Louisville’s Beautiful Network of Parks and Parkways – A Model For All Other Modern Cities
First Glimpses of a City of Parks
A serene well-patterned naturally beautiful landscape interlacing an intricate network of similar structures arrested my sight on touching down on Louisville Sunday the 26th of June 2006. We drove past buildings all set in uniform symmetry with the well-terraced and tended gardens of the meadows as one should see in Eden.
The newest hall of residence in the University of Louisville, Kurtz Hall, which should be our new residence for six weeks,smelled fresh and fragrant. The surrounding well-tended gardens were constantly watered with the hedges and the carpet of greenery trimmed with quiet efficiency. The harmony with which nature intermingled with architecture all over the campus was impressive. The brown-brick-like box structures with terraced roofing patterns were all harmoniously blended with the green-carpeted parks surrounding each with adjoining tarred car parks with squirrels frolicking about in this nest of soothing beauty which were healing and diverting the mind.
Families of rare white squirrels frolick everywhere in the expanse of green space especially where one could find a huge variety of some of the biggest and oldest trees in Louisville as well as lush lawns. The compact Belknap Campus is itself a walker’s paradise with a cardio path around Cardinal Park, as well as huge, shaded sidewalks throughout the serene campus.
The University of Louisville has been struggling to develop and maintain an aesthetic atmosphere since the 1920s. In 2000, when Dr. James Ramsey became president of the University his wife, Jane, started working towards transforming the campus into a “more attractive, safe and community-oriented environment” for students to live and learn in.
New signages around, became part of the ongoing beautification to create a better student atmosphere as well as make the university more attractive. Ramsey and the Campus Beautification Committee have introduced water sprinkler systems, tree-lined streets, painted Cardinal medallions on street surfaces and painted overpasses. thus making it “a more exciting and prideful campus.” Stansbury Park on Third Street is to be returned back to its original 19th century design made by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park and most of Louisville’s parks and parkway system.
Olmsted’s concept of a park is contained in the following classic statement: . ‘My notion is that whatever grounds a great city may need for other public purposes, for parades, for athletic sports, for fireworks, for museums of art or science such as botanic gardens, it also needs a large ground scientifically and artistically prepared to provide such a poetic and tranquilizing influence on its people as comes through a pleased contemplation of natural scenery, especially sequestered and limitless natural scenery’
He was quite clear that while provision for sports for example was important, it should not take over sections of the park at the expense of the majority of park users, and should only be included where it could be accommodated within the park and not permanently take over sections of it.
“The redesign of Stansbury Park, along with plans for more bike pavilions by Cardinal Stadium, increased signage around the campus and downtown” and further involvements in development efforts in surrounding neighborhoods, according to Ramsey, “are all aimed at making this a more attractive and functional community.”
Ramsey, who grew up in the south end neighborhood of Louisville said “This effort is important to me. I have a love for this neighborhood and this university and I want to be engaged in making it a better place for future generations.”
Such pristine beauty is replicated in the whole city from downtown to the Churchill Downs area where every home is adorned by well tended gardens and lawns studded with flowers of varying alluring descriptions.
Louisville’s beauty is greatly enhanced by its extensive networks of parks and gardens with green carpets of grass decorating pathways, hedges, and roadsides. It is reputed to have the most beautiful parks in the U.S They were developed from 1891 when Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park as well as parks, parkways, college campuses and public facilities in many U.S. locations was contracted to design a system of public lands that would be free to all forever.
Olmsted created on all contours of the landscape
- Shawnee Park, a plain of river bottomland featuring the concourses that afford extensive views and the expansive Great Lawn, Louisville’s spot for large formal gatherings, enclosed with border plantings and a tree-lined circular drive;
- Cherokee Park one of the most visited parks in the U.S., featuring a 4.2 kilometre mixed-use loop and many well-known landscaping features, where Beargrass Creek wanders among woods and meadows;
- Iroquois Park, a tall, rugged escarpment offering vantage views of the city;at the heart of which is a 10,000-year-old forest, blanketing the knob’s steep hillsides with a great variety of rare plants and animals and. a network of pedestrian paths, bridle trails, and circuit drives
- and Tyler Park which is a jewel of solitude in the city bustle.
