VOL. 132 | NO. 80 | Friday, April 21, 2017
The Tipping Point
Andrews Gazes into Memphis’ Green Future
BY MICAELA WATTS
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
Imagine you’re in a helicopter. Stretched out beneath you is one of the country’s largest urban parks – 4,500 acres of sprawling hills, glistening lakes, and furry green forest, dotted with tiny people who are walking, cycling, picnicking, fishing, kayaking and riding horses.
Now imagine it’s your job to keep things running smoothly.
That’s how Jen Andrews thinks of her job. As executive director of the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, she is responsible for protecting this majestic green space and making it accessible & beneficial to all Mid-Southerners.
“Often I’m thinking big picture and scanning the horizon,” she says. “But then I have to zoom way in and say, ‘Someone is driving around the speed bumps and putting ruts in the grass!’”
Although, she admits, deterring impatient park patrons from off-roading around speed bumps has ultimately proved to be one of the more straightforward problems she’s confronted in her 10 years with the conservancy.
She first found the park in 2006, after graduating from Rhodes College.
“Back then, I knew exactly what my plans were,” recalls Andrews. “I was going to be a professor, studying and teaching post-colonial literature.”
Fortunately for Memphis, she had some time to kill before her program started, so she connected with a budding nonprofit whose mission was to protect Shelby Farms Park and help it reach its potential. For years, hungry real estate developers had been trying to transform the parcel into (among other things) a golf course, a zoo and a conference center.
Andrews’ first challenge was to secure a conservation easement, a legal agreement by which the county gave up its right to sell the land. It was a big ask for local politicians, but ultimately, Andrews and her team were able to convince county commissioners of the potential benefit to the community.
“That was a big moment for us,” she recalls. “That’s when we knew our big dream was possible.”
With the land protected, the team set its sights on 12 miles of unused railroad along Sam Cooper Boulevard. While others saw an eyesore or a threat to public safety, community activists envisioned a bike and pedestrian path that would give far-flung neighborhoods a straight shot to Shelby Farms Park.
At the time, the project was considered a pipe dream. Today, the Shelby Farms Greenline is one of Memphis’ best-loved assets.
“I knew it would be amazing,” Andrews says. “But I couldn’t have predicted the wave of tangible positivity that swept over the city when we opened the trail.”
“Early on,” she continues, “a lot of Memphians were focused on past plans and broken promises. But the Greenline showed us that we can have big dreams for our city and build these wonderful assets. It showed us that Memphis deserves world-class public spaces.”
Other projects soon followed: a state-of-the-art playground, a pedestrian bridge spanning the Wolf River, and a brand new “Heart of the Park” centered on 80-acre Hyde Lake. When they’re finished, these Phase One improvements will have cost more than $70 million, the vast majority of which was raised privately by Andrews and her team. It’s a testament to the power of a public-private partnership, a lesson that Memphis can teach the rest of the country and the world.
Still, Andrews hungers for more. In particular, she is working to make the park accessible to all Mid-Southerners, especially inner-city kids with little access to wide-open green spaces. After all, what’s a great park if it’s not open to everybody?
“If you want to be inspired, take a kid who’s never been in a forest on a trail walk,” she says. “Then watch their eyes light up when you tell them the forest belongs to them. It’s life-changing.”
“A great 21st century park owes a lot to its community,” she continues. “In order to deliver on its promise, it has to respond to the needs and hopes and challenges and dreams of a complex and wonderful society.”
Jen Andrews is a graduate of New Memphis’ Fellows program. Learn more at newmemphis.org.