Memphis has a lot of park land - maybe more than any big city in the country.
And the debate over what to put in downtown parks and Shelby Farms is very similar to the debates going on in many other cities.
Those two things are made clear by a story in Friday's Wall Street Journal, "The Focus-Grouped Park," on the "heated debate" about what to put in them.
Although Memphis isn't mentioned in the story, the cities that are - Seattle, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Minneapolis, Houston, and Orange County, California - all have multi-million dollar park improvements or expansions underway.
"On a scale not seen since the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th century, public green spaces are proliferating," the story says.
The report says the real controversy is over what to do with them, with suggestions ranging from passive activities to zip lines, climbing walls, riding trails, bocce ball, and free wireless internet. And, of course, how to pay for those things.
Anyone following the debate over Tom Lee Park, Beale Street Landing, the downtown promenade, or Shelby Farms will find many familiar notes. What's most striking, however, is that the biggest park in the Journal story is 1,347-acre Great Park of Orange County. The story notes that this is "60 percent larger than New York's Central Park."
Well, as many Memphians know, Shelby Farms is five times the size of Central Park. And downtown Memphis, with 250 acres of parks, is also park-rich.
Corporate sponsorship, naming rights, and private donations are helping pay for the new parks in other cities. Gold Medal Park in Minneapolis was financed by a $5 million donation from a United Health Care executive, and Millenium Park in Chicago has named prominent areas after SBC, Boeing, and British Petroleum. So far, Memphians have taken a dim view of private development on park land, preferring to seek state and federal funds to bolster local funding. Meanwhile, rival groups engage in an intellectual arms race by bringing in friendly experts and consultants to rally supporters and publicize their views.
Friends of Shelby Farms, the Riverfront Development Corporation, and Friends For Our Riverfront take note: Memphis has an embarrassment of riches. And the story suggests that focus groups, consultants, and visiting experts may help the process along, but ultimately nitty-gritty decisions are made at the local level by concerned citizens battling it out.
"It's much more challenging to satisfy everyone's notion of what a park should be," says Witold Rybczynski, a professor of urbanism quoted in the story. "You want to please as many people as possible, but we've become so different."