Reimagining the Civic Commons

View the Memphis Extended Deck

Memphis

The Fourth Bluff project—four blocks of downtown Memphis deeded by the city’s founders for public use—links prominent public assets concentrated together along the Mississippi River to bridge urban connectivity gaps that are both cultural and physical.

In Memphis, the goal of Reimagining the Civic Commons is to create a set of connected, thriving civic assets that become a unifying place in downtown, bringing together citizens of various backgrounds who might not ordinarily meet. Arts and culture give reason to gather and linger in community with one another. Increased access to unique educational offerings provide ready opportunities for low-income residents to enter the economic mainstream. And reimagined public spaces serve as magnets for families.

This civic commons can help Memphians develop a shared understanding of our history and a shared vision for the city’s future.

The Memphis project is focused on four blocks of property in the heart of downtown within a larger area called the Promenade, deeded in perpetuity for public

use by the city’s founders. “The Fourth Bluff,” a portion of this Promenade, sits along the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, the last in a series of high bluffs along the lower Mississippi River in West Tennessee. The assets include Cossitt Library, University of Memphis Law School promenade, and the Memphis and Mississippi River Parks.

Throughout this work, local leaders will gather lessons and data that can be applied to other public spaces in Memphis. The project bridges fragmented pedestrian connections that separate cultural assets and the riverfront and addresses negative public perceptions through reinvestment and community partnerships. As a city with a rich history that still struggles with racial segregation, Memphis seeks to design and create common spaces where the diverse population can come together and shape the future of the city.

“Creating opportunity in a civic commons for people to share experiences with people different from themselves grows a sense of community, engagement, and understanding between all Memphians.”

Mayor Jim Strickland, City of Memphis

RiverPlay Launches in Memphis

05.05.17
RiverPlay is a pop-up park along the Mississippi River in Memphis. Groundswell Design

The launch of RiverPlay today marks the opening of a new place for Memphians to recreate, rest, eat, and most importantly, interact and engage with each other. Situated on a busy four-lane road that separates two rarely-visited public parks on Memphis’ Fourth Bluff, RiverPlay is as an example of how to activate urban spaces to foster prosperous and equitable communities—and it’s all done with a sense of fun. RiverPlay’s pop-up park encompasses shaded places to sit and talk, a roller skating rink, three half-court basketball courts and local food trucks.

The RiverPlay concept builds on the Fourth Bluff’s wildly successful ice rink held this past winter, which drew 8,000 people in just a few short months. The ice rink’s popularity proved to city leaders that additional programing and activity would draw even more people to the Fourth Bluff over the summer.

Partnership with NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies

And as the project developed, it acquired some highly visible supporters, including the Memphis Grizzlies, whose “GrizzFit” coaches will be guiding the park’s play and providing “play catalyst,” to ensure that everyone gets into the action, no matter their fitness level, gender or age.

“This project appealed to us on so many levels”, says Diane Terrell, VP of Community Engagement for the Grizzlies and Executive Director of the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation. “First, it was an opportunity to bring the game we love to a beautiful setting on the river, to build the feeling of community our fans experience in our arena in a totally unexpected place. By transforming this stretch of pavement into an informal park, we’re helping to change the public conception of what a park is, and the many ways people can participate in creating new common areas like this one across the city.”

The pop-up park will be in operation until August. Read more about Memphis’ Civic Commns project here.

Trust the Key Players

04.24.17
Cenceptual mural plan for RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

By Ryan Jones

It only takes trust, strong and talented partners, extensive planning, and the determination of each organization to make the collaboration more important than any of the constant challenges and opportunities to ignore the needs of other partners. Trust is earned by people working together on common challenges – learning by doing and building trust in the process.

Memphis has a history of projects that operate in a vacuum. Seemingly good ideas on their own, they often floundered when faced with the realities of execution. Observed from afar, these past projects may have seemed out-of-touch or odd in their exclusion of other community members, business leaders or civic partners.

Taking this lesson from the past and applying it to the Fourth Bluff, our version of the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative, we’ve endeavored to find all of the key stakeholders in our project on the front-end and enable them to take a fully invested role in the success and execution of what we’re trying to accomplish. Looking at the area encompassed by the Fourth Bluff, we realized that an impressive number of community partners and businesses could (and should!) be involved, both physically, monetarily and in the forms of the varied expertise they could lend.

