The redesign of Tom Lee Park has been led by architecture and urban design practice Studio Gang in collaboration with landscape architecture and urban design studio SCAPE. Local students from North and South Memphis have played a key role as embedded designers through the Youth Design Leadership Program, developed by Studio Gang in partnership with Douglass High School and Knowledge Quest.
“Our design builds upon two years of work alongside Memphians, which began with the Riverfront Concept, our proposal for the Riverfront as a whole, and is inspired by the extraordinary work that today’s Memphians are doing for their community,” said Studio Gang Founding Principal Jeanne Gang. “The new Tom Lee Park will be a civic space for everyone in Memphis to enjoy. We’ve designed the architecture to float in the landscape like vessels on the river, creating a park that uniquely reflects the changing nature of the Mississippi River and the city along its banks.”
Tom Lee Park was one of the five zones included in Studio Gang’s 2017 Memphis Riverfront Concept, a master plan for six miles of the city’s Mississippi riverfront that was shaped through a series of community engagement workshops, meetings, interviews, and surveys. The park’s design was developed over a long period of consultation with community groups, including key park stakeholders, and incorporates the ideas and input from more than 4,000 voices. The new Tom Lee Park design aims to honor and elevate their ambitions for Memphis’s future by connecting the city back to its starting point – the Mississippi River.
Concept for the New Park Design Drawing inspiration from the river, Tom Lee Park has been reimagined as a vibrant and dynamic civic space that fosters positive encounters and civic pride, restores natural ecology and conditions, and better connects the city to the river. Floating above the landscape, new architecture is inspired by the historical structures that once operated on the Memphis riverfront, from the terminal buildings to grain elevators and barges.
“The dynamic forms of the Mississippi River Basin itself inspired a series of rooms in the park, creating a unique template for diverse civic spaces and ecological revitalization,” said SCAPE Design Director Kate Orff.
Architecture and landscape work closely together to make the park a welcoming, comfortable place for all Memphians and visitors, whether they’re taking part in outdoor activities, relaxing alongside the Mississippi, learning about the river’s ecology or simply having fun. New multi-purpose spaces for education, sports, recreation, play, events, and rest are complemented by new public amenities including café concessions, lockers, storage, and bathrooms.
The park’s 30 acres are laid out as a series of four distinct zones—defined by topography, vegetation, pathways, and architecture—that flow together to support a range of active and passive uses. The zones are inspired by unique features of the Mississippi River Basin and together create a template for diverse civic spaces and ecological revitalization in downtown Memphis: The Gateway: A welcoming new connection linking downtown Memphis to the riverfront will bring new life to the east side of Beale Street Landing, create a universally-accessible pathway down the bluff from Beale Street, and welcome visitors in a new entry plaza that can accommodate public gatherings, art installations, and festival tents.
The Riffle: Modeled after the pattern of river water flowing over stones, the park’s central zone is defined by dynamic topography that shapes areas for relaxation and play, activity courts shaded by a signature canopy for everyday use (from basketball to yoga, dance, and fitness classes) and special events, and river-facing overlooks and “eco edges” that give visitors an intimate experience of the water.
The Pool: A network of open lawns that act as the park’s anchors for field activities and large events, designed to accommodate signature events including the Beale Street Music Festival. The pools support large and small festivals, and everyday recreation like field sports, picnics, kite flying, or playing fetch.
The Tailout: At the southern end of the park, where its landscape becomes more wild, active and accessible recreation paths lead to an outdoor learning and play area where children and adults find hands-on opportunities to connect with nature. A large outdoor classroom will host STEM programs facilitated by a scientist-in-residence. The dramatic Habitat Tower provides an attractive structure for birds to nest and rest and a memorable gathering space where park visitors can feel as if they’re hovering above the Mississippi—taking in views of the water and, after sundown, the Mighty Lights.
From a health perspective, paths are designed in loops to encourage all levels of physical activity and will include a one-mile fitness loop with workout equipment. Throughout, the design also prioritizes environmental health by integrating natural and technical systems that will mitigate water pollution, provide habitat for wildlife, harvest energy using photovoltaic panels, and collect stormwater for re-use. Regionally-appropriate flora and fauna contribute to the ecological restoration of the riverfront, and new plantings improve tree canopy and shade for park goers.