Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects has released an extensive outline envisioning the future of Memphis, Tennessee’s Mississippi riverfront. Studio Gang’s Memphis Riverfront Concept is a broad framework spanning six miles of the east bank of the river. Divided into five zones—Fourth Bluff, Mud Island, Tom Lee Park, M.L.K. Park, and Greenbelt Park—the Riverfront Concept is designed to re-link the city’s downtown to the underutilized waterfront. The plan calls for changes, large and small, ranging from new park buildings to major ecological remediation.

Many of the changes proposed are meant to build on the things people in Memphis already enjoy about the river. Throughout the design process, Studio Gang worked with the public and the Mayor’s Riverfront Task Force to gauge interest and gain insights into the future role of the river in the city. Based on community suggestions, the plan calls for enhancing views across the river, year-round attractions, additional family spaces, and various bike and pedestrian paths. Picturesque sunsets, barbecue, and the blues—just a few of Memphis’s favorite pastimes—were all considered in the plan.

For example, Tom Lee Park’s new adventure playground and waterfront pavilions aim to be catalysts for the generally quiet park. Currently, the park is primarily programmed for a month-long fair each year. Studio Gang hopes that the Riverfront Concept will make it a year-round destination. The namesake of the park, Tom Lee, is a local African-American hero. Along with the Memphis-based National Civil Rights Museum, the plan proposes a “Civil Rights History Loop.” The riverfront has always been of historical significance to the city. Not only was the riverfront the site of the settlement which eventually became the city, trade along the river was the driving economic force for most of the Memphis’s history. The Riverfront Concept hopes to reignite interest in the Mississippi River while reflecting back on its past importance.

The Riverfront Concept calls for a more active Wolf River Harbor, between the city and Mud Island. (Courtesy Studio Gang)

Among other areas that will see major changes is Mud Island—a peninsula in the river—which has been re-imagined as an Eco Hub. Currently, the area is a cultural center in the city and includes portions of the University of Memphis, as well as the Mississippi River Museum and an outdoor amphitheater. The Riverfront Concept includes learning and research areas, as well as ideas about institutional collaboration. Considering the Mississippi River watershed constitutes nearly 40 percent of the United States surface freshwater, Studio Gang argues that Memphis is an ideal location for freshwater studies.

The Memphis Riverfront Concept is meant to be a starting point for much larger changes for the city. Over the past 60 years, Memphis’s population has moved further and further east, away from the river. The Riverfront Concept aims to re-center the focus of the city on its historic starting point along the bluffs of the river and provide an expansive shared amenity. To do so, Studio Gang developed three design principles: foster, restore, connect. Each of these principals was constructed through discourse with the public and city officials. The “foster” principle focuses on bringing the public together and encouraging civic pride and appreciation for the river. “Restore” focuses on bringing back native ecological conditions and allowing the public to better understand the river system. The “connect” principle sets goals for bridging the divide between the city and the river, physically and culturally.

The entire 140-page Memphis Riverfront Concept is available online for the public to view.

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