How Parks Can Guide Regional Development

Parklands of Floyds Fork Manages Louisville's Largest Watershed

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Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2015 10:26 am

Planned and designed properly, green infrastructure in municipal parks can spark and strategically guide urban growth, bring substantial benefits – including public health and community cohesion – and deliver higher quality environmental conditions.

At a regional scale, green infrastructure is a tool to help manage growth, directing what might otherwise become costly and resource consumptive sprawl to positive, popularly-supported community development.

The Parklands of Floyds Fork in metropolitan Louisville, Ky., is an example of how parks can bring “triple bottom line” benefits to a community.

In the mid-1990s, the Louisville and Jefferson County governments merged into a single metro government. The resulting parks and open space master plan adopted by city leaders then became Louisville Metro Parks’ green infrastructure planning mechanism. A key feature of this was the proposed 100-mile circumferential trail called the Louisville Loop, which connects the county’s three most prominent and remarkable natural landscapes. Among these is the Floyds Fork Valley, the context for the Parklands, which comprises one-fifth of the entire Loop and is the city's largest watershed.

The Parklands is a 4,000-acre municipal parkland made up of four major new parks, each larger than the city’s current largest, Olmsted Park. Twelve miles long and up to one mile wide, the Parklands is a large swath of lush rural landscapes, a mosaic of forests, meadows, fields and farmland. Recreational development is focused in several areas, including community and environmental education buildings, large event lawns, signature promenades, playgrounds, picnic shelters, dog parks, playing fields, community gardens and maintenance facilities. The parks are tied together by a park drive, extensive trail system and water trail, all woven along a sinuous rural Kentucky stream named Floyds Fork.

The Parklands is the work of 21st Century Parks Inc., a nonprofit organization whose vision has guided the project and is responsible for building and maintaining it. The organization and its consultants have won awards from the Foundation for Landscape Studies, National Park Service, American Planning Association and American Society of Landscape Architects. Due to an ambitious, aggressive and successful public private funding strategy that raised more than $125 million since the project’s inception in 2006, the Parklands is scheduled to open fully next year.

Its master plan includes a long-term strategy to connect and integrate with surrounding communities and natural spaces. “Bringing nature into neighborhoods” is the credo of 21st Century Parks Inc., offering a promising way to extend regional green infrastructure into the daily lives of residents. The project provides object lessons in how parks as green infrastructure can provide multiple benefits for the public, including an increase in adjacent property value, transportation connectivity, flood mitigation, habitat protection, social and physical health, environmental education and cultural enrichment.

Below are some of the major ideas behind The Parklands master plan.

Mega Parks as Regional Identity

The Parklands is among the largest of a current group of very large American parks, defined here as mega-parks. These are mostly brand new and somewhat unconventional parks, many of which are measured in thousands of acres, and have a significant regional impact. By virtue of their size and individual character, they help define a regional sense of place. The impact that public open space of this size can wield can be harnessed to serve larger growth management concerns as follows.

Open-space Focus as a Solution to the Problem of Sprawl

Green infrastructure is a way to organize and manage community growth and diminish the environmental effects of urban sprawl. The Parklands serves as an open space focal point and amenity for adjacent neighborhood development, much as the city’s three celebrated original Frederick Law Olmsted parks did at the turn of the 20th century. The Parklands will dictate the form of urban development in the eastern metro area for decades to come, helping improve what Dan Jones, founder and CEO of 21st Century Parks Inc.’s calls, “Louisville’s leading edge.”

To address the Parklands’ role in neighborhood development, and to help assure a healthy context for its future, its master plan includes a long-term strategy for close relationship with surrounding communities and natural spaces. This “parks without borders” concept extends the influence of the park and links it to future community development along Floyds Fork’s tributaries and connecting roadways. In this way, The Parklands will be threaded into smaller community and neighborhood parks via a pedestrian/cyclist-oriented system of trails, and into nearby habitat patches via riparian and forest corridors.

The open spaces of Floyds Fork and their amenities will bring people from adjacent neighborhoods and throughout the Louisville metro area together to experience a more active and healthy lifestyle, while creating a lasting environmental legacy for the city. Ambitious programming provides environmental education for school children and activities for the general public, such as concerts, festivals, outdoor skills classes, nature hikes, charity walks/runs and farmers’ markets.