A scenic 7 mile River-Walk stretches from downtown’s 4th Street Wharf westward to Chickasaw park. Running parallel to the Ohio shore this path offers a variety of views, from the lakes and dam on the shipping channel to quiet, wooded portions where the occasional deer roams. East of River Walk, Linear Park has a playground with attractions for all.
The Louisville Waterfront Park prominently located on the banks of the Ohio River East featuring large open areas showcases the waterfront with overlooking walking paths, the Festival Plaza, a water feature with a series of pools and fountains, a children’s playground and a harbor. Resplendent with yachts and sea and motor bikes with police mini-vehicles it was agog with millions celebrating amidst the jocose display of fireworks, a veritable medley of colors and sounds criss-crossing each other in the sky in heralding yet another anniversary of America’s attaining full nationhood last year, when I was there. Free concerts and other festivals are frequent occurrences here.
Further out from the downtown area is the Jefferson Memorial Forest which, at 6,057 acres, is the largest municipal urban forest in the U.S. which is already designated as a National Audubon Society wildlife refuge offering over 50 kilometers of various hiking trails. Otter Creek Park another large park nearby, .while actually in Brandenburg, Kentucky, is owned and operated by Louisville Metro government while. Otter Creek, from which it is named, winds along its eastern side.
A scenic bend in the Ohio River, which divides Kentucky from Indiana, can be seen from northern overlooks within the park which is a popular mountain biking destination, with trails maintained.
Other outdoor points of interest include Cave Hill Cemetery where Col. Harland Sanders was buried, Zachary Taylor National Cemetery where President Zachary Taylor was buried, the Louisville Zoo and the Falls of the Ohio National Wildlife Conservation Area. Towards Bardstown one of the most famous slave houses Farmington Historic Home stands amidst a verdant lush greenery. This house with well tended lawns interlaced by wooden and concrete paved paths and a pool at the far side was part of the slave-holding plantations of the South where hemp and rice were grown as well as wine brewed.
Louisville’s fantastic parks system, owes much to people like Gen.John Breckinridge Castleman who as first parks commissioner, brought Frederick Law Olmsted to Louisville in 1890 to work on its parks design and donated land for Cherokee Park–with his statue now standing in Cherokee Triangle in tribute. More recently David Karem, led the popular Waterfront Park’s development, while David Jones Sr., co- founder of Humana Inc, leads an ambitious drive to establish a green-ring around Louisville called “City of Parks.”
The Value of Parks and Gardens
The preservation of Louisville’s natural environment through expanding parks and forests amidst an urban space improves water and air quality, cools the city and provides a natural habitat for the animals and birds who in turn build up a natural and refreshing atmosphere for leisure.
Park DuValle has been transformed into a series of traditional Louisville neighborhoods linked by a continuous network of streets and parkways. For Louisville’s western neighborhoods were dominated by two crime-ridden public housing projects and a badly deteriorated apartment complex with virtually no existing retail outlets in the neighborhood except small convenience stores.
These parks achieve the hallmarks of Olmsted’s social vision. As the source of healthful inspiration – through mental, physical and social recreation – they provide a respite to the stresses of modern city life, spaces where people can come together to create a stronger community, whilst exhibiting all the classic physical elements of an Olmsted park: graceful topography and alignments; ease and accessibility; balance of uses; expression of native character and use of native materials; separation of traffic modes; and subjugation of built elements to nature. The Olmsted Parks are a magnificent work of art that must be preserved to continue their enormous contribution to the quality of life in Louisville. The landscapes in and around the parks thus remain a crucial resource for serving the cultural and recreational needs of the public.
As Mayor of Louisville, Jerry Abramson said. the green-print will unite neighborhoods and people, with a trail that will help connect all parts of the community,” “Parks draw people together who might not otherwise encounter one another, bridging the gaps between city and suburb, between rich and poor, between white and black. Parks raise property values and make our community more attractive to new residents, businesses and visitors. Parks preserve irreplaceable landscapes. Parks give our kids a place to play, and they allow each of us to take a break from the daily hustle and bustle.”
