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Planning for the Urban Century

The 21st century will be an urban century.

In the urban century, cities that build and maintain great park systems will be great, livable cities. Those that do not will ultimately fall behind and be forced to catch up through retrofitting, a politically challenging and expensive process that is limited in terms of design and ecological outcomes.

Central Park under construction (Smithsonian Collection)

Central Park under construction. (Smithsonian)

Planning for the urban century requires a global revival of two critical concepts pioneered by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. in the 19th century, as the United States went through a similar shift of rural to urban migration that the rest of the world is experiencing today. Olmsted recognized that parks are city-shaping infrastructure, and like all forms of infrastructure, they work best when installed before the city grows. Central Park in New York, Olmsted’s most famous park, epitomizes this vision. It was built 30 blocks north of the edge of the city, but named Central Park, reflecting his confidence that the park would become the heart of the city.


Cherokee Park in Louisville, KY (Olmsted Online)

Fast forward almost half a century to Olmsted’s last design for a park system, in Louisville, KY. Olmsted had by this stage of his career firmly arrived at his second major realization: Parks designed as complete integrated systems result in the best outcomes. So in Louisville, he envisioned three major parks, each one serving a different section of the city, and each encompassing a unique natural landscape–limestone uplands, shale knobs, and the Ohio River floodplain. All of the parks in Olmsted’s vision were connected by a series of parkways, and together they sketched a framework of urban form. Many cities engaged Olmsted in park design, but few actually carried it out; Louisville did build out his vision. The result: In the 20th century, Louisville formed around this system, making it one of the few cities in the world to have its period of industrial growth completely shaped by a grand Olmstedian vision.  

The challenge in the 21st century will be to preserve land and create large, integrated park systems in new urban places, as billions of people move into cities. The favelas of Brazil, and the slums of Mumbai, are analogous to the tenements of New York City in the late 19th century, reflecting a continued trajectory of urbanization and the emergence of the same kinds of poor living conditions that motivated the urban parks movement in the United States. Lessons of Olmsted’s vision of public green spaces, open to all, will be even more important, as this landmark migration back to cities unfolds.

Creek Field Trip (The Parklands)

Creek Field Trip
(The Parklands)

In the U.S., our urban population will likely increase by nearly 80 million people over the next half-century. Our knowledge of biodiversity and urban ecology have progressed dramatically since Olmsted’s time, creating an even greater systemic challenge to design spaces that not only serve people, but the natural ecosystems within these urban spaces. If we can’t expose the new urban population to nature, they will not value it at the level needed to preserve the broader ecosystems that surround their cities. The challenge in urban areas is to create the conditions for high quality urban parks and green spaces ahead of the growth of the city. Without them, these places will not be livable.

Running in the Parklands

Running in the Parklands

In Louisville, we are doing just that. Nearly a decade ago, 21st Century Parks partnered with the city of Louisville and a visionary land trust called Future Fund to preserve land ahead of growth, and to develop that land as an Olmstedian park system. We raised $125 million to buy land and build new parks. The result, The Parklands of Floyds Fork (www.theparklands.org ), is a nearly 4,000 acre master planned park system that will be complete in the spring of 2016, just five years after construction began. Built right in the heart of the last undeveloped swath of land in one of the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S., The Parklands will shape our city for the next century, providing community, recreational, environmental, quality of life, health, and educational benefits to a region of more than 6 million people. In 2015, with just 30% of The Parklands open, we hosted almost 1.4 million visits, and expect this to double in spring 2016, when the project is complete. This year, Parklands visitors attended hikes, education programs, burned over 400 million calories, and brought to life an unrivaled public space. With support from The Helmsley Charitable Trust, we are also working to create and sustain a high level of biodiversity on the edge of an urban area, as a central element of the park’s master plan.

Imagine the lesson of The Parklands, and of Olmsted’s great urban vision, extended to hundreds of cities in countries like India, China, Brazil, and other rapidly growing places around the world. If land can be preserved ahead of growth, and if cities can provide the resources to create great urban park systems focused on both people and nature, the cities of the 21st century will be great places to live and work. The Parklands of Floyds Fork demonstrates that even in a mid-sized city, strong public and private leadership can create great new park systems for all to enjoy, bringing Olmsted’s magnificent urban vision into the next century and around the globe.

One Response

  1. Great article Dan!

    It’s sad when you look at google maps and see the minimal amount of green space in most cities. Glad we have The Parklands around 🙂

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