City of Parks

Adding a Green Ring to Olmsted's Emerald Necklace

By Mary Lou Northern

University of Louisville graduates have always had a major impact on our community. One example is Louisville's fantastic parks system, which owes much to U of L alumni ranging in time from Gen. John Breckinridge Castleman to today.

The father of Louisville's parks system, Castleman was an 1868 U of L law graduate. As the city's first parks commissioner, he is credited with bringing Frederick Law Olmsted to Louisville in 1890 to work on its parks design. Castleman also donated land for Cherokee Park--his statue now stands in Cherokee Triangle in tribute.

More recently David Karem, a 1969 law graduate, led the popular Waterfront Park's development, while 1954 business graduate David Jones Sr. heads an ambitious drive to establish a green-ring around Louisville called "City of Parks." UofL magazine asked yet another alumnus engaged in such activity--1971 English graduate Mary Lou Northern, secretary of Louisville Metro's Neighborhoods, Parks and Cultural Affairs cabinet--to tell us about "City of Parks" and how U of L alumni continue to leave their imprint on Louisville in the form of beautiful scenery.

A cold, overcast wintry day in Louisville. The year 2004, David Jones Sr., the co-founder of Humana Inc., stood with Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson at the edge of a bluff looking to Floyds Fork Creek as it meandered through the valley and woods below. Staff from the Metro Parks Department showed them a map of the area.

We were at the midpoint in a morning tour that began at the lakes of Miles Park on Shelbyville Road and would end at the 40-foot Fairmount Falls near Bardstown Road. We had come to this spot to envision a future for this land that would include at least three parks, each about the size of the 409-acre Cherokee-Park, all linked by a 27-mile trail.

This idea was part of the vision to create parks where there are none; to upgrade the city's existing 123 parks; to expand the Jefferson Memorial Forest; and to link them with a 100 mile trail that will encircle the city. It was a vision that developer and educator Dan Jones called a "City of Park," an initiative that Mayor Abramson embraced and that David Jones calls "the most exciting and significant civic project of my lifetime."

Also on the tour that day was Metro Parks director Mike Heitz, a U of L alumnus with a 1984 master's degree from the College of Business. He defined the significance of the project by laying out to the two men the "everlasting impact of the project on the environment (water quality, erosion control and wildlife habitat) and new opportunities for recreation."

Now, on the first anniversary of Mayor Abramson and David Jones' announcement of the City of Parks Initiative, I have been asked to write a first-person account of the most ambitious parks project this community has undertaken since 1887 when industrialist Andrew Cowan proposed an interconnected park system. That plan evolved into our emerald necklace of parks designed by the father of American landscape and architecture. Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. Today, the Olmsted necklace includes Cherokee, Iroquois and Shawnee parks, their connecting parkways and 15 other parks that are now part of a system of 123 parks along with the country's largest municipally owned forest, Jefferson Memorial Forest.

But how do you lasso in words a vision and all the hands that play into its evolution and achievement? How do you tell this chapter in the story of Louisville's wonderful system of parks?

How do you explain a vision that Trust for Public Land, a national leader in land conservation, says "put Louisville in a league of its own nationally"?

A Greenprint For The Future

My involvement in the City of Parks began in the spring of 2003, but I've had a lifelong love affair with our parks. I had spent the winter months since January of that year as a member of the mayor's staff helping set up the new government that resulted from the merger of the city and county. One of my oversight areas is Metro Parks.

I grew up using Louisville's parks and frequently hike in the Forest. I chaired the advisory committee that developed design standards for the Olmsted parkways--Eastern, Southern, Algonquin, Cherokee, Northwestern and Southwestern. I served on a long-range planning effort for the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, a volunteer group that has raised more than $18 million for the 18 Olmsted parks and six parkways. I also wrote articles about the parks and parkways and led an effort to restore Southern Parkway.

I believe in parks, and I use them. But in those hectic first months of setting up a new government, my focus was on government systems. Then Dan Jones asked to meet with me.

Dan, a developer, educator and David Jones' son, laid out a study of the Floyds Fork corridor that he had funded. It was based on the Cornerstone 2020 Parks and Open Space Master Plan, the comprehensive local government land-use agenda adopted in 2000 that included Floyds Fork as part of a 100-mile city loop trail.

The study was fueled by the success of Future Fund, a nonprofit land trust that former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry (a 1981 School of Medicine graduate) established in 1993 when he was county commissioner. Future Fund focuses on conserving land for both parkland and natural areas--primarily in the Floyds Fork area--and today has more than 3,000 acres in the corridor that complements another 1,350-plus acres that Metro Parks holds. It includes parks such as Miles, Floyds Fork, McNeely Lake Park and Fairmount Falls, among other properties.

Dan Jones spoke about how conservation and development needn't be strangers. He spoke of the Highlands neighborhood and the impact of Cherokee Park on the area's property values and attraction to young professionals and thriving commercial interests.