Studying the Creation of a Unique Park System in Louisville to Replicate in all other Cities
The restoration of historic buildings is a widely accepted activity, for either re-using them for different activities, or restoring them as landmarks and attractions for visitors, whereas designed historic urban parks and landscapes are generally less favored for historic preservation or conservation.
Landscapes are sometimes more difficult to characterize. Erosion of the original design and loss of individual features, usually makes it hard for the general public to identify that they were actually ‘designed’ at all. Public perception is often that these urban landscapes were just bits of land that weren’t built upon or left-over bits of countryside that escaped development, and were kept as such for public recreation.
Parks need to both restore their value as cultural resources within communities as well as enhance their recreational value. Much could be learnt from the Americans about historic urban landscape restoration through their successful restoration through innovative, best practice and good design in Louisville which both respect the original design whilst remaining relevant to today’s communities. The designed as well as neglected landscape legacy of cities are great assets to restore and continue the tradition of park building to reflect the mood of 21st century cities. When done successfully, with sensitivity good design and good future stewardship this can achieve both the conservation of built landscape environments, as well as provide meaningful, beautiful and robust new landscapes to cater for changing and expanding communities.
A) The realization of the need to upgrade Louisville’s look
In the 1980s, Louisville was another declining industrial town in the Mid West. Then it recognized the value in its park network as being vital for the city’s ecological health, economic growth and for improving the quality of life for its dwindling inhabitants. The network was designed in 1891, to provide an escape from the industrial city into the healing world of nature.
Since World War II, Louisville’s public parks, had been falling into decline, with lack of investment, over-use and natural disasters like tornadoes thus bringing a breakdown in the relationship between the community and its landscape. The spiraling cycle of disrepair and subsequent reduction of use became damaging for both the parks and their users, with further neglect following.
B) The creation of Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy
A group of concerned citizens formed the ‘Friends of Louisville’s Olmsted Parks’ in the early 1980’s, and prepared a report on park conditions. In the late 80’s Mayor, Jerry Abrahamson created the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy to stop the rot, and turn the parks around in an attempt to make their park system the best. The Conservancy was set up to act as a non profit, sister organization to the ‘Metro Parks’, to assist in the planning and funding of this massive renewal program to both preserve and enhance this great work of landscape art. The city invested $1million in setting up the Conservancy as a separate but complementary organization to the City funded parks department. The initial funding established the conservancy and paid for a Masterplan to be drawn up for all the 2,000 acres of parks and 15 miles of connecting parkways, to set the stage for the future private investments in the parks improvements.
In 1995 with the master plan document finalized a practical plan was set out for its implementation. It pulled together specific projects, management strategies, and new maintenance techniques, all designed to work together to enhance all the parks in the system.
Frederick Law Olmsted, had in 1891, urged the people of Louisville to ‘Adopt an Ideal, and to let it guide all planning and actions’; The Conservancy’s master plan reiterates this ideal and continues to set out the way forward for Louisville’s Olmsted parks. His systems comprised of parkways which would connect the separate parks with each other, and the downtown to them, thereby structuring the growth of the cities. They were to be planted with trees creating a park-like feel, and separating the modes of transport used on them.
C) The structure of Louisville’s park system
Louisville’s park system is composed of three distinctly different landscape types. Louisville’s natural landscape and scenery were the starting point for Olmsted’s design. He took the distinctly different terrains and landscape characters of the three sites to create Shawnee, Cherokee and Iroquois Parks. These were to be the three principal parks whose uses and designs he planned to be compatible with the scenic experiences they could provide.
Shawnee being situated adjacent to the Ohio River, took advantage of its river views both in their own right and as a backdrop for the concert stage. It provided access to the river for boating and bathing, and the rest of the park was created as a large open area of rolling meadow interspersed with shade trees, which could be a major site for recreations and sport. Thus he provided the recreational elements which Olmsted knew to be necessary in city landscapes, but always wanted to prevent from interrupting his composed ‘natural’ scenes which could be designed in his other parks.
