Protecting Olmsted’s Vision

cherokee Park credit William wellsMost Louisvillians spend a lot of their time not seeing one of the city’s great treasures.

They don’t see it when they’re out walking their dogs, jogging or biking, playing softball or practicing soccer, hitting tennis balls or just being outside.

So look around. It’s your park!

Louisville has one of the nation’s premier urban park systems. More than 100 years ago, Frederic Law Olmsted was commissioned to create a “necklace of green space,” a series of interweaving meadows, hills and wooded areas, for public consumption.

Iroquois Park credit Gary  YoungThat last point is critical. Having parks was not one of our Four Freedoms. Before Olmsted, most open green space was either privately owned, or a municipal endeavor reserved for gardens and flower beds – everyone else, keep off the grass!

But Olmsted had a different view. Cities were becoming packed with Industrial Age laborers immigrating from American farms, from the post-Civil War South and, increasingly, from Europe. They lived and worked in crowded, dark, damp, unhealthy situations. He felt they needed access to open space where they could breathe fresh air, enjoy sunshine and pasture land, have access to the pleasant physical activities of walking, hiking or even moderate climbing, or just lounging or picnicking on the grass.

When Olmsted was summoned to Louisville, in 1891, he was already renowned for his design of New York’s Central Park. But that project, though sweeping and extensive, was largely rectangular, bounded on all sides by city streets. Louisville was to be something different, a chain of green space that wound and meandered through the city, using local elements and topography.

But although this parkland is part of nature – in fact, precisely because it’s part of nature – it doesn’t sustain itself. The parks are in constant need of maintenance, clearing out and replanting, reseeding, repairing, improving. Trees die and undesirable bushes begin to take over the landscape. Grass wears thin. Weather takes its toll. So do heavy usage, carelessness, neglect, vandalism, even progress.

Park Nut TruckIn the mid-1960s, I-64 was built right through the parks but little other money went into keeping the parks intact. Then, in 1974, the Great Louisville Tornado devastated all the Louisville parklands, wiping out especially the older, taller trees in Cherokee and Seneca parks.

The absence of a sun canopy allowed a smaller, invasive plant called the bush honeysuckle to thrive. It sounds benign, almost charming, but this plant releases toxins into the ground that prevent almost all new growth of other plant life. So a private non-profit called Friends of Olmsted Parks was established to raise awareness and keep these valuable assets from deteriorating further.

In 1989, Mayor Jerry Abramson created the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, to work with the city – particularly Metro Parks – on replenishing what had been lost. It’s an independent board with its own set of directors, its own budget and its own agenda, focusing entirely on the 18 Olmsted parks and six connecting parkways in Louisville.

“The city owns the parks,” explained Liz DeHart, the Conservancy’s director of marketing and communications. “By agreement, the city allows the Conservancy to pursue projects beyond the city’s base maintenance – mowing, raking, clearing snow – paid for out of its capital budget. The city has 123 parks to maintain. We work with them to address projects for the Olmsted parks.”

Shelby Park Volunteers MLK 1.19 (119)You may have seen their familiar “nut trucks” out in the park, the crews clearing some brush and planting some saplings, and thought to yourself “what a nice little job they do.” But their work can be a great deal more extensive than clearing or mowing or raking.

One of the big ongoing projects, for example, is restoring the Northern Overlook at the top of Iroquois Park, once called Louisville’s own “Yellowstone” for its rugged terrain, mature woodlands and scenic vistas.

Volunteers in Iroquois ParkThe Overlook is known for its breathtaking views of the city. Over time, though, things have disintegrated, and worn away, and stones and rocks have been removed. It’s a $1 million project, split right in half between the city and the Conservancy. The city has put $500,000 into its capital budget, and the Conservancy is raising the matching funds.

DeHart says those funds will come from the regular donations of its members and supporters, as well as from public and private grants. But it also depends on raising money within the community, and that only comes from raising awareness of all the things it does, like the $4 million Woodland Restoration program to clear the parks of invasive plants, overgrowth and choking vines. Or the ongoing historic preservation and restoration of the parks’ various structures, fountains and pavilions, like the Gaulbert Pavilion in Cherokee Park (known popularly as Big Rock) or the Shelter at Shawnee Park. Plus all the playgrounds, spraygrounds, walkways, pathways and water fountains that people enjoy.

“The parks not only contribute to the city’s quality of life, but also to its growth,” DeHart says. But only if Louisville realizes, and supports, what it has. DeHart is fond of this quote she heard: “The parks are like wallpaper. You don’t notice them until they start to peel.” VT