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Floyd’s Fork gushes through eastern Jefferson county, a kind of a grassland and forest boundary between Louisville and its suburbs. About a hundred acres around it is public park today. But nearby parcels of land have a patchwork of owners. Now, a nonprofit called 21st Century Parks wants to link these parcels to create a 20-mile stretch of continuous trail. Dan Jones heads 21st Century Parks, which has been acquiring land for the Floyd’s Fork project with private donations. But the question of who owns and who manages a park that will be public stirred up controversy. In his Main Street office, Jones explains what he believes happened. There’s a conservation easement on all of 21st Century’s parcels. Here’s what that means.

Northern entrance to Floyd’s Fork“One is that they will be protected in perpetuity so all the development rights are stripped away. Second is that it has to have public access. And third, all those properties had to participate in a master planning process. Because one of the things we emulate about the older parks in Louisville is we want to have great design.”

Design emulating the work, for example, of those older parks’ designer: Frederick Law Olmsted. But then 21st Century proposed the city place an easement on the lands it owns, too, forever, and put the nonprofit in charge of that easement. Jones says they also proposed the city contract with them to maintain these park lands–forever.

“We had also originally, and continue to offer, to try to raise the money to fund the maintenance of this. And people were uncomfortable with the permanent contract. And the city has said, well, maybe we’ll do a short term contract. And that’s fine with us. If one side isn’t happy, they can opt out.”

Jones says the nonprofit never asked to own the land; it was a question of long-term protection and maintenance. But public hackles stood on end at the idea that a private entity might gain control – forever –of certain aspects of public parks. So 21st Century admitted it made a mistake and backed down. And it’s still working with the city and other landowners in Floyd’s Fork to make the park a reality. While private involvement in public parks makes some people nervous, it may be a sign of the changing nature of cities.

“We want a ground to which people may easily go when the day’s work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing, and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets; where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them…”

Frederick Law Olmsted penned those words in 1870. And a little more than 20 years later, his design firm would be presenting Louisvillians a plan to develop city parks and link them with tree-lined parkways. But since then, Louisville has changed. The city is now the county and the city, and development pushes the boundaries even further.

“So here you have old Louisville, with an exemplary park system…”

That’s Peter Harnik. He directs the Center for City Park Excellence at the D.C.-based Trust for Public Land.

“…and then you have new Louisville, much larger, and with an amalgam of old fashioned urban and new suburban land sprawling and environments. And that’s why I think this conversation is taking place.”

Harnik says cities are pursuing lots of different kinds of partnerships these days when it comes to the funding and management of parks. That’s partly because city parks funding is usually the first to go when budgets are tight. But Harnik says we’re in a new phase, on a new frontier of urban park-making. As in Olmsted’s time, there’s a resurgent will to buy and preserve lands for parks. But unlike in those times, he says there’s a bit of public ambivalence about how to make it all happen. With money coming from corporations, nonprofits, cities, and private donations, questions of what parks should look like and who should run them are bound to come up.

Standing on a brand new canoe launch at the northern tip of Floyd’s Fork, mayoral advisor and overall coordinator of the “Louisville Loop” project, Mary Lou Northern, says that whatever the ownership and management arrangements, this next generation of Olmsted-like parks could shape the city for decades to come. But it’s uncharted territory.

“We’re kind of in the toddler stage, shall we say. We’re learning as we go. We’re looking at how other communities handle multiple jurisdictions and multiple areas of responsibility. So we’re plying a lot of new ground; other communities are looking at what we’re doing.”

21st Century Parks introduced its master plan for Floyd’s Fork this week at the first of several public meetings. The plan is still on the drafting board. But a few highlights include adding hundreds of acres of forest, grasslands, and wetlands….expanding farm land for sustainable agriculture….and connecting miles of trails for biking, walking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.

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