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Far-Reaching New Louisville Park System Doubles Down on Olmsted’s Vision

New public spaces offer a 21st century update to the landscape architect's celebrated park plan

Fans of Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the fathers of American landscape design, can point to numerous projects, from Central Park to the fairgrounds for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, as signs of his far-reaching influence. But one of his lesser-known projects, a massive park system he designed in the 1890s for Louisville, Kentucky, demonstrates his far-sighted ideas. A series of public spaces, educational facilities, and parkways developed at what was the edge of the growing city, it’s now an prime asset in a modern city, a prime example of "bringing nature into the neighborhoods."

It was so influential to the city that it inspired the construction of a new, 4,000-acre park system in an underdeveloped part of the area, a replica of Olmsted’s earlier ideas about development that put parks before people. The $125 million Parklands of Floyds Fork project, the largest privately funded urban park system in the country, was a decade in the making. But it’s supporters expect the payoff, in laying the ground for future development connected to urban greenways, could pay dividends for decades.

"Few cities are looking to design for what will be there 100 years from now," says park director Scott Martin.

Most urban, and now suburban, development doesn’t prioritize public space and parks. That was the genius of the Olmsted system, says Martin, which is now a vital part of the city’s urban fabric ("parks are so important here, which is why Louisville is the only city in the country where someone like me is interesting at cocktail parties").

"Louisville was a top 10 city in the country at the time, and cities chased him Olmsted like they chase NFL franchises today," Martin says. "I would say the payoff for getting Olmsted was a lot more valuable.

The new Parklands of Floyds Fork, which opened the final section earlier this month, consists of nearly 4,000 acres, a ribbon nearly 20 miles in waterways and numerous trails and public facilities. Founded in large part by David Jones, a city native and founder of Humana, and his son Dan, the system is run by a non-profit, 21st Century Parks, which relies on memberships, donors, and an endowment.

While issues with homes and development in the area haven't been resolved, the new parkland offers a potential catalyst for future development.

"I’m excited the legacy plays far beyond the typical legacy we see in the public sector," says Martin. "Governments can think in election cycles. This may have a 50-100 year impact."

10 Parks That Changed America: From Savannah to the High Line, The Country’s Influential Public Spaces [Curbed]