Cherokee Park was almost exclusively dedicated to the enjoyment of scenery, and designed to exploit the setting of its location in the stream valley, and contained less provision for formal activities than any other he had designed.
The third major park was Iroquois. Sited on a steep hill, It had originally been known as the ”Burnt Knob’ due to the original savannah vegetation which was managed by a cycle of burning and regeneration by the native American Indians. Its steep terrain was deeply forested. Olmsted proposed that this site should be treated as a scenic reservation as its topography, character and vegetation was unsuitable to providing open parkland, which was in any case, amply provided by the other two. Iroquois was to represent the forest scenes of the Appalachian Mountains, experienced on the journey from the Mississippi south, to Virginia.
The last major element of Olmsted’s design was the parkways connecting the parks with each other and the Downtown. The construction of these was carried out in piecemeal. As well as the major parks and parkways, several smaller, neighborhood parks were designed by Olmsted and later the Olmsted brothers, all 18 contributing to the overall network.
D) The loss of many character defining features of the parks
Over time many of the character defining features of the parks have been lost. Physical and spatial elements have been overlaid, replaced with contemporary elements or altered. The onset of the car, over use, natural disaster, installation of contemporary structures, flytipping, malfunctioning equipment, general disrepair and invasive species had all led to the erosion of the original vision and structure.
The parks were originally designed specifically for ‘ease’. So visitors should be able to move through and enjoy the different views and scenes while pursuing their passive or active recreation with ease. Routes guide you through the gently unfolding and ever changing scenery, whether on foot, bicycle, car or horse. The circulation system became fragmented and dysfunctional as the agents of change took their toll, making layouts confusing and movement difficult through some areas leading to perceived dangers and fear for personal security. Ease of use was thus lost.
Shawnee Park, originally designed with recreation in mind had become a victim of its success as it got covered with baseball fields and associated fencing, which obliterated its naturally inspired landscape and led to the exclusion of most other uses and users.
The topography of Iroquois Parks had been taken advantage of as a natural lookout point, first by the American Indians and later, as Olmsted had intended. The summit becoming a desirable vantage point for drivers, thus became over trafficked. The large open grassed ‘Summit Field’ at the top of the park, ‘The Knob’ was often to be found covered in cars. This soon became a poorly drained, muddy field, leading to further run off from the summit and erosion of the forested slopes and circulation systems contained within.
Vegetation erosion and loss, as a result of car parking on the edges of the scenic drives, and damage done by the 1974 tornado, has been a major agent of decline of Cherokee Park. The tornado felled 2000 trees in its 20 minute crossing, and subsequently allowed an invasion of alien species to colonize, causing dark masses of impenetrable vegetation. Blocked off views limited the public’s natural way-finding ability and led to desire lines, further degrading the visual quality of the designed landscape and creating physical problems with storm water runoff. The characteristic long vistas through the stream valley with meandering paths through the landscape had largely disappeared as a result. Sports pitches and bland, functional, but ugly structures had been placed around the park, further interrupting the composition of the various scenes. Combined sewer outfalls into the Creek degraded water quality and increased flow, thus reducing the creeks natural ability to withstand erosion of its banks by floods.
E) Strategy for the revitalization of the parks
The strategy for the Olmsted Parks, was to first define the ‘period of significance’ within the life span of the parks’ history. In this case it was defined as being mostly from the 1890s to 1916, and partially into the 1930s, when the parks and parkways were designed and built.
Its significance, as a designed historic landscape, is recognized through the designation of the Louisville system as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places thus recognizing its importance as a cultural resource for its citizens . It also offers it some protection from federally funded projects that may impact on these historic resources. As the three separate parks were designed to be distinctly different from each other the rehabilitation strategies had also to be distinctly different for each. The key concept of ‘ease of use’ was one of the major and constant considerations taken into account with the rehabilitation strategy.
Shawnee Park’s formal sports provision has been condensed into one area, thus restoring the informal landscape and therefore the park’s pastoral quality. Strategic views to the river have been restored by vegetation clearance and land form alterations, overcoming physical and visual barriers created by flood defenses.
