Covering 98 square miles of land, Louisville, Kentucky’s southwestern quadrant is rich in natural, historic and cultural resources. This diverse area is primed for a greenway system that connects neighborhoods, schools, parks, workplaces and retail areas via a network of paved paths, bikeways and soft-surface trails. This same region conversely hosts a population with above-average rates for diabetes, childhood obesity and other preventable diseases. Ready to develop a master plan that not only interconnects this quadrant, but also encourages surrounding communities to improve their overall health and well-being, Louisville Metro Parks solicited the services of GS&P.
“The project was actually funded through a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant aimed at reducing obesity through healthier lifestyle choices,” says Jon Henney, GS&P senior landscape architect and principal-in-charge on the project. “The funding was allocated to Louisville Metro Parks with the idea that a multi-use trail system would help provide a healthier transportation alternative to driving your car, and that designing and constructing a trail system would ultimately help toward the issue of obesity.
“The Southwest Greenways Master Plan is the first phase of what we hope will be a county-wide planning initiative, because beyond the Louisville Loop—which is a 100-mile, multi-use trail system that encircles the city—it was really important to start looking at how to get the community to the Loop.”
Before embarking on the master plan process, overarching community goals were identified. These included achieving CDC objectives, such as providing alternative transportation choices, offering health and fitness opportunities, connecting the community and helping protect and preserve area resources. Another main goal called for the new greenway system to contribute to the future success of the Louisville Loop by providing connectivity through a network of feeder paths and trails.
“Given the scope of the project and the wide variety of issues we were going to be addressing, we decided that we needed to put together a pretty diverse team of consultants to help us tackle this,” explains Henney. “While GS&P was the prime consultant, we also brought in ecologists, biologists, archeologists and trail design specialists.”
Identifying User Groups and Resources
Before developing a design solution, one of GS&P’s initial tasks was to identify and define all of the potential users of the proposed greenway network. This process included understanding the unique needs of each user group, and what those needs translated into when it came to physical facilities.
Also critical to informing the master plan process, an extensive inventory and analysis of environmental, historical, archeological and cultural resources was conducted. The team’s effort included reviewing existing studies that related to land use, natural resources and the Louisville Loop; mapping land use conditions and resources; and completing a detailed bike and pedestrian inventory.
“We had to approach most of our research in a two-stage process,” reflects Henney. “We initially took a broad look at the research materials that were already out there in order to identify where some of the known resources were. Once we had a better sense of where the greenway network was going to go, we took a closer look at the locations to make sure we weren’t adversely impacting some of those resources, and that we were providing the necessary links to get people to them.”
Through the extensive inventory and analysis, 260 archeological sites representing human occupation were identified. Many of these sites were located close to creeks, marshes and floodplains that support an abundance of wildlife, fish, shellfish and foliage.
“When it came to identifying archeological resources, we took more of a ‘protect and preserve’ approach,” says Henney. “We wanted to be able to pinpoint these resources and make sure that we weren’t leading people to sensitive areas, such as a former homestead or Native American settlement.
“The ecological inventory and analysis explored the same types of things but from an ecological perspective. We looked at the whole gamut of ecological resources that was out there—everything from water bodies to vegetation—and determined if some areas were more sensitive than others and needed to be protected.”
One of the many natural resources identified in this phase of the project was an area historically known as the Wet Woods. Formerly home to Jefferson County’s salt-making industry, this strip of stream channels and drainage ditches was also reported to have harbored moonshiners and outlaws. Today, remnants of the Wet Woods are scattered among newer workplaces, reinforcing the importance for economic development that also respects and preserves the natural area.
“Once we understood what some of the resources were, it helped us outline opportunities for interpretation,” says Henney. “If you were on a trail there could be a marker that says you’re standing within an area once known as the Wet Woods, and that marker would explain why that area was significant to the community.”