Long-established parks typically have a devoted user constituency, and almost every square inch is spoken for or contested by some special interest. In contrast, start-up parks, particularly megaparks in the planning stage, are generally too abstract, big and new for people to get their heads around. The challenge of designating places for activities was addressed in the Parklands by creating key spaces as recreational activity areas called “pods” and linking them with the circulation network. As the process evolved, some of these pods were assigned specific facilities and activities, and some still remain unspecified, allowing for flexible future accommodation of uses as of yet undetermined.


The park plan includes more than 145 miles of trails, roads and watercourses for hikers, bikers and paddlers (horse trails are still under consideration). The main trail, The Loop, connects surrounding communities and the remaining 80 miles outside of the park to most parking areas at prominent trailheads located at major gateways. From the trailheads, the Loop connects to three types of trails, each designed to present a contrasting experience. Signature trails lead to highlighted design features in the major public gathering spaces; informal gravel excursion trails provide easy access to the transitional landscapes between the designed spaces and forested backcountry; and remote low-impact trails farther inside the parks allow different degrees of challenge, exposure and isolation for the park visitors. Six canoe launches along the continuous water trail provide access for seasonal paddling trips of various lengths, accommodating a range of paddling abilities and endurance.

Implementation: Land Assembly and Permitting

The Parklands’ land ownership pattern differs from other mega-parks that are homogenous, previously-assembled parcels, such as New York’s Fresh Kills Park or California’s Orange County Great Park Central Park. The Parklands’ land assembly included more than 70 land transactions with properties crisscrossing Floyds Fork, presenting a challenge of stitching together a coherent park experience. The resulting plan balances visionary contiguity with pragmatic accommodation of ownership: the Louisville Loop connects all major parcels, and a park road connects many, but county roads fill in the missing links in several locations.


By tying megapark planning and green infrastructure together, the approach to permitting was to plan and proactively portray the Parklands as a comprehensive balance of environmental enhancements to mitigate the impact of construction. Among the very complex range of checks and balances in this approach, stream crossings and floodplain impact demanded the most involved regulatory compliance and permitting strategies. The permitting strategy addressed local and federal requirements based on the National Environmental Policy Act, triggered by federal funding awarded to the project.

The disturbances of bridges to the environment were minimized to avoid overstepping permitting thresholds. Other potential mitigation was avoided by thinking of new ways of obtaining permits for the project, such as treating each individual impact, rather than the impact of the entire project. Cultural resources, for example, were kept away from potential archeological sites to prevent having to relocate The Loop, park road or park programming. The park road is out of the flood plain and away from the Fork, but positioned as close as possible to water while still being sustainable.

The permitting process was eased by the intent of the park project to increase the environmental health of the area. Aspects of reforestation, creation of habitat through meadows, and riparian plants near the water were all intended to improve water quality and mitigate the impact of construction in the stream valley. While the construction of a park is a positive contribution, it still makes an impact, requiring some mitigation. Creating a habitat and environmental restoration can be part of a park’s mitigation strategy.

Regional Identity as Design Inspiration

Architectural and landscape design reflect the natural and cultural heritage of the Kentucky bluegrass region. These iconic images create a distinctive local identity tuned to the spirit of the place. The Parklands’ location in the Floyds Fork prompted every facet of design to reinforce the presence and quality of the stream as the central feature. Roads, paths and plantings respond to the dynamic, water-dominated ecosystem of the creek and its valley. Pathways and building locations reflect the fluid action of water, with its myriad forms of turbulence and serenity.

People encounter and experience the creek by going along, over and through the water.

Kentucky’s bluegrass–country architectural heritage, reflected by walls of stacked stone and the dark stained-wood siding of park structures, recalls the imagery of tobacco barns still prevalent in the park.

The iconic imagery of the bridges over Floyds Fork also serves to celebrate the affinity with water and the challenges faced in connecting the land parcels. Designed to suggest the energy and grace of a deer leaping across the creek, the bridges were created by local architects to merge contemporary and traditional craftsmanship using stone, steel and concrete.

Plantings around the edges of habitat areas are designed to echo these forms, and shape a rich middle ground between forest edge and buildings. With time, the simple pattern of fields and hedgerows will be greatly enriched by many techniques drawn from the rich history of classical and contemporary garden and park design, such as allee, bosque, grove, copse, garden, perennial border, maze, vista and axis.

These efforts shape the landscape for people, while deferring to the landscape that makes the Parklands special. They reinforce the project’s guiding principle that humans and nature are intertwined instead of separate opposing forces.


Guided by the vision of 21st Century Parks, The Parklands at Floyds Fork offers numerous lessons in how to use green infrastructure planning to manage community growth and instill a healthy environment. Green infrastructure is a tool to enhance the future of towns and cities of every size, in any region.

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