By Mike Heitz, Dan Jones, David Karem and Mimi Zinniel • Special to The Courier-Journal • August 15, 2010

Louisville’s parks are a treasure. It would be hard to find another community of our size with a park system as diverse and accessible and welcoming as ours.

The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence recently released its 2010 City Park Facts, a comprehensive national report that will provide a real eye-opener for locals who sometimes think Louisville doesn’t quite measure up. This report compares publicly owned and operated parks in the 85 largest (by population) U.S. cities, and folks, Louisville looks great.

Among these 85 cities are the six that Louisville is most often linked to by size and geography, with a perception that Louisville often loses out in the comparison: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Memphis, Nashville and St. Louis. Here’s a fact that might make us take a fresh look at some of the good things our city has to offer: Louisville by far surpasses those six cities in acres of parkland, with 43 percent more parkland than the next highest contender.

The exact numbers are:

It gets even better. Louisville has more parkland than Chicago does. Louisville has more parkland than Denver, Cleveland and Columbus. Louisville has more parkland than Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston and Pittsburgh combined.

We all know that quality is just as important as quantity. We’ve got that, too. Louisville’s isn’t just any ordinary cookie-cutter parkland; 18 parks and six parkways designed by the acknowledged father of American landscape design, Frederick Law Olmsted, and his firm, form the core of our ever expanding Metro Parks system.

While Olmsted designed a number of park systems nationwide, only four were built to completion; ours is one of those four. Add to that the natural beauty of the Jefferson Memorial Forest, the award-winning Waterfront Park that welcomes visitors through the front door of the community, and the promise of the Parklands of Floyds Fork in southeast Jefferson County, which will add nearly 4,000 acres to the total number above, and anyone can see that
we’ve got something special going on here.

Olmsted’s Vision

When Olmsted laid out the framework for our park system, he emphasized the importance of building upon each site’s strengths and distinct character, and of taking the time to plan. In 1891, he wrote to Louisville’s Board of Park Commissioners, “The principal work that you have to do is a work of preparation whereby nature will be invited to produce, by growth, in the course of years, that which is to be desired in a park. Work directed to early results in parks is nearly always lamentable work, costly relatively to its value …” When you look at the mature beauty of Iroquois, Shawnee and Cherokee parks, it is easy to see how Olmsted’s philosophy of patience and planning has benefitted our city.

Louisville has more than 125 parks, and that number is growing. From our very first park, Baxter Square at 12th and Jefferson, opened in 1880, to the stunning views of Riverview Park in southwest Jefferson County; from Shawnee and Chickasaw Parks on the Ohio River west of downtown, to A.B. Sawyer Park in eastern Jefferson County — no matter where you are in this community, there is a park nearby. With the City of Parks initiative, progress is being made on the Louisville Loop, a 100- mile greenway that will connect a necklace of parks throughout Metro Louisville, increasing pedestrian and bicycle access.

Think of just about any leisure-time activity, and one or more of our parks is going to provide you a place to do it.

Here’s a partial list of what is available in Louisville’s parks, much of it for free or at a very low price: Swimming, hiking, biking, skating, running, movies, theater, concerts, art fairs, festivals, basketball, soccer, baseball, cornhole, Frisbee, golf, Frisbee golf. Spraygrounds, playgrounds, parks for your dog. Places to feed the ducks, read a book, relax by yourself, gather with 150,000 of your closest friends. Yoga, exercise classes, volleyball, fishing, marathons, triathlons, cyclocross, walking to make yourself healthy, walking to raise money to help make other people healthy. Dancing, swinging, sliding, climbing, jumping, rowing, learning. Places for weddings, family reunions, cookouts, picnics. You get the idea.

Parks Serious Business

Here’s the thing: Parks are serious business. Of course, they add to that ever
ephemeral, hard to define “quality of life” that we are always hearing about. But they also provide some readily quantifiable economic, environmental, and health benefits for the communities that surround them.

Parks promote investment and development and increase property values in the neighborhoods surrounding them, a fact that is clearly visible in the Waterfront Park neighborhood. Barely twenty years ago, Louisville’s riverfront was a barren landscape of scrap yards, heavy industry, rail lines and warehouses, practically devoid of human presence. Now Waterfront Park draws more than 1.5 million visitors per year and the riverfront is bustling and vibrant.

Fighting Air Pollution

Of particular interest during this hot Louisville summer, studies have shown that parks and greenways can help counteract air pollution and increased temperatures. The University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture found that mature tree canopies can reduce air temperatures five to 10 degrees. And trees filter pollutants from the air — the non-profit conservation organization American Forests found trees in Atlanta remove 19 million pounds of pollutants annually.

Will Rogers, president of the Trust for Public Land, sums it up nicely:

“Not since the 1890s has there been more recognition of the value of our city parks: mayors once again understand that they can’t have a great city without a great park system. They understand that urban parks are all about health — our physical and spiritual health, and also the health of our economies and our environment … (Parks) create livable — and lovable — cities.”

Louisville’s parks are doing just that.

Mike Heitz is director of Louisville Metro Parks. Dan Jones is chairman & CEO of 21st Century Parks. David Karem is president of the Waterfront Development Corporation. Mimi Zinniel is president & CEO of the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

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