by Susan Rademacher
Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy

From Great Parks/Great Cities: Denver, 1998, a publication on an Urban Parks Institute regional workshop.

Since 1991, Susan Rademacher has led the Louisville Olmsted Parks Conservancy in its effort to assist the Parks Department in renewing Louisville’s historic park system. She also serves as Director of the Planning and Design Division of the Metropolitan Parks Department, and is responsible for project review and approval for the entire Olmsted system as well as master planning and project development. Ms. Rademacher was the Editor in Chief of Landscape Architecture and Garden Design magazines for five years.

A hundred years ago, the city leadership in Louisville, Kentucky had the foresight to realize that they wanted the city to grow around a structure of parks and parkways. And they had the intelligence to bring in the foremost landscape designer of the day, Frederick Law Olmsted, to articulate their vision. Olmsted and his successors left us with a legacy of 16 parks and 5 parkways — about 2,000 acres and 15 miles of parkways — around which our whole city-county park system is built. The city’s 16 Olmsted parks provide a brilliant design that brings people into contact with nature and with each other.

However, by the 1970’s, Louisville’s parks had a problem. The parks were mostly empty. The parks department had radically lost ground in the 1940s, when the parks commission was dissolved and its responsibilities were divided up among various city agencies. Since then there had been a complete loss of institutional memory about what these Olmsted landscapes were designed to do, how to manage them, and how to provide programs that would encourage public use.

In 1986, the parks department wrote a grant which helped to fund the creation of the Louisville Friends of Olmsted Parks. Their first task was to inventory the 180 properties that had been developed by the Olmsted firm over a period of almost 50 years. At the same time they began to see that the parks were truly becoming fragmented, that development was extremely piecemeal, and that the power of the park landscape was being lost, in terms of community opportunities.

This led the Louisville Friends of Olmsted Parks to recommend to the mayor that he create some other body to get the funds and needed expertise. The Friends basically wanted to stay low-key and focus on public awareness. So the mayor, who was committed to saving the parks, formed a committee to explore models for a new organization. After looking carefully at the situation, city officials realized that they did not have the knowledge with which to approach the restoration of their parks, which had been so carefully conceived by Olmsted. They had the intention, they had the desire, but they didn’t have the knowledge. It took about two years, but a plan was developed to form the Olmsted Parks Conservancy in Louisville; including one million dollars in seed money from the city over the first three or four years of start-up.

The Conservancy Model, and How it Works

The specific responsibilities of the conservancy were worked out by the first Conservancy board, including how the money would be managed, where we would be housed, etc. These responsibilities include:

  • Ongoing planning, including developing recommendations for a master plan that was produced in 1994;
  • Implementing the plan with phased capital projects, including new ballfields and courts, parking, stadium, and paths;
  • overseeing and reviewing projects in all Olmsted parks;
  • Landscaping and restoration using volunteers, including forest, wetland and prairie restoration, and extensive re-planting of parkways;
  • Raising private funds to supplement public funds in capital projects, seeking public match;
  • Programs such as volunteer greeters and guides, walking tours and lectures; and
  • Design — the conservancy sometimes teamed up with consultants and parks department — creating a design pattern book of elements common to all parks, as well as coordinated signage program.

The conservancy is not involved in maintenance, which is the responsibility of the parks and recreation department. The partnership has worked out a formula for who raises money for what: since city funding is limited, the parks department funds basics like infrastructure and operations; the conservancy focuses on improving the park experience, providing a greater variety of recreation and landscapes, improving character, and experimental projects such as wetlands restoration.

The city does not contribute funds to conservancy operations. Instead, each year the park department puts in a budget request listing the conservancy’s contribution, the aldermen decide how much to appropriate to each project. When bills come in, the city pays its share, and bills the conservancy for the balance.

Conservancy staff is made up of an executive director, a full-time administrative accounting assistant, a development director, a public programs director, and a part time landscape architect. The parks department staff acts as an adjunct staff, especially in planning and design. We also have approximately 50 regular volunteers.

