The Parklands of Floyds Fork: Louisville's 21st Century Legacy Park

September 5, 2017, Department, by Charles B. Neer

2017 September Community Center The Parklands of Floyds Fork 410

Louisville, Kentucky’s century-old legacy of open spaces, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1890s, was intentionally created on lands away from the center of town. This was in keeping with Olmsted’s vision of, in his words, “bringing nature into the neighborhoods.” Now, more than 100 years later,
The Parklands of Floyds Fork follows Olmsted’s model by functioning as a green infrastructural framework to proactively guide the metro area’s future growth through the heart of the last major undeveloped section of eastern Louisville.

The Parklands of Floyds Fork is a 20-mile, 4,000-acre addition to the Louisville Park System inspired by the belief that great parks can shape a city, grow along with a city and serve as the seedling from which a city’s best and most livable neighborhoods grow. The Parklands includes four major parks — Beckley Creek Park, Pope Lick Park, Turkey Run Park and Broad Run Park — linked by a park drive, an urban trail system and a remarkable water trail, all tracing Floyds Fork, a classic Kentucky stream. They provide residents of the city and region with access to outdoor amenities, such as trails for hiking and biking, sports fields and natural areas to promote both physical and mental health, free of charge and accessible to everyone. This public/private project is unique in the region and unlike anything currently in development across the country.

Regional Green Infrastructure: the Olmsted Legacy
Through 80 separate real estate transactions, the nonprofit organization, 21st Century Parks, has purchased nearly 4,000 acres of land to create The Parklands and applied legal protections that assure public access and use in perpetuity. Though this project preserves so much land from future urban development, The Parklands is more than a site-specific preservation project. The intent has been to not only immerse people in nature, but to proactively use open space as an agent in shaping future development on a regional scale.

The Parklands is evolving into the central feature of a more fully integrated open space network, serving a greater role in the provision of park and recreational needs for existing and emerging communities in this part of Louisville. A conceptual framework for this integrated network includes visual and physical connections via foot, bike and car (and potential future transit options) to adjacent or nearby uses, such as other parks, nature preserves, village centers and special features. The Louisville Loop is a 100+-mile multiuse trail being implemented by Louisville Metro Parks around the entire city of Louisville, and more than 19 of these miles have been implemented by 21st Century Parks as part of The Parklands. Following The Parklands’ construction in 2016, Louisville Metro Government has issued planning request for proposals for developing the areas adjacent to The Parklands, illustrating the impact that parks can have as city-shaping generators.

Public & Private Partnerships
A project the size of The Parklands could not be achieved without the dedicated commitment and leadership of public and private organizations and community leaders to actualize and operate the park. 21st Century Parks strategically partnered with the land trust, Future Fund and Louisville Metro Parks to secure the land for the park. The cost of park development and land acquisitions for The Parklands totaled $125 million and was paid for by a capital campaign. More than $60 million was donated by private individuals, corporations and foundations with the rest of the funding coming from the public sector. These included a federal transportation appropriation secured by Sen. Mitch McConnell for park development, the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s contribution for park infrastructure and Louisville Metro Government’s contribution for The Parklands’ first playground. A grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust is funding habitat restoration and management of natural areas, which act as an educational resource for park users.

Partnerships were also established with various community organizations and privately operated vendors to offer programming and an enhanced park experience to visitors. Annual operations of The Parklands are funded by memberships and private donations, as well as an endowment established
and managed by 21st Century Parks. Together, this public/private partnership has assumed the charge of ensuring that the vision for The Parklands materialized and that it plays a significant role in the daily lives of all Louisville residents for generations to come.

Design Intent and Development of a “Florknacular”
Developed largely from scratch utilizing a combination of farmland, undevelopable slopes and wet bottomlands, the planning and design firm of WRT devised three strategies to organize The Parklands: framework, connectivity and theater. The framework shapes the spatial context of the park, including preservation and restoration of the forest, meadows, wetlands and watercourses. The connectivity component includes Floyds Fork itself, the park roadways, the Louisville Loop, the bridges and other paths that provide access through an immersive natural experience. The theatrical component includes development with an ecological and recreational focus, providing distinctive places for people to gather and play.

WRT, along with local architect Bravura, developed a formaldesign language that emanated from the site — a Floyds Fork vernacular — “Florknacular.” Bringing a sense of orientation to such an expansive land area is a system of ecologically responsive trails and roadways that wind along the watercourse. The kinetic shapes of the pathways, plantings and buildings reflect the fluid action of water. People encounter and experience the creek by “flowing” along the trails, “leaping” over the bridges and “diving” through the water. Into this sinuous system of passages are inserted numerous trailheads and gathering spaces, along with two geometrically contrasting features, the Egg Lawn and the Grand Allée.

Materiality Defines Sense of Place
The design and materials reflect the natural and cultural heritage of the Kentucky bluegrass region, which creates a distinctive local identity tuned to the spirit of the place. Locally sourced limestone was used extensively throughout the park in the iconic “Leaping bridges” and dry-laid rock fences, but also in the site benches, canoe launches and stonefines trails. The family of site structures were constructed from ebony-stained cedar siding with yellow pine interiors that recall the imagery of tobacco barns once prevalent to the region, a few of which are preserved throughout the park. The Louisville Loop paving material reveals the floodplain datum by using asphalt outside and concrete inside the floodplain, forming a memorable white line in the landscape paralleling the Fork. Native plantings provide significant habitat value and benefits to pollinators and wildlife, while also improving water quality through 7 miles of riparian buffer restoration.

The Parklands Experience
The Parklands was completed in April 2016 and, that year, visitor attendance reached 2.6 million, making The Parklands one of the top 50 urban parks in the nation — for 2017, visits to the park are estimated to reach 4.0 million. The Parklands addresses a range of public health concerns, such as nature-deficit disorder with an ambitious programming and a nature-based curriculum to engage students at the region’s K-12 schools through hands-on science and natural history education — more than 14,000 students in 2016 alone have already benefited from the programming. The Parklands addresses active lifestyle by providing a broad range of physical fitness challenges that encourage cardiovascular health, for people of all ages, including hiking/biking trails, paddling trails, sports fields, playgrounds/spray grounds and adventure sports hubs.

Agriculture is a part of The Parklands experience and local farming creates a positive connection between people and land through community gardens, farmers markets and the conversion of almost 400 acres to support sustainable agricultural. The Parklands will preserve a vanishing landscape and enhance nearly 80 percent of the land for forestland and restored native meadows and wetlands. This creates 15 miles of urban habitat corridor with improved water quality and stormwater management, reduction of the urban heat island effect, filtration of pollutants, carbon sequestration and habitat protection. The Parklands demonstrates how parks as green infrastructure provide multiple benefits for the public, including transportation connectivity, flood mitigation, habitat protection, as well as physical health, environmental education and cultural enrichment.

Charles B. Neer is the Senior Associate Landscape Architect for WRT Design.