Over the past few years, Overton Park Conservancy has been gathering feedback from the community about how the park fits into their lives, and their vision for its future. Time and again, we heard that the park and its amenities are beloved, and visitors want to protect them. Their desire is to deepen their connection with the park, with nature, and with the people they meet along the way.
Now, we are excited to share with you some of the fruits of this process. The plan for Overton Park’s future focuses on fine-tuning the park’s key elements and strengthening its core offerings. By celebrating the park’s history, and by expanding its ecological and programmatic diversity, we can help Overton Park reach its fullest potential. The plan includes a series of thoughtful interventions designed to increase engagement and improve the park’s financial sustainability without dramatically changing its character.
While we’ll be making improvements throughout the park, the plan focuses on major enhancements to the Greensward, the heart of the park (the park’s geographic center, including Rainbow Lake), and the newly-available acreage in the southeast corner.
It’s a project years in the making: next year, overflow parking on the Greensward will permanently come to an end. In the process, Memphis Zoo visitors will gain an improved parking experience, park visitors will gain an enhanced experience of the park’s central gathering space, and the Old Forest will gain back nearly 17 acres.
Thanks to a $3 million federal appropriation secured by Congressman Steve Cohen, the Conservancy, the Zoo, and the City of Memphis are moving into the next phase of implementing the parking solution. The Zoo has begun moving its maintenance functions into a section of the park’s southeast corner, which will free up its current maintenance area for a new parking lot. When that lot opens, Greensward parking will end forever. The City of Memphis has consulted turf experts regarding remediation of the soil in the area used to park cars. With aeration and a few seasons of being car-free, this area will become less compacted.
When talking with the community about what they would like to see for a fully-accessible Greensward, we heard that keeping the lawn’s character and openness were critical, but that more shaded seating areas and a dedicated walking path would make the space even more usable. The plan calls for a tree-lined path around the Greensward’s curving perimeter, with picnic tables and a small entrance plaza. The trees will provide a visual barrier between the Greensward and the Zoo parking lot, and the path will make the full space usable to visitors who may not be able to traverse the full expanse of lawn.
Heart of the Park
In George Kessler’s original design for the park, Rainbow Lake was planned to be 1.95 acres, with a softly planted edge and a pedestrian path on the west side. Today the lake is 1.61 acres with a hard edge, and its shallowness and concrete lining create algae blooms that cause constant maintenance challenges. Our plan calls for rehabilitating the lake, restoring natural ecological features and plantings, and connecting it to a trail and a new pavilion that will replace the current structure. Naturalizing the lake would also help to mitigate some of the flooding we frequently experience on this side of the park.
The proposed nature pavilion would provide a space for interactive nature-based learning, serving as an open-air outdoor classroom. Programming within the space would be flexible enough for all ages and could support paid events, generating revenue without making the park feel commercialized.
Where Rainbow Lake is now separated from the Old Forest by a fence and the Zoo’s temporary exhibit space, we will link these two areas via a new “discovery trail.” This trail will feature multiple informal, self-paced opportunities to explore the natural beauty of Rainbow Lake, Lick Creek, and the Old Forest. One learning node might sit under the forest canopy, offering a look at Lick Creek; another might offer a look into the lake via a raised boardwalk. Interpretive signage could be added to make the ecological features of Overton Park feel within visitors’ reach.
To the eastern edge of the discovery trail lie the nearly 17 acres of old-growth forest that are currently fenced and off-limits to the public. This area has no existing trail system, and is largely overgrown with invasive plants. The Conservancy will use funding from the federal appropriation to do a large-scale invasive removal, which we’ll then maintain through our robust program of volunteers. When the initial removal has taken place, we’ll install trails so that the native vegetation has a chance to thrive without being trampled. After that, we look forward to bringing down the fence and welcoming you into this new section of managed forest.
Used as a City maintenance facility for the past century, the acreage at the corner of Poplar Ave. and East Parkway provides an opportunity to try some new things without making huge changes in the parts of the park that are already beloved. The planning process generated interesting ideas for activating this corner, but it’s been challenging to develop a community vision for a space that most park visitors have never been able to visit. Now that the City’s maintenance functions have relocated to a new facility, we’re excited to show you this new corner of the park!
Over the next few months, we’ll be testing out some concepts, similar to recent activations like 2014’s “Tennessee Brewery Untapped” and 2010’s “A New Face for an Old Broad.” We’re focusing on one of the existing greenhouse bays and the area just surrounding it. First, we’ll bring the community out for a series of cleanup events, to remove clutter and overgrown vegetation. Then, we’ll work with partners to bring out musical events (like the Overton Park Shell’s Mobile Shell stage), pop-up food and drink options, games, and other ideas. This will be a time to visit a space that’s entirely unfamiliar to most Memphians and dream about what we want to see and do there in the future.
Other Areas of the Park
The first phase of the park’s transformation is already complete, with 2022’s opening of the reimagined Overton Park 9. For the next phases, we’ve focused here on the three areas of the park where we expect significant improvements, but other sections will get some needed TLC as well.
The East Parkway Pavilion and picnic area is well-loved and well-used. We heard from you that it doesn’t need a major reimagining, but it does need investment. The historic pavilion needs extensive repairs, including a new roof and flooring. Playground equipment would be replaced, and the walking path surrounding it could be enhanced by the addition of sculptural elements.
Veterans Plaza would receive more shade trees and seating. The section of Museum Drive between the Overton Park Shell and Brooks Museum would be turned into a pedestrian plaza with space for food trucks, picnic tables, and an elevated view of the Shell stage. Improved seating and pathways would be added to the formal gardens.
We’re thrilled to continue strengthening our relationship with all our partner organizations in the years to come. It’s been a joy co-hosting events with the Brooks Museum and Overton Park Shell recently, and we’re planning to add even more shared programming in the next year to include the Memphis Zoo and the OP9 golf course. The Metal Museum will begin construction on Rust Hall soon, and we can’t wait to welcome them to the park. The Brooks Museum will be with us for a few more years before moving downtown, and a process to identify the future use of the museum buildings will begin in 2024.
We’re grateful to everyone who spent time sharing their ideas for the park over the last few years, and we hope you’ll be excited about the changes to come. We’ve already begun implementing some of the changes you asked for, including this year’s launch of environmental education and creative programming. We’ll need your continued support, both in shaping the future of the southeast corner and in financially contributing to these plans, and we’ll have lots of creative ways for you to get involved.
Special thanks are due to the funders who supported this planning process: The Assisi Foundation of Memphis, City of Memphis, Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, First Horizon Foundation, Hohenberg Foundation, Hyde Family Foundation, International Paper, Bill Metz, and Reimagining the Civic Commons.
We look forward to sharing even more about the vision for Overton Park in the months to come!