One of the more unusual aspects of the relationship is my position. I serve jointly as Executive Director of the nonprofit Conservancy and also as the Assistant Parks Director, reporting daily to the Parks Director. The salary for this position is split by the Conservancy and Parks Department (the Conservancy reimburses Parks). Both the mayor and parks director had to approve my hiring. This arrangement helps give me credibility as a city employee. It also cements the partnership between Parks and the Conservancy.

Turning the Parks Around

In 1990 we began the transformation from neglected parks to well- maintained and well-used parks. First we set up a board, most of whom were tapped by the mayor for their fund-raising expertise, not because of their interest in parks. It was a diverse board — made up of 30 people from very, very different walks of life thrown together on this new project. We have neighborhood representatives and professionals with specific expertise such as architecture, advertising and historic preservation. Ex-officio members include the Director of Public Works, the Director of Parks, the Parks Advisory Board, the Friends of Olmsted Parks, and representatives from the mayor’s office.

The board has several basic activities including overseeing the planning process, providing planning and design expertise, raising funds, implementing plans, ensuring community representation, and preserving Olmsted’s legacy.

Much of our capital income comes from foundations, corporations and individuals. Half of our operating income comes from interest income on a $1.5 million endowment, and construction capital dollars which are invested. Our endowment income is from gifts, and 23% of all private funds raised for capital projects deposited to the endowment.

The Master Plan

We quickly realized that a key contribution we could make would be the development of a master plan for the entire Olmsted Park System. We started with a belief in the native intelligence of this community, and we invited the public to dream about what these parks could be, and what they remembered the parks being in the past. Typically, changes that come about in parks are politically motivated to get a little bang in the short term for the next election. And our parks were suffering from that approach. So when we invited the community to dream large, we also changed the expectations of the public sector.

In this way, we began to build the idea of one park system, one city, and promoted our parks as a way of connecting us all with democratic space and recreational opportunities, locally and regionally. And we made a radical shift in treating our historic landscape in terms of its natural systems, making sure that we restored it as a healthy landscape first and foremost, so that then we could deal with the restoration of the cultural heritage and the improvement of the spaces for current uses.

Our master planning team included ecological and historical landscape architects, engineers, historians, parks department maintenance staff, park users, and city council members. The many points of view helped to ensure that the product would be useful — not a plan that would sit on a shelf. We then invited the public, including people the alderman had suggested would make important contributions, to the first public organizational meeting. Every person who had written a letter to the editor or called in to complain about a park-related issue was invited. Of this group we eventually found the people who were committed enough to be on the new stewardship councils. The councils met as needed; consulting with the planning team whenever they needed input.

Our master plan, which took three years to produce, was a blending of ecological restoration and historic preservation which I consider to be a real accomplishment. It was formally adopted by the board of aldermen as the guide for all improvements in the parks and parkways, and for management of the Olmsted parks and parkways. That was a real achievement, because it called for a renewal of the parks department, and community ownership. The parks department was totally reorganized and renewed. We’ve created a value for sustainable parks, and an appreciation and growth of partnerships for parks. Park use is now thriving, adding considerably to the credibility of conservancy. The adoption of Olmsted values has served as a model for expansion over the entire park system. I consider it a real achievement that new designs for parks in new housing developments around Louisville incorporate not only linkages to, but the design sensitivities of, the Olmsted system.

The conservancy model is working well for us in Louisville. We have a day-to-day operating relationship with the parks department — since I am also the Assistant Parks Director, every project is done through the parks department, and a team of department staff usually gets involved in project management. In this way there are no surprises.

To protect our close working relationship, the conservancy abstains from any advocacy. That role is played by the Friends of Olmsted Parks, which is independent politically, outside the government process and a very vocal advocate. The conservancy works from the inside, at different pressure points.

Lastly, I want to say that I think its critical to go out and listen, because the politicians, and the park users, and the park neighbors know what is wrong with the parks. You don’t have to do a lot of searching to find out what needs to be addressed. They don’t always know the difference between a symptom and a cause, and they don’t always understand what the cure could be. That’s our job. To work with them from the beginning, and let them know that there are alternatives.

A Conservancy Rebuilds and Revitalizes Urban Parkland was last modified: March 7th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces