Kyle Gowen

Kyle Gowen is director of investments at Duncan Williams Asset Management. He has worked in the investments industry for 10 years and has served in both client services and investment research roles.

ECON 901: Parks as sparks

By Updated: May 08, 2019 5:49 PM CT | Published: May 07, 2019 12:23 PM CT

Like any major city, Memphis has challenges. Among the two most prominent issues are lack of economic progress and the health of its citizens. To believe that these areas are not intertwined is taking too narrow a view. 

Poverty leading to deteriorating health results in the disenfranchisement of some of the populace. If the root causes of our difficulties overlap, then we should advocate for more robust solutions. The answer is that Memphis is in dire need of more green space.

<strong>Kyle Gowen</strong>

Kyle Gowen

Memphis has a few great parks. Shelby Farms Park, one of the country’s largest urban parks, has undergone a fantastic transformation. Tom Lee Park welcomes 100,000-plus visitors every year. Overton Park is well known for its old-growth forest and place in the annals of American history thanks to the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park winning a historic Supreme Court case that prevented Interstate-40 from bisecting it. Outside of these examples, Memphis leaves a lot to be desired in terms of green space.

The Trust for Public Land pegs Memphis as the 91st ‘best’ large city for parks. Even including Shelby Farms, Memphis ranks near the bottom for parkland as a percentage of city area. This ranking finds our city below Detroit and above Laredo, Texas.

This is not by chance. Low population density certainly doesn’t help but a more significant reason is lack of investment both from an organizational and financial standpoint. Memphis abolished its Parks Commission in 2000 and parks maintenance is split between two agencies, which reduces efficiency by increasing complexity. Financially, in 2014 research found that Memphis spends only $47 per resident for its parks and recreation program, which is under two-thirds of the national big-city median of $73. When comparing total city spending to peer cities, Memphis fares even worse allotting just $43 versus an average of $91.      

We should care about these circumstances because parks are tailor-made to help alleviate some of our most pressing problems.       

Economic impact

Memphians can use any economic positives that it can get. In 2018 the University of Memphis published a report stating that Memphis has the second highest rate of poverty among metro areas with greater than 1 million people. According to Kiplinger, Memphis ranks 85th out of 100 cities in terms of highest home prices. 

The economic impact of parks has been well documented and results in positive economic benefits. Research has pointed to a 5% increase in property values for homes within 500 feet of a park as a conservative estimate.

For larger destination-style parks the economics get much more attractive. The transformation of Shelby Farms is estimated to create an additional $7 million in economic benefits derived from increased jobs, concessions and overall visitor spending. Of this amount, nearly $1 million will be collected in tax revenue which can then be reinvested in the local community. Property-wise, an expected $66 million in increased property value can be attributed to Shelby Farms and the associated Greenline network. 


WalletHub recently identified Memphis as the third fattest city in the U.S. Other ‘contenders’ on this list can be found on the poverty list mentioned earlier. Research backs up the thinking that, in the U.S., lower income people tend to have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and sedentary lifestyles.

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine notes that “easy access to a place to exercise results in a 5.1% median increase in aerobic capacity, along with weight loss, a reduction in body fat, improvements in flexibility and an increase in perceived energy.” 

The fact that under half of those most in need of parks have no easy access to them furthers our claim that Memphians deserve not just great parks but more in general.

Other benefits that are less quantifiable also manifest themselves with a flourishing park system. Environmentally, parks improve air quality, reduce storm-water runoff and reduce carbon dioxide. Mental health improves by being outside. Evidence is mounting on the positive effects that green space has on community cohesion in that public parks produce social interaction among different demographic groups.

To be sure, local groups are actively working to improve our city’s landscape. Shelby Farms Park Conservancy has done a fantastic job both in major improvements to the park itself and by creating the Greenline, a 10.65-mile urban trail that is not even supported by tax dollars. The Wolf River Conservancy is furthering the pace of connectivity through its master plan of developing the Greenway to run through its 853 acres of land (larger than New York City's Central Park) that would allow a Memphian to travel from Collierville to the Wolf River Harbor.

Despite the noble efforts of these groups, Memphis needs more. Local government needs to increase resources as stated earlier to determine a single unifying vision. On an individual level, a 2014 report by the Trust for Public Land identified the need for the “silent majority… to constructively speak up” so Memphis can move to the "next level." Research has shown that green space increases property values and improves physical health among other less tangible benefits such as better mental health and enhanced community cohesion. Indeed, parks are sparks.


Overton Park Shelby Farms Park

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