Louisville’s Olmsted Parkways

Eastern Parkway near Louisville's Highlands neighborhood
Louisville's Eastern Parkway is one of the six Olmsted Parkways that serve as the city's "ribbons of green," connecting to its signature parks.

By John Swintosky
Landscape Architect

Many of us know the original parkway names:  Eastern, Southern, Algonquin, Southwestern, Northwestern, and Cherokee.  Quite a number of us drive them during our daily commutes.  Some of us even stroll their shaded avenues beneath the arching canopies of the old oaks and maples.

But how many know the history of these familiar corridors?

Louisville was a growing industrial city in the 1890s, and wished to reflect the values and culture of the better known and larger northeastern cities.  There were no significant parks in the city yet.  The leaders of the time believed this type of civic amenity was deserved by its citizens and would serve to better promote Louisville on the national stage.  To this end, the idea was generated for parks to the east, west, and south of the urban center.  Pursuit of a skilled and well-known park designer was the next step.

Creating large community parks on disparate sites that each displayed unique qualities of Louisville’s varied landscapes, and connecting them to the neighborhoods of Louisville with the “ribbons of green” that became the parkways (“ways to the park”), was the fascinating, visionary, and enduring concept brought about by the wisdom and will of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.  The three large original regional parks – Cherokee Park, Iroquois Park, and Shawnee Park – are iconic places in the minds and hearts of Louisvillians.  Their stories are better known and often retold.  The tree-lined parkways, however, have gone unrecognized as the important links in the overall system and the linear parks that they are.

The parkways are primarily used and observed to be arterial collectors of cross-town traffic.  With four paved lanes and relatively few traffic lights over their length, motorists speed through these routes and fail to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of the designed experience.  These corridors were intended to be so much more:  used by carriages, riders on horseback, bicycles, and pedestrians – each with their own way so that conflicts between users would be minimized.  With the advent of the automobile, other parkway uses have been reduced or eliminated.

Olmsted’s plans for ideal parkways called for land acquisition 250 feet wide.  In all his vast works, he rarely achieved this full build-out.  Louisville was no exception, but there is much more land to the parkways than most know.  Southern Parkway (on land purchased and laid out in the early 1890s as Grand Boulevard) is not just the asphalt between the curbs, but

A view of Southern Parkway heading towards Iroquois Park.

actually is 150 feet wide!  This encompasses the service/frontage roads to either side of the central four driving lanes, plus the row of trees immediately beyond each of the service drives.  The original design had three parallel rows of trees to either side of the central carriageway, and included a bridle path (sometimes called the “speedway”) on one side between trees and pedestrian walkways on each side outside the third row of trees.

Similarly, Eastern Parkway is 120 feet wide along most of its length, with the exception being the “median block” between Baxter Avenue and Barret Avenue which is only 100-105 feet wide.  Algonquin Parkway and Southwestern Parkway out to Shawnee Park are uniformly 120 feet wide.  Southwestern Parkway’s width reduces as it wraps around the east side of Shawnee Park, because the adjoining parkland is already green recreational space and there are only two paved driving lanes.  As Southwestern Parkway turns north along the sports fields (former site of Fontaine Ferry Park), it regains the sense of a parkway with the double row of trees on both sides but only two driving lanes instead of four.  Incredibly, its width varies from 100 feet at its narrowest around 39th Street to 130 feet at its widest around 42nd Street.

Despite all these gyrations and variations, the parkways seem to be just heavily used roadways through neighborhoods with deep front yards and rows of big old trees.


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