The Memphis Riverfront Concept describes how six miles of the city’s Mississippi riverfront can become a signature network of spaces and opportunities, tied into the city and its assets, that benefits the entire community. It focuses on showing how five zones—the Fourth Bluff, Mud Island, Tom Lee Park, MLK Park, and Greenbelt Park—can leverage their strengths to become distinctive places offering activities and experiences that appeal to people of all generations, incomes, races, and backgrounds. Three design principles underlie the Concept’s recommendations: Foster positive encounters, civic pride and identity, and a new understanding of the Mississippi River; Restore natural conditions, native ecology, and a more dynamic relationship between people and the river; and Connect assets along the river, the riverfront to the city, and people with each other. The Concept’s interventions are designed as a connected series of short-, medium-, and long-term investments that add up over time according to available funding and interest—demonstrating how a renewed Memphis Riverfront can not only be inclusive and inspiring, but actionable and realistic as well.
The Fourth Bluff presents an opportunity to leverage growing investment through placemaking. Its transformation begins at Cobblestone Landing, where a variety of native trees and shrubs are planted, growing over time into a lush grove. Planted by the community during a citywide event that ties into an existing improvement project by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the grove forms a living connection between the riverfront and the city’s diverse communities. A new boardwalk at the river’s edge connects to a boathouse where kayaks and other watercraft can be rented and stored. A series of interventions at the top of the bluff offer new cultural assets, including a museum, as well as dining and retail amenities. A pop-market transforms over time into a permanent marketplace, spurring development. This vibrant array of experiences pulls people between the river and downtown.
Currently underused and underdeveloped, Mud Island has the potential to become a leading 21-century center for freshwater science and eco-industry—an Eco Hub where Memphis’ leading scientific institutions can partner to run a center devoted to hands-on river science studies. Leveraging and expanding these institutions’ educational, conservation, and research capacities, the Hub attracts investment aimed at developing freshwater-focused innovations. This program could also extend to include a public magnet school, giving youth unique training in this growing field. Programmed campsites provide spaces where people can enjoy nature without leaving the city. Planting the peninsula with trees, grasses, and other native vegetation able to withstand high water creates attractive habitat. New paths and connections open up access and increase use, tying new amenities, including two small pavilions and an “astronomy cone,” into downtown and the rest of the riverfront system.
Tom Lee Park’s expanse of open space along the river is flat and bare, reflecting its most well-known use as a month-long fairgrounds. Reimagining the Park with year-round public use as its primary purpose reveals the potential of this space as a vibrant landscape. The Park’s evolution begins by softening its river edge with trees and other native plantings. An adventure playground features a skate park and rock climbing wall, providing a multigenerational place to play and an energetic magnet pulling people to the riverfront. A portion of the Park’s current parking lot is transformed into a green meadow, supplementing a constructed landscape of gentle forested hills, with new athletic fields farther south. A new path system pulls visitors between the city and the riverfront, terminating at two signature pavilions that jut out over the water and provide space for various activities and special events. The pavilions are connected via a kinetic boardwalk, rising and falling with the changing level of the river.
MLK Park is Memphis’ largest riverfront park, but its nearly 380 acres are underused and underprogrammed. Locating transit stops at the Park and connecting it with existing and future bike trails opens up access. The current steep hard edge is softened into an accessible shoreline by moving earth, adding native plantings, and creating a dock area. The park’s current, little-used and costly golf course provides an ideal foundation for festival grounds that can be used year-round. The venues and other facilities that support these events begin as temporary structures that are replaced over time with permanent buildings as funds become available. These improvements stimulate redevelopment of the vacant industrial lands to the north. Rezoning these areas and encouraging dense uses results in vibrant development that ties the Park to the city’s core.
Greenbelt Park serves as a buffer zone protecting development from the seasonal rise of the river. The success of its trails and flora and fauna demonstrate that fully embracing it as a public park can make it a distinct Memphis destination. A more lush landscape thrives as native trees, grasses, and vegetation able to withstand high water levels are planted throughout. The river edge is reshaped into a more natural condition with inlets that provide aquatic habitat. New trails create more engaging experiences and allow people to move easily along the riverfront. A landmark lookout tower offers panoramic views. Terraced “land perches” extend the Park into the river. When the river is low, the perches take pedestrians directly to the water’s edge and also form the foundations for elevated “lookout jetties” that bring visitors out and over the river. When the river is high and the land perches are covered by feet of water, they provide aquatic habitat, while up at the surface, the jetties become docks for watercraft users who want to explore the Park’s meandering edge.
Founded by architect Jeanne Gang, Studio Gang is an architecture and urban design practice with offices in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, USA. Working as a collective, the Studio helps people, organizations, and cities design their futures, collaborating with experts from a wide range of fields to realize innovative projects at multiple scales. Renowned for an approach that foregrounds relationships between individuals, communities, and environments, the Studio has produced some of today’s most compelling architecture, including the award-winning Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, USA, and the Aqua Tower in downtown Chicago, USA. The Studio is currently engaged in projects throughout the Americas and Europe, including the new US Embassy in Brasilia, Brazil; a new campus for California College of the Arts, USA, and a high-rise tower in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.