By James Natsis
I recognized the blue jackets a group of three youth and their elderly chaperone were wearing when I entered the IGA food market situated a short distance from the respective entrances of the Valhalla Golf Club and the Parklands of Floyds Fork on Shelbyville Road. In town from Las Vegas for the National FFA Conference last month, they were grabbing a snack after a visit to the Water Treatment Plant located in the nearby park.
“I could live in an area like this,” one of the young lads informed me during my brief conversation with the group.
It is a special area, indeed. One that has hosted a Ryder Cup and PGA Championship golf tournament. And one that captured the imagination of a father and son who followed a vision that is culminating into one of the most impressive and innovative park systems in the country.
The story begins at the turn of the millennium with Dan Jones, a former history-professor-turned-real-estate-and-business-manager. Jones worked on various projects with Louisville Metro Parks, among which was the development of the Thurman Hutchins Park on River Road with his dad, co-founder and former CEO of Humana, David A. Jones Sr.
Jones explained during a recent phone interview with Insider that he was inspired by a question during that period presented at a meeting with the Olmsted Parks Conservancy — “What could our generation do to produce an impact for the next 100 years like Frederick Law Olmsted did?” After much thought, it occurred to him that we should simply do again what he had done for his generation — acquire land outside of the city center and create a systematic park network.
Jones hired architect Dan Church to do a study of feasible land use on the edge of the city. The architect’s mini-plan revealed that the area around Floyds Fork was the most promising location to develop such a system of multiple parks. Jones shared his vision with his father, who believed they could do it.
According to Jones, they worked in collaboration with former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, who had already acquired five parcels of land in the area, and the city of Louisville that held three others. They eventually acquired 80 additional separate parcels to complete the acquisition.
In 2004, Jones made the decision to transit from being a volunteer in the endeavor to forming and heading a newly created nonprofit corporation to meet the task — 21st Century Parks. During this same period, he returned to academia as a student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies to “reeducate” himself for a period of two years.
“Let’s just say it was a combination of a sabbatical, mid-life crisis and a career change all at once,” Jones said jokingly.
Although Jones was reinventing his personal path for a brief period, the 21st Century Parks CEO was steadfast on one thing — “We were going to do the systemic park right,” he said. With the help of many supporters in the area, he and his father managed to raise a total of $125 million. They used $35 million for land acquisition, and the rest for design and construction. From 2006-12, the project moved at a rapid pace. “It was crazy,” Jones confided. “We would not only build it, but operate it as well!”
Jones believes that a park shapes a city. He explained that the geographic role of a park provides stability and quality of life to the area. “It makes a place livable,” he added. A park also shapes culture and spirit. People can take leisurely walks, explore nature, jog, throw a Frisbee or just simply hang around.
Jones is adamant about sculpting the “people” and the “nature” synergy of the park system. “One of our board members said, ‘We want to be the Disney of public parks,’” he explained.
In its own natural way, the systemic design offers participants a “Disneyesque” sweeping interaction with nature ranging from the more physical — children’s play and splash grounds, sports fields, canoeing and other such activities — to a more reflective, educative and meditative engagement with urban biodiversity, outdoor classrooms, wildlife observation, species tracking, the repletion of meadows and trees, and the understanding of sustainability. This is all built around an artery of trails that connects the system somewhat like a Disney theme park, “and is all only about 20 minutes from downtown Louisville,” Jones reminded us.
The magnitude and quality of the park system is making its mark outside of Kentucky as well. In 2010, the Foundation for Landscape Studies conferred the prestigious Place Maker Award to Daniel and David Jones of 21st Century Parks. The activities of the foundation are governed by a board of directors and implemented under the leadership of its president, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, a women Jones considers as his inspiration in the park world.
Jones explained that 21st Century Parks accepted the honor that year, along with the avant-garde High Line Linear Park built in Manhattan. “There were about 400-500 people or so at the ceremony in New York’s Central Park. Imagine the look on the faces of these wealthy New Yorkers when they learned that a Kentucky park was being honored alongside their New York park.”
The Parklands of Floyds Fork is the largest fully funded metropolitan parks project in the country. “There are other larger park projects, but they are not fully funded and are mainly incomplete,” said Jones.
The 3,700-acre system of parks extends from Shelbyville Road to Bardstown Road near Mt. Washington. The 19 miles of primary paved trail is linked to extensive secondary trails that branch out throughout the park. Although the system will not be fully completed until the spring 2016, the 2014 annual visitation already exceeded the 1 million mark.
Jones exudes passion and enthusiasm for the subject, along with a good sense of humor. But his vision for the future is very serious and one that other urban areas should heed.
“The 21st century will be an urban century. Urban areas should be setting aside land for the future. It is difficult to retrofit such park systems later,” said Jones. “We are doers. From vision to implementation, it took about 10 years. We spend most of our time with our heads in the sand working. We’re not brilliant, but we are experienced.”
James Natsis, Ph.D, is a professor in the department of modern foreign languages and international studies at West Virginia State University in Charleston, W.V. He also lives in Louisville. Natsis is a world traveler and former Peace Corps volunteer.