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Louisville's Parks Score Remains Among The Worst In The U.S.

Mayor Greg Fischer at the groundbreaking ceremony for renovations at Tyler Park.
Mayor Greg Fischer at the groundbreaking ceremony for renovations at Tyler Park.

Louisville is home to one of four park systems in the country designed by the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted. It’s also home to approximately 120 city parks, Jefferson Memorial Forest and the Parklands of Floyds Fork.

But Louisville still ranked among the worst in the country for its parks, according to Wednesday's 2019 report from the Trust for Public Land — a nonprofit founded in 1972 with the mission to create parks and protect lands for people.

This year the Trust for Public Land ranked Louisville 81 out of the 100 largest cities in the U.S., pushing it three spots higher in the ranking over last year, several spots higher than the 2017 rank of 96.

Ali Hiple with the Trust For Public Land said Louisville scored well for its large parks and amenities like splash pads and restrooms, but lost points for park access.

Only 38 percent of Louisville residents live within a 10-minute walk to a park. That's low compared to the national median which is 69 percent.

Some residents have complained in recent years that Louisville’s score may be lower than other cities because of the city/county merger, which incorporates suburban and rural areas with less access to parks.

But Hiple said other consolidated cities have scores that are both worse and better than Louisville. For example, Charlotte, North Carolina, ranked 96 while Honolulu, Hawaii, ranked 47.

“So it sort of depends on the city and the area,” Hiple said. “The other thing for all of those places is that they are much more spread out, less dense areas and not as walkable and not as concentrated as some other cities.”

Metro Parks and Recreation Department Spokesman Jon Reiter said Louisville’s sprawl likely contributed to the city’s lower access score. And that’s something that isn't likely to change anytime soon without additional capital investment, he said.

“In order for us to increase access we may need to do land acquisition,” Reiter said. “We’re just not able to do that right now.”

Louisville also scored poorly for park investment. The city spends only $61 per resident while the national average is $90, Hiple said.

Investment is a problem for the city, said Olmsted Conservancy President Layla George.

Private groups and nonprofits including the Olmsted Conservancy, 21st Century Parks and the Louisville Waterfront Development Corporation have helped preserve and grow Louisville’s park system, but it can’t make up for a lack of investment from the city, she said.

“I mean in terms of government spending it’s very low,” George said.

In terms of general fund dollars spent on parks and recreation, the budget has floated between $17 and $19 million over the last decade. This year the Mayor’s Office has recommended a budget of more than $18.3 million.

George said the park score fails to capture the quality of Louisville’s parks. Not only did Louisville manage to have Olmsted design its park system, Louisville has managed to maintain that system for over a century, she said.

“I mean that was decades and decades of paying for pavilions and bridges and trees and landscape fees and that the city leaders continued to invest in these parks, I find that absolutely remarkable,” George said.

Hiple, with the Trust for Public Land, said the scores aren’t designed to capture nuance because there’s no objective way to measure what makes a park great. Some people value tennis and basketball courts, while others desire babbling brooks and scenic beauty.

“The way that we talk about park scores is it should be a conversation starter. It should be a point to start thinking about your park system and what you do well and what you can improve,” she said.

Washington D.C. scored number one in this year’s ranking followed by St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.