Rendering of RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

Taking full advantage of a diverse roster

But bringing together a great group of talented partners and stakeholders is only half the battle. Once we assembled our team, it was important that everyone trust each other to do what they do best, respectively, while also working as a team. This means clearly knowing everyone’s strengths and advantages and using them when it comes time to work on a project. Taking full advantage of a diverse roster of partners means not only bringing everyone together on paper but to also allow everyone to do what they do best… basically, managing the team and playing to everyone’s strengths. As a result, the Fourth Bluff is developing into what is likely the strongest collaboration of downtown Memphis stakeholders and managers ever assembled. A collaboration that is made even more unique due to many of these stakeholders also being citywide organizations like the Memphis Public Library System, the City of Memphis, UrbanArt Commission and others, as well as the fact that this partnership is not comprised of big businesses, corporations or firms like the typical “downtown” collaboration.

Building confidence

Some prime examples of this team and the execution of its ideas include several Fourth Bluff projects, which are the first hints of a major design investment in the Fourth Bluff. These initial examples have led the way in this collaborative lesson, giving the partners quick, small victories and building confidence amongst themselves and the community for larger, more comprehensive plans in the near future.

1) Fourth Bluff Fridays pop-up beer gardens

2) The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink

3) RiverPlay pop-up basketball courts and roller rink on Riverside Drive

Each of these installments relied heavily on various team members’ organizations taking the lead and executing at a high level, all while moving forward at what is a blistering pace for any civic-minded project in Memphis.

photo credit: Memphis Riverfront Development Corporation

Fourth Bluff Fridays pop-up beer gardens

The beer gardens were an instant success. In what was a normally dormant and neglected park space, a team led by the City, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), the Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), and our vending partners Mobile Merchants and The TapBox, brought this idea from seed to fruition in a remarkably short period of time. Trusting the City to take the lead on permits and administrative approval, while allowing the RDC to do what it does best in managing the logistics of the park maintenance and staffing, sped this idea along exponentially. The DMC provided vital assistance in funding and event/gaming supplies for the event, as well as promotion via its established channels, and the TapBox and Moblie Merchants were entrusted to do what they do best by bringing the beer, fun, music, and food trucks. By allowing partners to operate freely within their own areas of expertise, while keeping the group abreast of their work, we pulled off something many people thought would never work, in a space no one paid any attention to, in a period of only a few weeks from idea to launch.

photo credit: Ryan Jones

The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink

A similar story played out with the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink endeavor. The RDC took the operations lead, as the organization not only oversaw the maintenance of Mississippi River Park where the rink was located, but also had previously done the groundwork and planning for just such an ice rink. Another Fourth Bluff partner, Innovate Memphis, worked hand-in-hand with the RDC and the rest of the team to ensure that all legal and contract work was executed, as well as lending substantial time to social media and communications/media efforts on behalf of the team. We saw Memphians come downtown to the riverfront ice rink in droves, at a period of time in the winter when Memphians aren’t typically looking for outdoor activities. These were not just downtowners, but citizens from all walks of life, all coming together in a space to enjoy an experience that was new to all of them. A collaborative effort led to a uniquely shared experience for Memphis.

photo credit: Jim Weber, The Commercial Appeal

RiverPlay

Finally, our upcoming RiverPlay pop-up installment on Riverside Drive will bring in yet another vital downtown Memphis partner in the Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies partnership and collaboration on this pop-up allows the Fourth Bluff team to leverage the team’s substantial following, strong reputation, community cache’ and organizational leadership. Again, the RDC and the City have taken ownership of their roles in this pop-up initiative and in doing so, things have moved smoother than anyone thought possible for an idea that would normally be deemed impossible (shutting down a major downtown traffic artery for three months). We’re confident that even more of our downtown team members and stakeholders, from further DMC involvement to artists, community groups, and residents, will become even more involved as this project continue to unfold, and we’ll take the same lessons of collaboration and trust with us into those next steps.

Conceptual plan for RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

The thing that we as a team keep coming back to with every installment of our project is that a project and a team are stronger by collaborating and working together, than if they stand alone. Letting each partner take the lead when the situation calls for it allows the overall project to succeed in unprecedented ways. Having a collaboration you can trust has been one key lesson we keep on benefiting from along the way.

Ryan Jones is director of communications at University of Memphis School of Law.

Economic mixing at the ice rink

03.23.17
Fire pits at the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink

By Dorchelle Spence

Ice skating outdoors at the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink was a novel experience for most who visited Mississippi River Park this winter. Despite the different backgrounds of skaters and spectators, everyone typically shared three main attributes: enduring the sometimes frigid winter weather, inexperience on the ice, and a hometown pride spurred by views of the downtown Memphis cityscape and the Mississippi River. Friendly offers of ice skating tips and impromptu empathetic lessons gestured toward an open and caring atmosphere.

Fostering pride in place

“It made me proud to be a Memphian,” said David Thorne, father of an 18-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son, who brought his wife and children from neighboring Midtown to the rink on more than one occasion. A spokesperson for Neighborhood Christian Centers, who brought 40 inner-city middle school students to the rink, said, “Our students had a blast and were extremely grateful.”

photo courtesy of Riverfront Development Corporation

Programming to spark conversations

Programming around Fourth Bluff Ice Rink included fire pits and a food and beverage vendor that combined to foster chances for casual exchanges among varying demographic groups. “The fire pits were awesome,” said Thorne without prompting. “We pulled the chairs up close to the fire and visited with people from all over the city.”

Although we want such conversations to be every day occurrences, they are not — yet.

According to Thorne, “We home school our son and, when we told our association members about this opportunity, they said to us: ‘You can’t go down there. Downtown isn’t safe.’ Not so, I told them. Downtown is the safest place in the city. We go down there all the time and we love it.”

photo courtesy of: Riverfront Development Corporation

We’re all in this together

Benny Lendermon, president of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and a partner in the Reimagining the Civic Commons work, explains it this way. “The Fourth Bluff Ice Rink provided a place in downtown that was completely unique to Memphis. It created a safe zone – a place where people of different races, economic backgrounds and ethnicities were essentially on a level playing field. Few people knew how to ice skate, so most people were experiencing something for the first time and doing it together. This created a foxhole atmosphere: a feeling that we’re all in this together.”

The intimate interactions at Fourth Bluff Ice Rink showed us the hearts of Memphians as open and caring. This is the city we know and love, and we’re delighted that this effort helped us illustrate that this remains the essence of who we are.

Dorchelle Spence is vice president of Riverfront Development Corporation.

Civic Commons Studio #1: Lessons for Memphis

03.09.17
Memphis team at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

By Ryan Jones

There’s enough work in Reimagining the Civic Commons to keep each of the five cities occupied on a daily basis, with their heads down and constantly plowing ahead, deep in their respective agendas and ideas. Everyone is focused on keeping their momentum going while staying innovative and fresh. Twice a year however, we’re going to collectively step back and gather for a Civic Commons Studio convening. The first gathering was held in December in Philadelphia.

We’ve been so wrapped up in our own project at times that it’s a refreshing alternative to see what inspiring things are happening in Chicago, Detroit, Akron, and Philadelphia. Seeing other teams’ accomplishments, innovations, ideas, struggles, and dynamics was comforting, inspiring, and gave our team a chance to reflect and evaluate.

Memphis team at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

We left with a wealth of knowledge, but some key takeaways stand out above the rest:

Environmental sustainability goes so far beyond just nature and conservation

Our team started to think of what environmental sustainability meant in an entirely different light. Like most people, “environment” is a term that initially conjured images of nature, conservation and the natural elements of the world to our team. However, after some great discussions with individuals in Philadelphia, we’ve come to realize that Memphis and our team is in a unique position to positively influence the environment in a different way. Through various initiatives and partnerships such as the Green and Healthy Homes Partnership, the University of Memphis School of Law’s Health Law & Policy Lab focusing on Adverse Childhood Experiences, and the Medical-Legal Partnership with the law school, Memphis Area Legal Services, and Methodist Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, our team is excited about exploring opportunities to use Memphis Civic Commons as a way to help improve the environments of Memphis youth, their homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Gaining this new perspective on how we can help improve “environments” in Memphis communities was really eye-opening for us and we’re very excited about how this will tie into our Civic Commons work in the Fourth Bluff. 

Process is just as important as outcomes

We also came to realize the importance of our own processes with Memphis Civic Commons and how this is itself something new and different. We’ll be making an effort to show the process of our work in the Fourth Bluff in addition to showcasing the end product. Through writing, social media, video production, in-person interviews, photography, and other media we’re now looking at ways that we can share how we do our work. People are curious about the story of how something came about, not just the shiny end result, and we want to respect that.

photo credit: Meredith Edlow

The IN-determinate

During the Philly learning network we heard a lot from Theaster Gates, but what most stuck with us was his stressing of the importance of the “in-determinate.” It was freeing to hear that he placed so much importance on not having it “all together” when he’s starting or working on a project. Making room for the sparks of inspiration strike you throughout the project is important. Refine your vision, let inspiration happen, and go with it—with things not always being determined ahead of time.

