As with many urban centers across the country, Louisville is a city faced with the growing crisis of abandoned lots and blighted neighborhoods that often pose a risk to public health, safety and well-being. With the goal of reusing and revitalizing target areas in Louisville’s post-industrial Portland, Shawnee and Russell neighborhoods, Louisville Metro’s Vacant & Public Property Administration developed the Rsquared 40212 program. This comprehensive umbrella initiative aims to employ sustainable methods to reduce blight and vacancy in the heart of West End Louisville. GS&P’s team of landscape architects and urban planners was solicited by the client to develop an integrated community-input process.
In four key planning stages: education, engagement, empowerment and implementation, the GS&P team launched what became a yearlong effort to identify vacant lots for reuse, bring community leaders and residents together to develop creative ideas and solutions, and work with local nonprofits and partner organizations to implement a tangible plan of action.
Education and Engagement
GS&P’s landscape architecture team began the education phase of the project with an on-foot survey of 614 vacant lots—approximately 136 acres—as well as an exhaustive analysis of corridors and gateways into the 40212 ZIP code study area.
“A great deal of the education element was simply learning about the neighborhoods,” explains landscape architect Louis Johnson. “It essentially involved our landscape architecture team and the City learning about the community’s needs.”
After completing the survey and analysis, the GS&P team developed a series of metrics for the vacant properties. From there, they established a baseline from which to evaluate potential reuse and redevelopment strategies. The starting point comprised five key reuse metrics that were mapped by the team and then taken to the community to develop.
The focus of our first public visioning session was five broad themes—connect, grow, live, play and shop,” says Johnson. “Based on those criteria, we asked members of the community what they would like to see accomplished on the vacant lots. During that first meeting, each group was tasked with creating a collage based on hundreds of images that we provided, and each collection reflected one of the five reuse themes. At the end of the brainstorming session, there were more than 20 incredible collages that represented individual concepts for the underutilized properties. That input laid the foundation for the vacant-lot reuse strategies.”
In addition to the visioning session, the in-depth community engagement included door-to-door informational walks, a fieldtrip to vacant lots to discuss design opportunities on-site, and two large-scale chalkboards installed on vacant properties designed to collect around-the-clock input from the community while the team prepared to develop the concepts for vacant-lot reuse.
“I was expecting a more limited set of responses like ‘Clean it up,’ or ‘Remove that eyesore,’” says senior landscape architect Jon Henney. “So I was overwhelmed at the wealth of ideas that came pouring out. There was an amazing number of creative solutions for how we could utilize these properties. It was truly inspiring to see the broad scale of different solutions the community was able to generate.”
Empowerment and Implementation
Throughout the empowerment process, the GS&P team worked in tandem with the City to engender community involvement in the implementation of ideas that were born out of the planning process. A number of citizen-based groups submitted proposals to the City for executing one or more of the reuse concepts. This community participation led to a “How To” workshop for these groups that outlined what it takes to be successful when it comes to the often complex art of implementation.
“Possessing good leadership qualities, understanding budgets and construction methods, using a volunteer labor workforce versus experts to help execute implementation, and taking on liability insurance were all key elements covered in the workshop,” notes Henney. “Another benefit of the ‘How-To’ session was that it allowed us to take each group through a quick design development exercise to further vet projects and their scope so we could provide sufficient information to the City when it came to committing the vacant lot, as well as funding for implementation.”
Following the workshop, the City and GS&P team continued to work with a handful of groups, vetting concepts and strategies for their feasibility given the budget and time lines associated with grant dollars. West Louisville-based nonprofit Louisville Grows was ultimately selected to implement a project across three vacant lots. The concept, Produce Park, was a direct result of collaborative sessions between the GS&P team and students from the University of Kentucky, who had been involved in developing concepts for earlier vacant properties. Johnson explains:
“We worked closely with the University of Kentucky and let the students run with the design. Part of that was because they had the time, and part of it was because we are really passionate about landscape architecture and the education of landscape architects. The students sent us sketches and ideas, and we’d give them feedback and guidance. The final concept was developed by the students and their professor. It includes two main components—an edible forest garden, and a gathering place that can house community-based events, markets, exhibits and more.”
Before breaking ground in early 2016, Rsquared launched Produce Park’s footprint by installing temporary cedar posts to indicate where the edible forest garden would be planted. Additionally, a billboard was erected to announce the project and depict a visual of its ultimate outcome. And while Louisville Grows was engaged to implement the design concept and maintain the park, members of the community were highly encouraged to stay involved.
“Louisville Grows runs the operations,” explains Johnson, “but community volunteers were involved when they planted all the trees on the site. They really want to get people in the community tied to the project, so they’re going to be running educational workshops on-site.”
Planning with Action
Recipient of the 2016 Honor Award in Planning and Analysis from the Kentucky chapter of ASLA, as well as a special merit award for “Outstanding Project/Program/Tool” from the Kentucky Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA-KY), Rsquared 40212 represents a major paradigm shift from the silos of planning and design, and epitomizes the synchronization of planning with action.
“This is one of those projects where you get excited,” says Henney. “The outcome exceeded whatever expectations the client had in terms of what the end product might look like. I think in many ways we’ve helped them get even more excited about what the future holds, and how these types of projects can really effect change within the communities. That contributes enormously to further advancing their mission as an organization.”
With Produce Park scheduled to open in the summer of 2016, the GS&P team believes the excitement within the community will help create future “ambassadors,” not only for this project, but for future efforts.
“A lot of people in this neighborhood are going to tell their fellow neighbors that this is something that can really make a difference,” says Henney. “It’s not just lip service. There are real opportunities to have impactful change on these areas where sites are being implemented.”
Johnson agrees: “We went from creating an entire planning document, running a detailed public design input process, and implementing a project in under a year. That success aligns with the generosity of the people working with us. For the community to be able to see something they had direct input into come to fruition and be such a high-quality product—that is truly invaluable.”