Fredrick Law Olmsted had a bigger influence on the greening of Louisville, Kentucky, than anyone else. He designed three flagship parks, a series of parkways, and dozens of campuses and private gardens throughout the city.
Now, a group of Louisville residents is aiming to advance Olmsted’s legacy out to the city’s suburban fringe. Four interconnected parks, known collectively as the Parklands, would hug much of the northeastern and southern edge of the Louisville/Jefferson County line. Totaling nearly 4,000 acres, five times the size of New York’s Central Park (which Olmstead also designed), The Parklands will include a variety of recreational areas and, hopefully, a major new civic realm in Louisville’s largely undifferentiated urban fringe.
“The guiding principal with what Olmsted did in Louisville’s parks or what he did with Central Park in New York, is that you create a different trajectory for growth,” says Dan Jones, CEO of 21st Century Parks, the non-profit that’s been assembling the parcels and leading the development of the The Parklands.
Designed by Philadelphia-based landscape architects WRT, the parks will include over 50,000 new trees, restored creek beds to improve water quality in both the Fork and the Ohio River, and over 300 acres for community garden plots, orchards, and field crops like corn. Jones plans to partner with environmental, farming, and educational groups to program the agricultural areas, as well as provide space for farmer’s markets. Some historic structures will be retained and reused within the parks: a grain silo, for instance, will be turned into a climbing wall.
In addition to the parks themselves, Jones and his team have lobbied to include the parks in Conerstone 2020, the city’s long-range land use plan. Louisville has a merged city and county government, so suburban development within the county falls under that plan. The Parklands will be one of the first open space initiatives carried out Cornerstone 2020, providing a major public amenity in a part of the county largely defined by private subdivision development.
21st Century Parks has recently acquired three stalled subdivision sites adjacent to The Parklands, which will be developed to support the project’s endowment (developed largely through private fundraising, Parklands is meant to be self-supporting, with no additional tax burden for Louisville residents). To date, the foundation has raised $13 million for its endowment, with a goal of eventually raising between $50 and 60 million.
After purchasing the 550 acre development, the 21st Century Parks Endowment donated a portion of the acreage to the parks for connecting bike trails. Jones also plans to make sure tree-planting, sidewalks, and building orientation address the parks. The second subdivision covers 117 acres, and will be developed as a denser “conservation subdivision” with 199 housing units, along with connecting green spaces. About half of the smallest development parcel will be used for an Endowment-owned restaurant or event space. “With these sites, we hope to both support the endowment of the parks and directly influence development in adjacent areas,” Jones says. “We wanted to capture some of the value of these parks.”
With over 3700 acres acquired, and a small first phase opening last summer, the Parklands is rapidly becoming a reality. Put together almost entirely with private funds, the project has encountered little opposition. If anything, in this city Olmsted helped to define, the Parklands has been embraced, though the scope of its impact will undoubtedly unfold for decades to come.
Alan G. Brake is the midwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper and has written for Architectural Record, Metropolis, New York Times and other publications.