He talked about the competitive edge that cities with vibrant open spaces enjoy in attracting new businesses and professionals. He explained how the Floyds Fork corridor--with its floodplains and bluffs--could not all be developed into subdivisions.

For a few moments he talked about the pristine beauty of the creek itself. I promised to review his study and get back to him.

Over the next few months, Metro Parks began to document the needs of its 123 existing parks. With Mayor Abramson's leadership, the department developed a working plan--not a blueprint, but a "greenprint"--outlining improvements to existing parks, including projects funded by the Olmsted Parks Conservancy and other partners.

With all public safety, public works and health, economic development and other metro needs, parks throughout the expanded city required more attention than the city budget could meet. So the mayor issued bonds to upgrade the parks as well as firehouses, streets, sidewalks and other civic projects--a $25 million initiative called Foundation for our Future. More than $5 million of that was set aside for improvements of 67 parks. The mayor also put $1 million in the capital budget for land acquisition in the Floyds Fork corridor and the Jefferson Memorial Forest.

Dan called a second meeting, this time including Future Fund and Metro Parks, to encourage them to work together on land acquisition rather than compete unwittingly against one another. After that meeting we took a canoe trip on Floyds Fork: Dan Jones, Steve Henry, the team from Metro Parks and me.

It was the first time all the partners had looked at the land at the same time. The singular beauty of its natural state was inescapable.

Here within a half-hour drive of downtown were vistas as inspiring as those in Jefferson Memorial Forest to the west. Here were fields and hills as varied and magnificent as any in a state park.

The Floyds Fork corridor was shaping up as a project with significant public and private partners.

group photo
From left: Jerry Brown (assistant director of Metro Parks), David Jones, Mike Heitz, Mayor Jerry Abramson, Lisa Hite (Metro Parks senior planner) and Mary Lou Northern stand near Floyds Fork Creek in 2004, peering at a map of Louisville's bold new parks plan.

To get a feel for how the Floyds Fork project fit with other city projects endorsed by the mayor--bike trails, the expansion of Riverview Park in the southwest, improvements in many of our existing parks, projects funded by the Olmsted Parks Conservancy--we put Post-it notes on the greenprint for each active or planned project. The map soon became a sea of yellow, illustrating the mayor's insistence that we needed "to take care of our existing parks and create new parks in areas of the community where there are none."

We had captured the essence of what Dan Jones saw as the potential for parks across the community to shape the city's quality of life for generations. It carried into the next hundred years the vision that Gen. Castleman brought to the development of parkland a hundred years prior. In the 1890s, as the first parks commissioner, Castleman insisted on a world-class vision and invited the father of American landscape and architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., to design Louisville's first park system.

When the mayor looked at the revised map he saw a way "to bridge the gaps between the city and suburbs." He noted that parks would be "how we unite our neighborhoods and our people."

When David Jones saw it, he said "Now that's a vision!" Dan Jones reacted by calling Louisville a city of parks. From that point on, the City of Parks Initiative had a name. It took on energy that has not abated in interest or support.

David Jones committed to raising $20 million for land acquisition and already has accumulated nearly $18 million--$5 million of that contributed by him and his family. He and his son created a nonprofit organization, 21st Century Parks, to raise funds and oversee the development of the Floyds Fork corridor trail and parks.

The board of 21st Century Parks comprises public and private partners who embrace, in the words of member William Juckett, "the vision and commitment shown in the City of Parks." Juckett (U of L College of Business, 1954) is chair of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

As partners in the City of Parks, Jones, the mayor, and former Lt. Gov. Henry called on U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a 1964 law school graduate, for support. Within a few months of their visit, the senator secured $28 million in federal funds for 21st Century Parks.

A project with an estimated 15-year horizon for completion now had a five-year timetable.

When Mayor Abramson asked me to join his staff, I had no idea that he was giving me the opportunity to work on the greatest civic venture of my life. Not even when I stood in the woods with David Jones Sr. and Mayor Abramson, nor when David Jones laid out his vision for Floyds Fork or when I saw those Post-it notes on the map, did I grasp the potential impact of the City of Parks Initiative on Louisville.

A Vision In Sight

But one day last summer I stood at the edge of a field that rolled up from Floyds Fork Creek to a wooded hillside with a clearing at the top of the hill. I thought of Mrs. Harriet Bonnycastle, who donated land for Cherokee Park. I thought of her standing with Frederick Law Olmsted and Gen. Castleman at the creed on land that would become Cherokee Park.

I thought about the remarkable gift Mayor Abramson gave our children and future generations when he embraced the vision of Louisville as a City of Parks.

And I considered the commitment of David and Dan Jones, captured in these words they crafted to invite others to share that vision: "to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with visionary landscape architect and philosopher Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. to be a pioneer in creating an unmatched quality of life for all Louisville citizens."

As I looked to the clearing in the distance, I thought of John Ruskin's words that Olmsted liked to quote when explaining to clients why they should build parks (referenced in the Olmsted biography A Clearing in the Distance).

It reads: "Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think...that a time is to come will say 'See, this our fathers did for us.'"

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