Park Life Blog

Happy Earth Day!

We like to treat every day like Earth Day at Shelby Farms Park, but our official Earth Day celebrations will look a little different this year. While we spent the last year making exciting changes and getting back to the roots of our Down to Earth Festival, we won’t be celebrating in April like we had planned. With the generous support of our partners, the festival will move to August 29, and we hope you can join us then! 

In the meantime, we’re taking a look back at Earth Day in honor of its 50th anniversary! Why did it start? What made it so important? Why are we still celebrating today? Why is Earth day important to Shelby Farms Park? 

The History of Earth Day
The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970, giving birth to the modern environmental movement. While we celebrate Earth Day today, that day in 1970 was  a nation-wide day of protest. At that time, the health of the environment was not a priority for industries or government entities, and there weren’t many consequences for the pollution that many industries were causing. Environmental threats and high levels of pollution were rapidly impacting the air, water and lands in ways that were beginning to impact human health. 

What became Earth Day started as an idea to educate the community and inspire public consciousness about air and water pollution. The idea came from Senator Gaylor Nelson of Wisconsin, who recruited other conservation-minded activists and politicians and began to organize teach-ins on college campuses. They promoted their plans with national media and selected April 22 as their day of action.

While the original plan was to educate students through 85 events spread across the nation, as word spread from coast to coast, a variety of organizations and faith groups were inspired to join the effort. As plans expanded, the day got a name--Earth Day. 

The momentum behind the message grew rapidly--more than 20 million Americans showed up in parks, in auditoriums and in the streets to create a visible presence and a collective concern for the current and future damage being done to the environment and calling for change at every legislative level.

This was the first time that a unified voice rose en masse. Small groups with singular focuses--groups fighting to stop factory pollution, oil spills, toxic waste dumps, pesticide use and wilderness destruction--all came together because of their common values. The presence of the protestors inspired a rare political alignment and brought together citizens from all walks of life on a unified front--saving the earth to protect our future. 

That first Earth Day made a difference--it launched the United States Environmental Protection Agency and it initially inspired the passing of important and innovative environmental protection law, including the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Education Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The ripple effect later launched the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, all of which saved millions of men, women, children, animals and ecosystems from unnecessary suffering and preventable extentiction. You can learn more about the history of Earth Day here.

In other words, Earth Day was and is a big deal! 

In the last five decades, the movement has gone global and has inspired hundreds of millions global citizens to work toward building more sustainable communities by thinking globally and acting locally.

What does Earth Day mean to Shelby Farms Park? 
The land that is now Shelby Farms Park had humble beginnings as farmland. Initially it was utilized by small family farms, and over time the farms were purchased by Shelby County and the land became a working prison farm. The penal farm model operated from the 1920s to the 1960s, and once it stopped, the farmland became open for public use. The community embraced the land as a park and utilized it as such for the next several decades. However, the land wasn’t protected as park land, and there was an ongoing risk that it could be sold for surplus profit. There were several times that that risk almost became reality--ideas and plans for a wide variety of developments were drawn up, including turning the land into a golf course, a safari park, or model living communities. 

However, each time the talk of developing the land arose, a group of citizens stood up in favor of keeping the land open as a community green space. Thankfully, local leaders listened and the land continued to be used for recreation for the next few decades. 

That group eventually formalized and became the Shelby Farms Park Alliance, which worked with Shelby County Government to lay out a plan for the future of the land. What came out of those planning sessions was the formation of Shelby Farms Park Conservancy (SFPC or the Conservancy), the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that now manages and operates Shelby Farms Park and Shelby Farms Greenline through a private-public partnership with Shelby County. This exciting milestone happened in 2007, and the Conservancy’s first and arguably most important task was securing a conservation easement, officially and legally protecting the land that is now Shelby Farms Park as park land. So, much like the humble beginnings of the first Earth Day, the formation of one of America’s signature urban parks began with an idea, community education and the inspiration to take action.

It’s truly a miracle that Shelby Farms Park exists in the way that it does today. If a small group of citizens can help preserve thousands of acres of green space for their fellow community members, think of the impact you can have at any scale with your voice, your votes and your daily actions! 


Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not. -- The Lorax


Good, Green Design
Sustainability is at the heart of all that we do at Shelby Farms Park. After securing the conservation easement to protect the land, SFPC began connecting with the community to learn what their hopes and dreams for their park were, not only immediately, but for generations to come. 

The public meetings inspired the Master Plan, which was designed by award-winning James Corner Field Operations. Overall, the plan was to create a centralized hub for community engagement (Heart of the Park) while leaving much of the Park to continue serving as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday urban life.

One of the first goals of the plan was to reconnect the island ecosystems that existed within the Park when the Conservancy took over. Because the land was used for agricultural purposes for so long, nearly every element was shaped and deforested in order to aid those long-ago operations. The Master Plan included a strategic planting plan that used native plants and trees to reconnect the Park’s forest and to create wildlife corridors that encouraged diversity of plans and wildlife to grow. Over the last decade, tens of thousands of native trees have been strategically planted, and we have multiple conservation lawns and gardens throughout Heart of the Park to nurture native wildlife. You can help support the ongoing plantings and maintenance of these special landscapes by adopting a tree or giving the Gift of Garden here.

The Master Plan design took sustainability into account for every possible factor--from the way the First Horizon Foundation Visitor Center and FedEx Event Center are heated and cooled to the special ground cover used in the Woodland Discovery Playground. We’ve included some fun facts about a few of the sustainable features in the Park below!


The sandy-colored surface you see in many areas of the Woodland Discovery Playground is a special eco-friendly product called Nike Grind. This surface is made from recycled tennis shoe soles! 


The winding metal arbor that shades the path inside the playground is made from recycled steel, and the vines covering it are native plants.

The Woodland Discovery Playground was one of the first three sites in the world to earn Sustainable SITE Certification (similar to LEED but for outdoor spaces).


Did you know that the buildings in Heart of the Park are heated and cooled using an innovative geothermal system? The water pipes for the system run under the lake, which helps keep the system water at a constant temperature. This helps reduce the energy needed to heat/cool the buildings. 

Both the First Horizon Foundation Visitor Center and FedEx Event Center are LEED certified! 


While our on-site Earth Day celebrations have been paused, the hard work our team puts into caring for Shelby Farms Park and Greenline every day has not. In fact, it has ramped up! Park teams are working harder than ever to care for the trails, conservation lawns, lakes and green spaces that provide homes for native wildlife and places of respite for the more than 3 million visitors who come to the Park each year. Shelby Farms Park is a resource for our community, and we will continue to do the work it takes to keep the gates open and the grounds cared for for you, our visitor, in this unprecedented time. 

If you are able, will you please consider making a one-time or recurring monthly donation?
Your gift will help support the daily operations of Shelby Farms Park and Greenline, and will help preserve them for generations to come.

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