Problems of car domination at the top of Iroquois have been overcome by redesigning the former muddy grassed field into a native Savannah wildflower meadow. This has transformed the car dominated mud bath into a flowering oasis, while also saving on maintenance costs, being now managed by burning on a 3 year rotation, as the American Indians do with only grass paths mowed regularly.
The flowing lines, vistas and routes of the river valley landscape in Cherokee Park have been restored with the creation of additional new paths, giving access to a long derelict stonework seating area surrounding the seasonally running Barringer Springs, re-interpreting both the natural and designed aspects of the park.
The preservation and rehabilitation strategies of the master plan and the other park programs designed by Louisville Metro, are in the process of reversing decline. Louisville will thus receive the full benefit of the Olmsted legacy, while meeting the need for current and future recreational needs, through sensitive design and the creation of new facilities which do not compromise the original vision.
The extension of Olmsted Parks’ legacy throughout Greater Louisville
The mission of the Louisville Conservancy is also to extend the Olmsted legacy throughout Greater Louisville for the benefit of generations to come who could enjoy an extensive green space in Louisville ‘The City of Parks’ The long term vision of the Mayor of Louisville in 2005 to build upon the groundwork laid down over 100 years ago, is to ensure, as the community grows, that all residents have access to quality parks and open space.
The delivery mechanism for this is a significant public private partnership consisting of several organizations including Metro Parks, the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Louisville Metro Government, 21st Century Parks (A new not for profit organization established to accept donations for land acquisition and for development of new parks) and the Trust for Public Land, (a national not for profit group which works to conserve land for the public to enjoy)
This partnership is working together to accomplish three major projects:
– Acquire land which will become a new interconnected system of parks
– Create a 100 mile, green loop and trail around Louisville’s perimeter to tie together its diverse parks and communities, and control sprawl, ( like a usable greenbelt)
– Invest in improving the existing parks.
So far, the local government has earmarked $20million over a multi-year initiative with $1million pledged in the 2005-6 budget. $38million was secured from federal funds in 2005, and with private contributions, the total raised by December ’05 was $60million. The setting up of the ’21st Century Parks’ organization has enabled the acceptance of tax deductible donations.
Innovative Park Creation for Restoring, Enhancing and Preserving A Brighter Future for All
The City of Parks initiative, while mostly acquiring land and building new parks, is also crucial, in helping with the ‘restore, enhance and preserve’ mission of the Conservancy. The Olmstedian ‘Ease of Use and accessibility’ philosophy is being continued and expanded thus aiding access to the original as well as new parks. The new parks can incorporate new requirements, such as state of the art skateboard facilities and interactive water features, rather than having these facilities squeezed into landscapes which weren’t designed to accommodate them. ‘Extreme Park’ skateboard and cycling park is just such a facility, located in downtown Louisville, an extension of Waterfront Park a brilliant service which has become nationally renowned. Facilities such as bike hire are provided in the new sites, thus increasing visitors. The new Waterfront Park is an exciting collection of activities, ecologies and spaces contributing to the richness of Louisville’s collection of parks.
Waterfront Park has helped to jump-start the downtown area. Over $400million has been invested in the downtown riverside area since 1994. The park itself costs £100million. Historic buildings have been retained and re-used within the development zone, with the history and character of Louisville respected as people are re-connected with their waterside. Jobs in that area have grown from 400 in 1986, to over 5,300. Metro Parks department are developing new parkways to add further connections from the downtown to the parks, thus increasing accessibility and use of the system. Louisville’s early recognition of the value of parks, has enabled it to stop, and then reverse the spiral of decline, and resuscitate this resource on a massive scale for the benefit of the city. In doing so, it has helped in continuing to define the city’s form, preserve the rich native landscape and improve property values.
Louisville’s Olmsted Parks and Parkways a unique component to the fabric of the city, contributes to the quality of life for all citizens. The value of the clearly-planned system of large landscaped parks connected by tree-lined parkways, and smaller parks, playgrounds, and squares is greater than ever. For parks have the ability to improve almost every aspect of life for individuals and the community at large. Caring for these historic treasures and seeing that they remain valuable assets for every community should therefore be the perennial preoccupation in all cities in the world.