A few weeks ago, on a cold, gray, rainy fall day in the middle of the government shutdown, I traveled to Washington DC to a conference on Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. entitled “Inspirations for the 21st Century”. Long overshadowed by his father, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., famed designer of Central Park in New York, and the father of landscape architecture in the United States, Olmsted, Jr. himself made many significant contributions to architecture and urban planning in America. For over fifty years in the early 20th century, Olmsted Jr. oversaw the professionalization of both landscape architecture and city planning, and led numerous initiatives at the city, state, and federal levels in parks and planning, most famously the development of Washington, D.C., and the drafting of the founding mission of the National Park Service. He and his father also played important roles in the development of Louisville’s Olmsted park system.
Organized by The National Association of Olmsted Parks, this national event presented a great opportunity to share both The Parklands story, and most important, what we’ve learned in developing one of the largest new public parks projects in the country from scratch. As part of our broader mission, we hope to use our project as a teaching platform to spread the word on the many benefits of public parks, and also on the key lessons we’ve learned.
Despite a relatively quiet streetscape in D.C. and the fastest trip ever between the airport and downtown due to the shutdown, the conference proceeded quickly in the National Building Museum, an amazing old building with a cavernous interior that was a fitting place to think and discuss the past and future of parks and urban planning in the 21st Century.
I was invited to speak, along with our design team, about The Parklands of Floyds Fork as a real world exemplar of the kinds of planning values espoused by Olmsted in the early 20th Century. While the bulk of the conference focused on the historical legacy of older park systems and the cities they created (Boston, Buffalo, Baltimore), my unique mission was to present the legacies of this remarkable man as a guidepost to a 21st Century Parks project that is coming to fruition very rapidly. As the populations in places like India and China pour into newly developing cities, the ultimate livability of those places will depend on wise prevision in their planning, and parks are often an important but neglected part of their growth. The key lessons distilled for the presentation, from The Parklands of Floyds Fork, expressed to this prominent national audience, are as follows:
- The urbanizing world of the 21st Century is directly analogous to the world faced by the Olmsteds in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Therefore, the lessons they developed, and that we are relearning, are critical and applicable if the world hopes to build cities that are healthy, green, economically vibrant, and livable.
- Parks are “City Shaping Infrastructure,” of equal importance to other kinds of built infrastructure, and should be designed and implemented ahead of the growth of the city.
- Systemic park design, along with the connective tissues of transportation corridors (parkways, bike paths, etc.), is superior to individual, isolated park design.
- Strong park design should include consideration of the interface with surrounding development, at minimum, and at its best, should take into consideration the types of surrounding development and the connections with that development.
- Contrary to some contemporary critics, great architecture is appreciated by all classes of society and is the only kind that endures.
The message was well-received and The Parklands received some wonderful recognition at the national level to a well-informed audience, of the great work that is happening in Louisville.
About the Author
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Dan holds degrees from Yale University (B.A., M.F.) and Indiana University, Bloomington (Ph.D.). He has spent much of his working life in the fields of education and business management. In addition to founding and managing his own business, he taught World History and the History of the American West at the University of Louisville, and most recently, an Honors Seminar entitled “Reading the Natural Landscape.” In 2004, he founded 21st Century Parks, Inc. a nonprofit corporation created to bring fresh vision to the development and preservation of new public parklands. Their current project, The Parklands of Floyds Fork, is one of the largest new metropolitan parks projects in the country: almost 4000 acres of new, donor-supported public park system in the last major undeveloped section of Metro Louisville. Dan is the founder of 21st Century Parks/The Parklands and currently serves as the Board Chair, where he oversees fundraising, planning, design, construction, and operations of the new parks. He is married, with four children, and enjoys hiking, camping and fishing with his family, skiing, running, and reading.