River Garden | Memphis, TN

Case Study | Community Benefits
River Garden | Memphis, TN


  • What was once a dormant, but functional space is now a fully-activated and inspirational riverfront park in downtown Memphis
  • The goal was for River Garden to offer programming that broadcasts the message that all are welcome in the park
  • A community-led approach to the design process added “mixing” to the park’s personality—centrally located fire pits, a dance pavilion, a boat launch
  • Programs are crafted to bring lots of different people together to “mix it up”
  • Full Moon Kayaking allows Memphians to discover their harbor and see the city from the water 
  • Because River Garden Park had changed its name and transformed its design, including exact location information on all park program marketing materials is especially important.

More About River Garden

River Garden is a jewel-box of a park located in downtown Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi River. Representing just one section of a bigger plan to transform six miles of Memphis’ riverfront, River Garden Park opened in November, 2018.  

The non-profit, Memphis River Parks Partnership, stewards the riverfront on behalf of the people of Memphis. Together with its funding partners, Reimagining the Civic Commons, and the Hyde Family Foundation, and its landscape designer, Groundswell Design, the Partnership worked to re-envision what was once a dormant, but functional space into a fully-activated and inspirational destination. The goal was to offer a wide variety of park programming that broadcasts the message that all are welcome. The focus is on free and family-friendly programs with a radically low barrier to entry. 

Groundswell used a community-led approach to its design process. A common thread through the park’s personality is “mixing.” Carefully intended paths lead visitors to a central pavilion next to an adult-sized colorfully lit tree house, and programs are crafted to bring lots of different people together to “mix it up.” For example, Tropical Thursdays are held in the pavilion, featuring lessons from a local Latin dance instructor. Participants caracole from partner to partner, meeting new folks that may not look like them.

Fire pit Fridays bring people around centrally located fire pits to roast s’mores together. The versatility of the space allows for a range of programs such as concerts, yoga classes, seasonal markets, birthday parties, tai chi, and more. The atmosphere is a beautifully designed space with blooming meadows, and a sunset backdrop.

One of the more alluring elements of River Garden Park is its connection to the Mississippi River. The connection to the river itself brings people together from all backgrounds, and from differing places. The 2-mile long harbor, once a sorely underutilized downtown asset, now provides a safe opportunity for even first-time kayakers to get out and experience being on the River. Full Moon Kayaking helps Memphians discover their harbor and see the city from a new perspective. Every month, when the full moon rises, a DJ spins tunes from a boat in the middle of the harbor, and 30-minute kayak and paddleboard rentals are offered free to all. Kids are welcome (tandem kayaks are available for younger children) and even dogs have been seen joining their owners on the water. 

During the summer of 2019, more than 500 people rented kayaks during the first few weekends that the rental service was offered. The Memphis boating program was inspired by a similar effort at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia. Now, more people come each week to participate than there are kayaks to go around! Even those who are not eager to get on the water watch from the shore, and enjoy the view sharing their photos and videos on social media.

The first season of River Garden Park’s programming presented the opportunity to test what works and tweak details based on what was learned. Because the riverfront had been underutilized in the past, and River Garden Park had changed its name and transformed its design, articulating exact location information became especially important to include in marketing materials about the park programs. References to locations were repeated in all promotional materials so that people began to recognize the changes. 

Consistency in programming also helps to grow participation. With Tropical Thursdays dance lessons held weekly, the audience now anticipates dancing every Thursday night in River Garden Park!



Helen Hope
Memphis River Parks Partnership
[email protected] 
(501) 310-1996


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