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Louisville officials make plans to address park inequity with more than just money

A few tents are set up in Shawnee Park on a sunny day. The sky is blue with fluffy white clouds.
Ryan Van Velzer
After investing $200,000 in a study of the parks system, the Parks Alliance of Louisville created an action plan with the goal of making a more equitable park system.

Louisville is home to 120 different parks spanning the city. Among the most well-known are the spaces that are part of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy. The conversancy advocates for the upkeep of the parks in its system, including partnerships with the city and monetary support.

The majority of parks in Louisville received less than $500,000 in capital investments per park over the past 20 years, with 30 parks receiving no funding investments, according to city data. This is below the average investments made in cities of similar sizes.

It means some residents don't have any parks near their homes, and others live near parks that haven’t been maintained.

These inequities, in part, led the Louisville Metro Council to pass a resolution allocating $200,000 for the nonprofit Parks Alliance of Louisville to conduct a “parks for all” study.

Parks Alliance of Louisville CEO Brooke Pardue said one of the organization's goals is to help the city reach the “gold standard” of every resident being a 10-minute walk away from a park or greenspace.

And the issue, according to Pardue, isn’t a lack of available space.

“We have a great number of parks, we have lots of acreage in Louisville. The issue has been we have not been investing in them appropriately or equitably,” she said.

With the results of the study, the Parks Alliance of Louisville created an action plan to make a more equitable park system.

Metro Council approved $100,000 to implement the action plan. Additionally, it allocated $24,000 towards the executive search for a permanent Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation director. The position has been vacant since Dec. 2021.

“We need to make sure that all parks, that the needs are addressed and not just some,” said District 14 Council Member Cindi Fowler, a Democrat.

She said her district, which is in the southwestern part of the city, is one area that has seen lower investment. Fowler, who was formerly the chair of Metro Council’s Parks and Sustainability Committee, said her district has a park, but some infrastructure hasn’t been kept up.

“It’s discouraging for the people of my district when they went to Sun Valley and couldn’t play tennis,” Fowler said. “Although they had tennis courts, they couldn’t use them.”

Fowler said it’s a disadvantage for residents to see what needs to be done to make a park more engaging, but never see real investment.

“We have complained for years about the lack of equity within our park system,” Fowler said. “We all have put in lots of money from our NDF [neighborhood development funding] and CIF [capital infrastructure funding] to address needs within our parks, but it was just a drop in the bucket for what needed to be done,” Fowler said.

Fowler said without the Parks Alliance of Louisville’s help, many underinvested in parks would still be waiting for funding.

Recently, the Parks Alliance helped launch a project to build a new park in the California neighborhood. It’s called Alberta Jones Park, named after the local civil rights activist and attorney.

Pardue said she prioritizes neighborhood input. For example with Alberta Jones Park, not only was the name of the park voted on by people who live in the area, but also the structures and amenities in the park were chosen by the neighborhood.

“If you are not doing things in the community, if you are not soliciting the advice of the community and are making decisions in some kind of vacuum…then it turns into this attitude of a 'gift' to the community,” Pardue said.

When the nonprofit group planned to builda skate space at Breslin Park, they reached out to Louisville skateboarders. When they were looking at updating greenspaces in South Louisville, which has a large immigrant population, they heard about the lack of soccer fields.

Pardue said using residential input creates an important sense of ownership for the people using the parks daily.

“When you do it with the community telling you what they need and deserve…then that becomes their park. As it should be, it is their park."

Recently, the Parks Alliance worked with the Muhammad Ali Center’s “Reimagine” program to hear from young people.

Senior manager of programming & community engagement at the Ali Center Ashleigh Hazley said they sought input from people who would use the parks because they are the experts.

“There are systemic barriers to being in a position to make important decisions on how parks get funded,” Hazley said. “We want to make sure that the voice of change happens from the people that demand and require the change.”

In discussions with students, Hazley said they pointed out how there can’t be a blanket approach to upgrading or creating new parks.

“We have a student in our MACCS program who talked to me, once and he said ‘You know everyone says communities need xyz, but in my community, I feel that narrative is very different and it’s gonna be very unique to what we need, what we want, how we experience life with one another,’” Hazley said

People working on this issue say addressing park equity in Louisville requires more than just monetary investment. It also needs further investment in the opinions and expressed needs of residents.

Pardue said problems are often approached as silos, whether that be public safety, environmental equity, health equity and education attainment gap, when they are actually all related to each other.

“If we are building and ensuring that all of our parks are quality parks, that have the amenities the community wants in that park or providing the resources at the community centers that that specific community needs then we are addressing mental health, physical health, emotional health,” Pardue said.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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