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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.   Continue reading

Louisville: Private Resources for a Public Park

I’ve talked a lot in this blog about private public partnerships (P3s) where a public agency owns the land and a private partner collaborates on design, development, management or programming. But what about when a private partner owns land for a public park? The next few blog posts will focus on places in the country where private leaders are instrumental in developing and running public parks – on private land. In Louisville, 21st Century Parks (21C) is completing one of the largest new parks in the country – over 4,000 acres – that will be owned and managed by a private nonprofit, working in partnership with Louisville Metro Parks.

Louisville 9-26The Parklands is a donor-supported 4,000-acre park system consisting of four major parks — linked by a park drive.  The park is the vision and work of a group of private leaders and visionaries who wanted to complete the system envisioned by Olmsted’s 1891 design.  Almost all of the land for the park has been privately acquired and put under easement – with 21C developing and managing the park for public use.

I talked with Dan Jones recently about the unique partnership in Louisville with private leadership driving the new park.  Jones is the CEO of 21st Century Parks, the private nonprofit that owns and oversees The Parklands. He and his father, David A. Jones, the co-founder of Humana, have been working on the project for nearly a decade. Together, they have secured more than $120 million of private and public funding to fully fund their vision for a new park system.
Continue reading