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Memphis waterfront redesign by Studio Gang revealed

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The proposal would transform six miles of Mississippi riverfront into a signature civic space

A rendering of Tom Lee Park in Memphis, part of Studio Gang’s proposal to redesign the Memphis waterfront.
All images via Studio Gang

Chicago’s Studio Gang, led by architect Jeanne Gang, finds intriguing ways to blend the man-made with the organic. The famous Aqua Tower in Chicago draws its wave-like facade from terrestrial topography, while the angled form of the WMS Boathouse on the city’s namesake river references the motion of rowers.

The firm’s latest project, a scheme to redesign and redevelop a six-mile section of riverfront in Memphis, Tennessee, offers another showcase of the studio’s unique philosophy of blending the natural and artificial. Along with the Studio’s recent plans for a prototype police station and Philadelphia neighborhood, this new park plan shows the firm is also becoming skilled at community-directed urbanism. The scheme was the result of extensive community surveys and research, with thousands of residents, as well as interviews with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s riverfront task force and deep dives into previous attempts to redesign the Mississippi riverfront.

Focused on connecting the city and its residents with each other and the river, it’s a forward-thinking look at public design, and an attempt to create a signature civic gathering space. Here are some design lessons found within the proposal.

An elevated walkway in Greenbelt Park would give visitors views across the Mississippi.

Create different rooms for different experiences

Like the Chicago Riverwalk, another exceptional example of waterfront revitalization and public placemaking, the Studio Gang scheme for Memphis focuses on creating a series of separate spaces, or zones, to create a changing, progressive experience. Within the different zones—the Fourth Bluff, Mud Island, Tom Lee Park, MLK Park, and Greenbelt Park—terrain and layout differs dramatically, as well as amenities, such as an adventure playground or an outlook where people can listen to live music at sunset.

Build for everyone

One size doesn’t fit all for civic design. The Memphis waterfront project contains myriad options and amenities to engage and invite different populations to enjoy the new waterfront. Proposed paths and trails, made for different speeds of movement and interspersed with areas for rest and shade, ensure those of different ability levels can all have an enjoyable experience exploring the park, from cycling through the park to savoring a sunset.

An activated Wolf River Harbor can connect visitors to Mud Island.

Restoring the riverfront

Redevelopment doesn’t just mean going forward. It also means looking back to the natural systems that initially made the Mississippi Riverfront so vital and restoring these organic elements. Part of the plan proposes creating an Eco Hub on Mud Island, a peninsula in the river, to study freshwater ecology.

Create a roadmap, and make it affordable

Studio Gang’s plan, in its entirety, covers a lot of ground. To make the plan both more palatable to city budgets and possible, designers segmented the concept into short-, medium- and long-range plans, allowing Memphis to bankroll a few steps at a time. These layers include shovel-ready projects that can quickly build momentum towards more development. This creates more incentive to get started sooner, lets Memphians see results quickly, and doesn’t tie up large portions of the riverfront at the same time.