Landscape architect James Corner unveiled plans yesterday for creating America’s largest urban park in Memphis: a 4,500-acre site, five-times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. Corner’s firm, Field Operations, beat out Hargreaves Associates and Tom Leader Studio, the other finalists in a six-month competition to master plan Shelby Farms, a patchwork of open space that had been a state-run prison farm during the mid-20th century and has since remained un-programmed.

Shelby Farms
Shelby Farms
Shelby Farms

Images courtesy Field Operations

Field Operations’s vision of the Walnut Grove entry into Shelby Farms, a 4,500-acre park in Memphis, Tennessee (top).  The revamped park will offer new facilities for a weekly farmer’s market that currently operates on site (middle).  Among its many wilderness areas, the park will include a bird refuge (above).

Corner describes his design as one that blends the site’s agricultural history with contemporary amenities. While the great 19th century parks cast themselves as places to stroll, Shelby Farms’ broad parcels and long horizons favor more intense explorations. “Imagine a Central Park that people use for fox hunting,” Corner says, adding: “what’s difficult to convey is the sheer size.” The park covers seven square miles and will be home to as many as 1 million new trees.

Field Operations’s scheme includes an open bison range, an arboretum, a four-mile perimeter lake, and gardens. The strategy absorbs the site’s agricultural history and the philosophy of the Agricenter, a public-private partnership that currently occupies part of the land and offers sustainable farming, RV parking, rodeos, and daily farmer’s markets.

“For us, playing with the idea of a farm includes not just an agricultural farm, but a sports farm or a cultural farm,” Corner says. “A farm is about improving—so you’re improving health or improving a sports team. This goes well in Memphis and the Southeast, where there’s lots of new interest in exercise.”

As the firm has done with similar projects, such as its scheme to transform the former Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, New York, Field Operations has proposed the creation of distinct zones to segment the parkland. One area will offer running and biking trails, another will house an amphitheater, and yet another will become host to land-art installations. A conservancy established to manage the park hopes to begin construction by next year with an initial outlay of $100 million and complete the project by 2023.