A Cool, Green Playground at Shelby Farms

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The newest addition to Shelby Farms, billed as a "world-class" playground, will open Friday.

Woodland Discovery Playground consists of five separate play areas or "nests" connected by a serpentine path under an arbor that will eventually be covered with native vines. Designed by landscape architect and urban designer James Corner and his firm james corner field operations, the playground features slides, swings, climbing ropes, and other equipment on a soft surface of recycled Nike sneakers. It is supposed to put more fun and some "risk" back into playgrounds while keeping them safe.

"Children like to find things," said Corner, who led a tour Thursday for architects and urban design professionals. The playground, which is free to users, is designed to encourage discovery and exploration of the five nests, the quarter-mile path, and the surrounding environment.

Corner's firm is also working on the Seattle waterfront and New York's High Line Park and Fresh Kills Park. He was joined at Thursday's program by John Hopkins, project director of parklands for the London 2012 Olympic Park, which is being called the first "sustainable" Olympics because 75 percent of the venues and infrastructure is permanent.

Under the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, the 4,500-acre park is being overhauled with bike trails, gardens, "one million trees" (not all at once, planners noted), educational exhibits, an expanded Patriot Lake, the new bridge over the Wolf River, pavilions, and connections to other bike trails. The goal, planners said, is to "shift the center of gravity" of Greater Memphis to the park, which is close to the geographic center of Shelby County and five times the size of Central Park in New York City.

The playground looks pretty cool, although the grown-ups in Thursday's groups didn't field test much of it. Thanks to Laura Adams, head of the conservancy, it was my second tour this week. I am many years removed from the days when I sought out playgrounds for my children, but I give this one high marks for imagination, tall slides, recycled materials, soft surfaces, and generally riskier stuff as advertised.

I found a couple of nits to pick, probably just temporarily, in a few basics. There are only two urinals plus two stalls in the (male) restroom. And just one diaper-changing table. If the playground is as popular as planners hope it will be, this could be a problem. There are three drinking fountains. Let's hope they keep them working. And part of the arbor trail is in the shade of the woods, but part of it, and a few of the nests, are in full sun for the time being. Anyone who has sat on a slide with bare legs on a sunny afternoon in July in Memphis will think twice before doing it again.

The park is certainly accessible by bicycle but occasional riders and young children will probably bring their bikes. Or stay in their cars. There is no public transit to the park or within the park. Anyone home at MATA? A shuttle or three, preferably air-conditioned, would seem to be an immediate need in a park the size of a small town. Planners said they are working on it. Same goes for the need for a pedestrian bridge over Walnut Grove, which is basically a four-lane divided highway with a stoplight at Farm Road. Be careful crossing that with kids.

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