Theaster Gates at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Be the host, not the producer

Early on at the convening, someone mentioned the idea of being the host and not the producer. This was a good reminder that we need to concentrate on building something that others really want to utilize, access, and activate. Being a great host means being open to what people want to do and how they want to drive the conversation. But at the same time being a host does not mean abdicating all responsibility for creating a strong and compelling offering. Hosting the commons, like hosting a party, starts with a clear vision and leads to great experiences that no one could have planned in advance.

Winterfest hosted Studio #1 participants; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Ryan Jones is director of communications at University of Memphis School of Law.

The original heart of Memphis

02.17.17

By Maria Fuhrmann

Memphis began at the river, with the flow of goods, trade, and commodities. If it came up the river and into the city, it first went through the area now known as the Fourth Bluff. Nearly two hundred years later we’re bringing a new lens to the role that this part of town can play in the life of Memphis by locating our Reimagining the Civic Commons work here.

memphis-original-commerce

We see many opportunities in drawing Memphians back to this original starting point and revitalizing the Fourth Bluff. It will become a hub for a new civic life based on the intangible commodities of ideas, knowledge and experiences that, when successful, capture the imagination of Memphians and inspire them to take these things back to neighborhoods and communities across the city.

Cossitt Library is the spiritual cornerstone of this initiative. In simple terms, libraries help us learn and empower ourselves by sharing books. What else might we share at the Fourth Bluff to help us learn about each other and what we can do together?

In the past libraries and parks have sometimes been treated like different bands—pick your favorite and cheer them on. At the Fourth Bluff we see the library and parks as part of an ensemble where each of these places and the organizations behind them are playing their unique part of the same tune. If we do it right, this is a tune that will draw Memphians back to the river where our city originated, and give them reason to meet one another in entirely new ways.

pic-1-108

Drawn together in the reimagined Mississippi River Park or Memphis Park, we’ll share new memories of life along the riverfront that open our eyes to the possibilities for similar adventures and learning opportunities throughout Memphis.

The same will happen at Cossitt Library, where we’ll be working to build a place of open and productive civic discourse and discovery. It will grow as a safe place for community conversations where the community can learn about and discuss civic projects—where everyone can be confident that their voice will be heard. Cossitt Library will be a space where wide ranging ideas are discussed freely and openly. This would be a new way for Memphians to bring their ideas to life, and trade and build on them and improve the quality of our civic life.

cossitt-lights-1

But it’s not just about civic purpose and weighty questions about the future of our city. First and foremost we want people to feel that the Fourth Bluff is a fun, pleasant place to learn, grow, and experience life in Memphis. We will be working hard over the next three years in hopes that we can earn the right to say all Memphians feel at home at the Fourth Bluff and that we’re all better for it.

Maria Fuhrmann is the convener of Memphis’ Reimagining the Civic Commons demonstration, The Fourth Bluff.

RiverPlay is a pop-up park along the Mississippi River in Memphis. Groundswell Design

RiverPlay Launches in Memphis

05.05.17

The launch of RiverPlay today marks the opening of a new place for Memphians to recreate, rest, eat, and most importantly, interact and engage with each other. Situated on a busy four-lane road that separates two rarely-visited public parks on Memphis’ Fourth Bluff, RiverPlay is as an example of how to activate urban spaces to…

Cenceptual mural plan for RiverPlay by Groundswell Design Group

Trust the Key Players

04.24.17

By Ryan Jones It only takes trust, strong and talented partners, extensive planning, and the determination of each organization to make the collaboration more important than any of the constant challenges and opportunities to ignore the needs of other partners. Trust is earned by people working together on common challenges – learning by doing and…

Fire pits at the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink

Economic mixing at the ice rink

03.23.17

By Dorchelle Spence Ice skating outdoors at the Fourth Bluff Ice Rink was a novel experience for most who visited Mississippi River Park this winter. Despite the different backgrounds of skaters and spectators, everyone typically shared three main attributes: enduring the sometimes frigid winter weather, inexperience on the ice, and a hometown pride spurred by views…

Memphis team at Studio #1; photo credit: Meredith Edlow

Civic Commons Studio #1: Lessons for Memphis

03.09.17

By Ryan Jones There’s enough work in Reimagining the Civic Commons to keep each of the five cities occupied on a daily basis, with their heads down and constantly plowing ahead, deep in their respective agendas and ideas. Everyone is focused on keeping their momentum going while staying innovative and fresh. Twice a year however,…

The original heart of Memphis

02.17.17

By Maria Fuhrmann Memphis began at the river, with the flow of goods, trade, and commodities. If it came up the river and into the city, it first went through the area now known as the Fourth Bluff. Nearly two hundred years later we’re bringing a new lens to the role that this part of…

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