A Transformed Waterfront: Memphis Celebrates Completion of Tom Lee Park

Sep 8, 2023

This past weekend, Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP) and partners celebrated the completion of Tom Lee Park—a newly transformed 31-acre riverfront park running alongside the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis. After five years of development, the new park opened on Labor Day Weekend 2023 as the centerpiece of the city’s riverfront and a national model for welcoming and ecologically restorative urban parks.

“Tom Lee Park is now a flourishing, living place for people, birds, and all life that calls the river home. A home that will only become lusher, more dynamic, and beautiful with time,” said Brad Howe, Design Director at SCAPE. “It is now a park that can be so many things at once – a celebration, a classroom, a play space, habitat, a living monument, and a shady place to escape the heat, and I can’t wait to see how Memphians enjoy it.”

At a broad scale, Tom Lee Park is a new civic commons where Memphians can gather, exercise, play, relax, and attend events along an ecologically revitalized river corridor. Beneath the entire park, a restored soil system supports over a thousand new trees and lush native plantings. Over 300 new oaks support a vast array of bird and insect life at a key stopover point in the Mississippi Flyway, reintroducing a piece of historic bluff and bottomlands canopy. Shaped by the input of Memphians over five years of design, engagement, and construction, the transformed Tom Lee Park includes a palette of more than 1,000 native trees, new topography, ADA access points, a river-themed playground, iconic public pavilions and structures, a permanent installation—and much more .

Like many American cities, Memphis turned its back on the waterfront as it grew during the second half of the 20th century. For a long time, Tom Lee Park was an unremarkable swath of turf—even used, at one point, as a city dump. Five years ago, the City of Memphis announced the creation of a taskforce dedicated to the riverfront’s future. That taskforce commissioned Studio Gang to develop a master plan for the project in collaboration with SCAPE. The adoption of this initial design concept as a guiding document for the entire riverfront led to the transformation of the Riverfront Development Corporation into today’s Memphis River Parks Partnership.

Tom Lee Park was collaboratively designed by SCAPE (as landscape architect) and Studio Gang (as master planner and architect). The park broke ground at Cutbank Bluff in 2020 and opened to the public on Labor Day weekend 2023. With school starting just last week, 15 high schools have already adopted the Tom Lee Park curriculum developed by the design team, connecting Memphis youth to the City’s beloved new destination park on the Mississippi riverfront and engaging them in future career choices.

Client: Memphis River Parks Partnership

Collaborators: Studio Gang, Monstrum, Theaster Gates, Kimley-Horn, Thornton Tomasetti, Applied Ecological Services, Innovative Engineering Services, DataBased+, Randy Burkett, Montgomery Martin