Transforming Parks in Memphis, Atlanta, and Beyond

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 2007

Shelby Farms is a huge oasis (4,500 acres, or five times the size of Central Park in New York) inside Tennessee’s largest city. For most of its life it has been a hodgepodge of raw land and developed areas sprawling without much coherence. Then in 2007 the county awarded a management contract for the park to a new nonprofit conservancy headed by Barbara Hyde, a major Memphis philanthropist married to AutoZone founder Pitt Hyde. The volunteer board created a master plan for developing the park, and in 2008 the Hydes provided a $20 million donation to launch the initiative. Ideas for improvements were solicited from the many neighborhoods adjoining the park, and top designers were brought in to plan a lake, creation of an amphitheater and boathouse, extensive new trails, the planting of one million trees plus other landscaping, and many new amenities. A dramatic playground, new pedestrian bridges, and other enhancements were completed quickly, and park attendance has already tripled since the private conservancy took over. The fundraising campaign hit its goal of $70 million in 2015.

One model for this effort was a similar rejuvenation of a keystone urban park in Atlanta, where a $73 million expansion and renovation of Piedmont Park, the city’s most heavily used green space, attracted donations from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation ($10 million), the Arthur Blank Family Foundation ($5 million), and many others. The City of Atlanta had to commit only $5 million of public funds. In Atlanta as in Memphis, the key element was establishment of a private nonprofit conservancy to manage the effort.

As urban parks expert Guy Hagstette told Philanthropy magazine, the key to building an effective park conservancy is giving the conservancy both fundraising and management power. American cities are dotted with so-called conservancies that are really just fundraising vehicles for city parks departments, without any design or operations power. “That’s just business as usual,” warns Peter Harnik of the Trust for Public Land. Conservancies with independent authority can accomplish projects faster, with better results—which both deepens donor confidence and dramatically improves the experiences of park users.