Another site poised for connection to the proposed greenway system also tells a story about southwest Louisville’s history. Overlooking the scenic Ohio River, the historic Farnsley-Moremen House is the centerpiece of the 300-acre Farnsley-Moremen Landing. Built in 1837 and listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, the nineteenth-century river plantation stands as testament to the important role agriculture played along the Ohio river in the development of the United States.
“Connecting to this historic house and landing is a wonderful way to celebrate the area’s history,” says Henney. “The master plan provides a number of alternatives for accessing the site.
“We went through this comprehensive inventory and analysis process to understand exactly what types of resources were out there, and how they could either be protected or utilized. Once we had clearly identified those resources, we looked closely at what connections needed to be made, which involved opening up a dialog with the public.”
Engaging the Public
To ensure user feedback at critical milestones of the master plan, the GS&P team implemented an extensive public engagement effort. Working with area residents and the public at large to understand what they needed from the corridor, the process was also used to educate the community about greenway systems in general, property rights, safety and protection of resources. The wide-ranging public involvement strategy included a series of neighborhood meetings in three locations across the study area; a survey of 8,000 residents to gauge community interest; and a series of focus meetings to capture specific user group needs. User groups included walkers/runners, equestrians, canoers/kayakers and mountain bikers.
“We conducted our public meetings within three distinct subdistricts to make sure that we were hearing the unique perspectives of residents and stakeholders in those areas,” says Henney. “In one district there’s the Jefferson Memorial Forest, which is one of the largest urban forests in the country, and there are communities that surround it. So that had its own unique set of characteristics and perspectives. Another planning area was the Dixie Highway Corridor, which is probably the most developed of the three subdistricts. That particular corridor has some of your traditional suburban sprawl and commercial development along it, but then there are a number of neighborhoods that developed along the corridor. The third area was essentially the remaining piece, which traverses from a very rural area—similar to what’s around the Memorial Forest—up to a lot of older urban neighborhoods.
“In each of those areas we had different neighborhoods and different issues that the residents would bring to the discussion in terms of what they wanted to get out of a greenway system. They told us what the important connections were from their perspective, whether it was connecting from one neighborhood to another, from a neighborhood to a park, or a developed area to a neighborhood. They were also able to help us with some of the cultural resources in terms of locations. For instance, a particular neighborhood might utilize a certain location as a gathering place for Fourth of July picnics. That wouldn’t be a piece of information we would readily know, so what we learned from the public was a personal experience level of information.”
With the inventory and analysis phase of the project complete, the client and design team reviewed the information—along with the feedback garnered during the public engagement process—and developed an alternatives map for potential greenway corridors. These alternatives were not only developed to meet the goals and objectives of the master plan, but also to remain compatible with the topographic conditions present along each route.
“Once we got through the majority of the public process, the next step was developing a series of alternatives where we mapped out a number of potential networks,” explains Henney. “We then went back to the public and told them that, based on our experience and what we’ve heard from you, here are different alternatives to accomplish this.
“It’s one thing to talk about a greenway system in theory, but the rubber really meets the road when you’re starting to show somebody whether there’s going to be a publically accessible path running behind their backyard. The alternatives process gave us a number of choices and the most appropriate was selected, and that led to the final version of the master plan.”
A socioeconomic connector proposing multiple health and fitness opportunities, the final master plan lays out a comprehensive greenway system consisting of more than 14 miles of trails and pathways that connect 40 schools and colleges, 16 neighborhoods, 17 parks and dozens of area retail and employment centers.
“When all is said and done, it’s about connecting people,” says Henney. “Louisville is a community of neighborhoods, which can be both a blessing and a curse. I grew up in Louisville, and my experience was that people tended not to venture far from their own neighborhoods, and didn’t take the opportunity to learn about the people and experiences in other segments of the community.
“In addition to encouraging a healthier lifestyle, I believe the Southwest Greenways trail system will help break down those regional barriers and give people a whole new reason to understand and respect what happens in other parts of their community.”