, fishing, shooting, gardening and the like. It’s agricultural heritage is also a great resource for land husbandry practices, including farming, research, energy, education and markets.
Our design vision amplifies these trends toward higher intensity and variety of uses. [...] Twelve distinctive landscapes will each support certain uses and activities, allowing a coherent “place” structure for the many varied user groups set within a larger Park setting.
At 4500 acres, definitely a bigger acreage than Central Park and nearly four times the size of the future Orange County Great Park, there certainly will be enough space to incorporate all of these planned uses.
For Hargreaves Associates, the sweeping monumentality of agricultural landscapes finds expression through their signature style — the braided topography — by which all activities and spaces are organized.
From their project statement:
We have approached the site by examining the site-specific qualities that make it a beloved destination today: expansive fields, sweeping views, spectacular sunsets, rolling hills, nestled lakes, extensive walking trails, equestrian trails and events, farm lands, hands-on learning about agriculture and nature, a country drive, and bottomland forests. There is much at Shelby Farms Park to be discovered.
We have integrated those elements by creating a multi-layered design that intertwines the various existing areas of the park. A network of landscape and movement systems provides for recreation and access by foot, by bike, by horse, by shuttle...and by boat. A system of beautiful lakes that reflect the memorable Memphis sky allows a connection to the river - both real and metaphorical as well as a whole new movement system on the site.
Whereas Field Operations makes use of the grid and compartmentalization, Hargreaves Associates prefers terraforming.
And then there's the master plan by Tom Leader Studio.
Quoting in full:
All you have to do is read the name. The history of farming is the most useful way of thinking when looking toward the future of Shelby Farms Park. This is a huge piece of land that has been in the process of breaking down into 3 or 4 separate domains. Due to the size and available resources, the only viable strategy for creating a singular park is to work closely and dramatically in partnership with nature. That’s what farmers do – they closely study the soil, climate, hydrology, transport, market, and come up with a plan for cultivation that builds on the best aspects of their land. This is a plan for cultivating a very big park. This is how you grow Memphis.
What does that mean? It means we have introduced a whole series of crops that are not literally corn or soybeans but things that address some current issues in the city. For example, health and fitness - how to reverse the trend toward obesity and type 2 diabetes? By developing a substantial local organic farm, restaurant, and sustainable food scene where little currently exists - spawning a whole new green industry. By greatly expanding enjoyable ways to get exercise – swimming, canoeing, trail running, hiking over a vast network. By harvesting enough solar energy to take the park off the grid. By creating a home for the native Memphis music scene – a place where local bands and musicians can gather, find studio space, find a ready-made audience on a big lake with a beach, a place for performance at all scales. These and several other important “crops” for Memphis are what we want to grow here at Shelby Farms Park.
Conceptually, it isn't at all that different from the other two. Minimalism to all three is a non-starter; horror vacui pervades throughout — although, now that we think about it, this is probably a condition of the competition itself, from the organizers being fearful of a perception that public money may seem to have been wasted if there's only nature there and if soccer moms can't occupy their hyperactive broods with things to do at the new park.
In any case, though somewhat more clearly vocalized by Tom Leader Studio, all three finalists have turned the park into a kind of social engineering, a tool with which sedentary, fat, uncultured, carbon-producing Southerners are cultivated into fit environmentalists who may or may not be avid supporters of the local music scene but are otherwise aesthetes.
Be sure to check out more images of the master plans by all three teams at the Shelby Farms Park website. Also, the organizers have set up a YouTube account where you can watch videos about the park itself, the competition and interviews with the principal designers.
The winning design will be announced on April 9, 2008.
POSTSCRIPT #1: Field Operations wins!