A sturgeon, representing Mississippi River basin wildlife, is gently placed by a crane in River Play at the new Tom Lee Park. (Photo: CG Comms Group)

Memphis River Parks Partnership is charged by the city of Memphis to maintain all of Memphis’ river parks.

Of those, Tom Lee Park is the largest and, until now, the least built-out.

The Partnership broke ground on a new Tom Lee Park in December 2021 and reached a major construction milestone this week with the arrival of an otter, sturgeon and other wooden wildlife replicas.

These larger-than-life Mississippi River basin animals and cypress trees will create the backdrop for River Play, the new playground in the new Tom Lee Park.

“This playground is going to be the best around for hundreds of miles,” said George Abbott, director of external affairs for Memphis River Parks Partnership.

Other playground features include a second otter, salamander, caterpillar, three slides, a zipline, balancing beams and more.

“It will all come together to create a beautiful, fun, interactive playground experience that I think will be fun for kids but also for some older folks, as well,” said Abbott.

The playground designer, Monstrum, out of Denmark, is known for using native ecology to inspire design and spark curiosity among users.

The River Play playground will be only the seventh Monstrum playground in the United States and second in the South and Southwest, after Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“They’re designed for you to find your own way around them … it’s not just walk up the steps and go down the slide. It’s more like ‘How do I get around there?’ and so it’s a little more interesting, more interactive, encourages kids to talk to one another and learn a little bit while they’re playing,” said Abbott.

The Partnership’s overarching goal is to create a playground, park, and space where everyone can feel welcome and enjoy dynamic features year-round.

The playground is in the second of four distinct park zones, the one meant for activity and play. Other areas of the park are designated for different experiences.

Barnhart delivers an otter and a sturgeon, two of the building blocks of River Play, the new playground in the reimagined Tom Lee Park. In the distance is the Hyde Civic Canopy where community events will take place. (Photo: CG Comms Group)

The New Tom Lee Park’s Four Zones

Together, the park’s features combine to create a dynamic and engaging experience with breath-taking river views at every turn, from north to south.

  • The Civic Gateway features the Cutbank Bluff, a radically redefined park entrance and access point from Vance Avenue and the first ADA-accessible route up and down the bluff.

The new access leads to the Gateway Plaza, hosting a major water feature and natural stone seating nestled beside a shaded community tree grove.

  • The central Active Core will buzz with activity as the home to the park’s signature all-ages play space and outdoor exercise equipment at River Fit.

The one-of-a-kind 20,000 sq. ft. Civic Canopy will host music, sports, events and more with the unrivaled backdrop of the river. A river deck and two river lawns will play host to the free nightly show of spectacular Mississippi River sunsets while pavilions and shaded seating provide options for food and restrooms.

  • Designed as the quieter, more serene and peaceful part of the park, the Community Batture will feature topographic changes that unlock new river views, sloping lawns for family enjoyment, meditative paths, a Peace Walk and a River Overlook that will accommodate smaller outdoor gatherings.

Community tables and hammock groves provide places to relax, unwind and gather in small groups.

  • The Habitat Terraces, at the southernmost end of the park offer an intimate and immersive experience with nature, featuring educational spaces, sound, and sensory gardens, and plenty native plants and wildlife.

It has not been determined if Memphis in May’s Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship BBQ contest will take place in the park as in previous years.

The park is slated to open in late 2023.

Stay tuned for more information about how you can be one of the first testers of the park in early 2023.

(Visit TomLeePark.org or Memphis River Parks Partnership for more information.)