21st Century Parks

People often look at Dan Jones cross-eyed when he talks about parks as infrastructure. But as the chairman and CEO of Louisville, Ky.’s 21st Century Parks, Jones understands the expensive consequences of city planning that neglects public space. 

In 2009, McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, issued a report titled “Preparing for China’s Urban Billion.” The report created a blueprint for how the Asian giant could create the infrastructure needed to accommodate 350 million more urban residents by 2030. In more than 500 pages, the report never once mentions public parks. Jones questions the quality of life those billion urban dwellers will have, pointing out that every great city of the world has an equally great park system. “Parks are not an afterthought,” Jones says. “They should be on a list with roads and bridges and housing.”

Louisville’s own park system has been entwined with the city for more than a hundred years. The system was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, famous for his work on New York’s Central Park, the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago and the U.S. Capitol building grounds. City planners in the late 19th and 20th centuries thought big, Jones says, and Olmsted’s work shaped Louisville for a century. With The Parklands of Floyds Fork project, 21st Century Parks is creating a legacy that will guide the city’s next hundred years. “Basically, we said we want to do that again,” Jones says. “We want to get ahead of the development curve and build a system of Louisville Parks.”

Creating parks after urban growth has already occurred is a costly solution to the need for open space, Jones argues. He points to the city of Atlanta, which is spending $4.8 billion to transform 22 miles of a former railroad corridor encircling downtown into a network of public parks and trails. Planning ahead of expansion, as 21st Century Parks is doing with The Parklands project, is a more economical approach. “Those cities that put park infrastructure in before they grow are going to be great and livable cities,” Jones says. “And those cities that don’t are going to look back in 50 years and say, ‘Oh crap, we blew it.’”

It’s not enough just to plan ahead for open space; those plans must take into account how future populations will expand. Planners are often biased toward city centers, Jones says, ignoring the outskirts. But Jones believes good planning takes into account both the core and the edges.

When Louisville merged its city and county governments into one entity in 2003, The Parklands was one of the last, large undeveloped areas in the newly combined metropolis. The Parklands was mostly farmland – some abandoned – and covered with young forests. The project is located about 17 miles east of downtown Louisville. Jones says that distance will give the park system time to develop as the city’s population increases and expands outward. As the surrounding neighborhoods become denser, new residents will find they have a world-class park already in place.

Public-Private Model

The creation of The Parklands project resulted from city and civic leaders recognizing a future need in their community. However, tight budgets and the impact of the Great Recession meant the grand vision could not be solely publicly funded. Local leaders formed 21st Century Parks in 2005 to act as a non profit organization tasked with building and operating the new park system. The organization modeled itself after the Central Park Conservancy, which has managed the iconic New York park since the 1970s. 

Through 80 separate real estate transactions over a seven-year period, 21st Century Parks purchased more than 3,700 acres of land – all without using government condemnation, Jones adds. The total capital budget for the project is $125 million. Of that, $38 million came from federal sources, $10 million from the state of Kentucky, $1.5 million from the city of Louisville and the remaining $75 million was privately raised.

The operational cost of The Parklands is between $2.5 million and $3 million annually, Jones says, but that is expected to rise to $4 million once it is fully opened. Those yearly expenses are all privately funded, which effectively means the city of Louisville is gaining a $125 million asset for a mere $1.5 million investment. “Which is a pretty good deal if you think about it,” Jones says.

Four main parks will comprise The Parklands of Floyds Fork, each taking its name from tributaries of its stream: Beckley Creek, Pope Lick, Turkey Run and Broad Run. A stretch piece of infrastructure called The Strand will connect the parks and fill in the bicycle network. Beckley Creek and Pope Lick are already operating, while Turkey Run is scheduled to open in mid-October and Broad Run and The Strand in spring 2016. “By this time next year, the whole thing will be open, functioning,” Jones says.

Once completed, the parks system will offer amenities for virtually every kind of recreation. A 19-mile bike path will connect to the Louisville Loop, a 100-mile network that will eventually encircle the entire city. Boat launches will line the Fork, creating a more than 20-mile-long paddling trail. There will be playgrounds, baseball fields, a soccer complex, a mountain bike park, space for a farmers market, and a great lawn suitable for outdoor concerts and Frisbee.

Although the parks will contain a number of adventurous features, they are ultimately geared toward the everyday visitor. “We are very focused on what we call the ’90 percent user,’” Jones says. Those are the people who use parks for sports, jogging or even just sitting on a bench. “Our opinion is the really great, well-used and well-loved city parks are ultimately about the 90 percent.”

Long-Term Outlook

With the initial construction nearly complete, 21st Century Parks is shifting its attention to how it can create a sustainable operation for generations to come. The organization kicked off its membership and fundraising campaign in 2013 to begin building an endowment that will create lasting stability for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. Already, it has raised more than $30 million for endowment funds through events such as the Kick-Off Luncheon with college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit.

21st Century Park’s financial model is a three-legged stool: endowment, non profit events and earned income. As The Parklands project nears the end of its major construction phase, the organization is working to turn users into paid members, who receive fee discounts, access to members-only events and other benefits from community “perk partners.” The goal is to eventually reach 10,000 annual memberships, according to Jones.

Last year, The Parklands of Floyds Fork welcomed nearly 1.2 million visitors. That will only grow as it gains traction in the community and more Louisville residents are drawn to its recreational opportunities. “We want this to be known as one of the great city parks in America,” Jones says.  

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