The best part about Planner’s Network conferences is the organization’s ability to connect participants to a diverse range of projects and issues underway in the host city. This year’s theme on regional economic development was emphasized in the various excursions that took place throughout Memphis. Some highlights:

Shelby Farms Greenline

On Saturday about eight of us had the good fortune of biking the Shelby Farms Greenline, a former rail line turned urban greenway. Our hero of the day was Kyle Wagenschutz of Revolution Bikes (read their history and see why they are seriously revolutionary) who led us through the City’s Midtown and East neighborhoods, along the Wolf River, past two penitentiaries, and to the Farm–all the while interjecting interesting historical facts.

Wolf River, made famous by Jeff Buckley’s body.

Shelby Farms is the aftermath of the Shelby County Work House/Penal Farm, which was established in 1819 by the County as a facility designed to change human behavior. According to County history, in 1883 private contractors hired inmates to build roads and rail lines. The county was paid 10 cents a day for this labor, allowing the Farm to be entirely self-sufficient. By the mid-twentieth century however, this penal model was considered outmoded, but as google maps illustrates, Shelby had already cultivated quite a love for correctional institutes.

Where would you like to serve out your term?

In 1970, the 4,500 acres of Shelby Farms was declared surplus land (seeing as how there were four nearby prisons) and put up for private bids. According to Kyle, one idea floated was a safari park. This vision was eclipsed when former mayor Bill Morris and Park Superintendent Tom Hill found a very good deal on some 200 buffalo back in 1989. The buffalo continue to populate the land and are in fact available for adoption (in the metaphorical-pledge-a-donation-kind-of-way) to help raise funds to combat  a parasite due to rampant inbreeding. On this particular day, we had the good fortune of seeing the Park set up for Israel Festival.

The park is considered one of the largest urban parks in the country–mind you the only thing perhaps remotely urban about it is that it has a Master Plan (and a plan to make it less urban at that) but with James Corner leading the redevelopment, maybe nearby inmates will have a chance to appreciate some marvelous Diller Scofidio + Renfro benches (!!!)

Another highlight was getting treated to lunch at the High Point Hub Cafe by the super nice and innovative Charles McVean of the Aerobic Cruiser Hybrid Cycle, which, by resembling a moving couch perhaps really is a viable alternative to the car…

Chicago-based geographer Andrea Craft tests it out.

Kyle and Charles are surrounded by conference participants.

Soulsville Community Charrette

The name Soulsville reflects the commonly held belief that this geographic area in South Memphis is in fact the birthplace of American soul music. Soulsville’s impressive legacy of civil rights activism and home of the first African American College, first female educational institution, and, of course Stax Records (call 634-5789!) has not safeguarded the community against the poverty, disinvestment, and suburban flight in the past 30 years. However, despite adversity, if there is one thing this Charrette emphasized, it was the innovative thinking that is occurring on a neighborhood level.

On our tour we saw the Lemoyne-Owen College community garden–a reminder of food desertification within Soulsville. The Memphis Black Arts Alliance took over an old firehouse slated for demolition and helped initiate community-sponsored murals that not only draw attention to the rich musical history, but also beautify aging infrastructure. My personal favorite site was just off Beechwood Avenue and South Bellevue. Next to the SMA citizen’s charter is a coin laundry facility that will soon begin offering social services such childcare and home ownership advice. The idea behind this is that people do their laundry when they have one or two hours of downtime, these facilities thus become places for social exchange. Providing such services in a well-used neighborhood facility allows for more widespread access.

Lastly, I must acknowledge the amazing Southern hospitality of the University of Memphis planning department, particularly  the extremely hilarious Ken Reardon, who is probably not an actual Southerner, but nonetheless went out of his way to ensure that everyone had a good time, which is maybe why I never actually saw his bow tie tied.

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