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A New Riverfront Experience

River Garden on the Waterfront

by Meg Johnson, Senior Design Associate of Groundswell Design Group, Inc.

The renovated River Garden project was completed by Groundswell Design Group in 2018 to create a new experience on the Memphis, Tenn. waterfront. The park features casual hammock swings, loose furnishings and stumps to encourage visitors to make themselves at home. In the park's northern extents, visitors find an open-air pavilion with flexible furnishings, paired with a stilted "treehouse."
The sleek Tree House was inspired by cargo-laden barges that pass on the adjacent river, designed to encourage adventurous play and gathering for visitors of all ages and abilities.
The elevated nest hosts a vibrant cluster of giant eggs inspired by Tennessee's state bird and a frequent River Garden visitor: The Northern Mockingbird (inset).
Color-changing LEDs enliven River Garden well into the night, extending the hours of the park for events and continued recreation.
The area was designed for the inclusion of all ages and mobilities. Here, a young visitor adds his own touch to the accessible, giant ground nests.
The prefabricated structures of the Tree House were manufactured off-site in a collaborative design process, shipped to Memphis, craned and 'clicked' into position. The result is a simple, highly functional, cost-effective transformation of the site. Soft connections such as netting expand methods of play and access while simplifying the installation process with flexible connection points.
A fall afternoon brings the start of Firepit-Friday programming with free smores, pop-up library book stands and music for the public.

River Garden is a compact public park on the downtown Memphis waterfront. The Garden was recently renovated and completed in 2018, in alliance with the forward-thinking 'Reimagining the Civic Commons' national initiative, seeking to foster socioeconomic mixing, sustainability and civic engagement through thoughtful design interventions. In this way, Groundswell Design Group Mississippi adaptively reinterpreted the long-underutilized public space (previously known as River Park). Formerly an expansive sea of lawn, the park functioned as a brief thoroughfare for riverfront joggers, bicyclists and the occasional kayak event. Though just under 2 acres in size, the park felt introverted and massive - devoid of human-scaled spaces, comfort and a sense of nature. Despite these setbacks, the central park is a crucial keystone piece: linking 6-miles of riverfront public parks and trails while also tying into the greater circulatory system of Downtown Memphis, Mud Island and residential neighborhoods to its north and south.

Re-Identifying With the River
Given this, the design team reimagined the site as "River Garden," a thoughtfully designed park that invites visitors of all ages and abilities to challenge themselves with a little everyday adventure. The design adaptively builds off the site's existing assets, enhancing open green space, panoramic river views, and rolling topography along Riverside Drive. Through impressive placemaking efforts, the result is a holistic reactivation of public space - a lively and dynamic park for Memphians to call their own.

The design process began in the fall of 2016 with a series of charrettes hosted by Memphis River Parks Partnership and Innovate Memphis. Community members included groups of artists, museum staffers, architects, food truck owners, philanthropists, park staff, community leaders and downtown businesses. Feedback overwhelmingly called for a new riverfront experience, seeking opportunities to "re-identify with the river" and play as if "in your own backyard." Memphis River Parks Partnership intensified efforts to build its volunteer engagement and build a sense of shared ownership and inclusivity.

Tree Houses and Nests
Thinking holistically, Groundswell's designs prioritize inclusive and fence-free play throughout the site, using strategic site elements, open space, plantings and adventurous modular structures. As a prefabricated structure, the Tree House represents an adaptable and design-forward alternative to conventional, site-built play structures. It comprises three large "rooms" and an accessible ramp with splayed stilts set at different elevations.

Giant birds' nests add whimsy and were inspired by a desire for naturalistic play elements, coupled with a celebration of wildlife along the River. The nests are very much of their place; the artist who created them harvested branches, vines and driftwood for their construction from the site's adjacent riverbanks. Situated on a soft bed of wood fiber at ground level, the nests are open and inviting, beckoning park-goers to come sit and play inside. Upon accessing the elevated nest from the treehouse, visitors discover a cluster of speckled giant Mockingbird eggs meant to inspire a sense of curiosity and wonder. Additionally, an eclectic collection of birdhouses are hidden throughout the park, surprising park-goers with year-round wildlife sightings. These birdhouses offer new habitat for the riverfront bird communities, as well as observational and educational opportunities for guests to learn about local wildlife.

More Fun for Memphians
To provide opportunities for local business and innovative park management, a small-footprint shipping container was repurposed and placed on-site becoming both a pop-up cafe and jumping off point for River Garden programming. Outfitted in jubilant colors and patterning, the container hosts a local coffee shop to retail beverages and treats for park visitors to purchase. "Garden Rangers" are present to welcome visitors, share information about riverfront opportunities and maintain a high level of care for the site. Kayak rentals and River Garden Field Guide Booklets are also available to expand the visitor experience.

Design workshops invited Memphis youth to develop their own schemes for gathering spaces that were inspired by the giant birds' nests. Three designs were selected from the workshops and the community helped construct their visions onsite. Working side-by-side was central to the identity of a collaborative River Garden. The team also hosted a community flag making event that encouraged residents to come make their mark and blessings on the riverfront, as their very own public park.

It's Wild by the Water
Landscaping treatments, such as expansive meadows, are integrated throughout play and social areas - inspiring novel, natural encounters in downtown Memphis and supporting a diverse program of community engagement and wildlife education. A drifting meadow buffers the adjacent, fast-moving Riverside Drive and softens the park's pre-existing hard edges. Although the overall appearance of River Garden's landscape could be considered more informal or wild than anything else currently found along the Memphis River Parks system (plant palette and form are inspired by native grass-dominant meadow typologies), the approach is strategic in its adaptation for the maintenance and security-needs of the public space. All plants were selected to maintain clear views (growing up to three feet tall) while a mown edge preserves a sense of cleanliness and stewardship.

A vast majority of the existing trees on site were preserved through the design process, their age lending a sense of history to the Garden. New paths were added to better connect pedestrians with existing infrastructure and gathering areas. Additional canopy and understory trees add diversity and invest in future shade. As part of this diversification of species, River Garden acts as a test arboretum for future development of planting schemes along the riverfront, with custom plant identification tags sprinkled throughout the landscape for the public to examine.

Connecting the Community
As both the keystone piece and the most recent public park revitalization project along the Memphis riverfront, River Garden has become the testing grounds for a methodology and model approach in the adaptive reuse of future park projects of larger scale along the river (including: Memphis Park, Mud Island, Beale Street Landing, and Tom Lee Park). While time will reveal more lessons from the project, data collection from the Reimagining the Civic Commons program is already showing positive signs. The River Garden metrics reveal an increase in attendance and socio-economic diversification of visitors since the park reopened. Additionally, River Garden social spaces encourage visitors to be more regularly within conversational distance from one another (from 21% during the summer baseline data collection to 50% post-install in the winter of 2018), increasing spontaneous interactions between a diverse community. The data suggests that playful and inclusive public space can create a crossroads to drive equity, opportunity and delight for all Memphians.

Landscape Architect / Lead Design - Groundswell Design Group
Client - Memphis River Parks Partnership
Civil Engineer / Architect of Record - Pickering Firm, Inc.
Playspace Review - Abundant Playscapes, Inc.
Modular Structure Fabrication & Installation - Boxman Studios
General Contractor - Nickson General Contractors
Community Engagement - Innovate Memphis

Bonded Woodcarpet 2 - Zeager Bros. Inc.

As seen in LASN magazine, September 2019.

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November 20, 2019, 2:43 pm PDT

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