Louisville Waterfront Park

129 East River Road
Louisville, KY

Submitted by: Margaret Walker

55 acres of formerly abused land transformed into a nationally recognized, award-winning public park on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Louisville.

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Why It Works

The park, an oasis of green in an urban environment, is located in what was historically a heavily industrial area of sand and gravel operations, scrap yards, petroleum-asphalt terminals, abandoned rail beds, and an interstate highway that effectively cut off all public access to the river. Waterfront Park reconnected the city to the river, and the park has been adopted as a community gathering space. The centerpiece of the park is the 12-acre Great Lawn that gently slopes to the river. It is used for large concerts, pick-up football games, viewing fireworks, flying a kite, or just lazing away an afternoon watching the river.

The wharf is the permanent home of the historic Belle of Louisville steamboat, and it also accommodates transient boaters and visiting riverboats such as the Delta Queen and American Queen. The festival plaza has built-in utilities and water hook-ups, and hosts concerts, festivals, craft fairs, and other events. A 900-foot long Water Feature has pools that cascade down to the river, with water cannons that shoot from pool to pool and an entry fountain called Dancing Waters that kids (of all ages!) jump around in to get wet. Linear Park includes popular children’s play area, as well as picnic areas, tree groves, hills and meadows, and walking paths through the park and along the river.

What Makes Louisville Waterfront Park a Great Place?

Waterfront Park is easily accessed by bicycle, trolley, on foot, and by automobile. During park construction, access to the waterfront was improved by rerouting a heavily-used surface road so that it bounds rather than bisects the park; providing alternate routes into downtown to lessen automobile traffic in the area; and relocating an interstate on-ramp to open up the area under the expressway for the Great Lawn, allowing the park to connect to the city grid. The park was also designed to allow visual connections from downtown to the river that had never before existed.

The park is highly maintained, and it has its own maintenance crew on-site 365 days per year. The combination of constant activity and the daily presence of uniformed park personnel helps to impart a feeling of safety and security. Benches and trash cans are conveniently located throughout the park. Parking is available in several small, unobtrusive lots within the park, as well as on-street parking and a number of garages and surface lots in the downtown area around the park. Park users are of all ages, including families with children, office workers, and school groups, and seem to be well-balanced in terms of gender.

Waterfront Park on a Saturday afternoon is a microcosm of the Louisville community. The park is heavily used, averaging more than 1.25 million visitors per year for special events and everyday activities. A snapshot of a typical weekend afternoon would include hundreds of folks visiting a gardeners’ fair on the Entry Plaza and Great Lawn; a family reunion and several group picnics in Linear Park; a pickup soccer game on the Great Lawn; a group practicing tai chi on the Harbor Lawn; folks on benches, reading or watching barges go by on the river; passengers disembarking from the American Queen; walkers and joggers along riverfront paths; kids playing in Dancing Waters, the entry fountain to the Water Feature; folks renting bicycles and surreys on the Festival Plaza; vendors and event producers setting up for a Saturday night concert on the wharf; kite fliers on the Great Lawn; and a Children’s Play area packed with kids from all parts of the community.

Other days, you are likely to see a hot-rod car show on the wharf; hot air balloons on the Great Lawn; a beer garden on the Festival Plaza; 1,500 people walking their dogs for a Humane Society fund raiser; a charity walk for Breast Cancer; the registration and starting point for a triathlon; fireworks shot from a barge in the river; a field day hosted by a downtown elementary school; folks fishing from the wharf; school field trips; a volleyball tournament; people from downtown offices walking or running during their lunch breaks; and horse trams meandering along roads bounding the park.

One of the neatest things about this park is that it has been chosen by the community as the central place where people want to be, whether for a college pep rally, health walk, volleyball tournament, a game of bocce ball, or just as a quiet place to read the newspaper. There are no strangers as kids play together in the fountain and play area, and people walking or running in the park smile and nod as they encounter others along the way. The park is often referred to as the "new front door" to the community, and it seems to be the place where everyone starts when they want to show off Louisville to visiting friends or relatives.

History & Background

The 30-acre second phase of Waterfront Park is currently under construction. A new Adventure Playground, with play equipment designed to reflect Louisville’s river heritage, including a barge, tugboat, steamboat, sandbars and docks, and a huge waterplay area, is destined to be a regional draw. It will open in July 2003. In spring 2004, an amphitheater, riverfront promenade, boat docks, and picnic areas will be completed. The rest of Phase II will include an abandoned railroad bridge transformed into a pedestrian walkway over the Ohio River; a rowing center for the University of Louisville Women’s Rowing team; and additional tree groves, meadows, picnic areas and walking paths.

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