Kentucky's Louisville Loop
Trail of the Month: February 2018
“It’s pretty exciting to think of a continuous loop that traverses the entire city."
Louisvillians officially named the Louisville Loop in 2005, but you could argue that trails run in this city’s lifeblood. In the 1890s, pre-eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. envisioned large community parks connected to the neighborhoods of Louisville via “ribbons of green.” His tree-lined parkways still exist today and will serve as spokes to the 100-miles-plus Loop, once complete.
“Olmsted was all about providing an experience for people in the community that was uplifting, restful, restorative and recreative,” explained John A. Swintosky, senior landscape architect with Louisville Metro Division of Transportation. Swintosky, who was formerly on Louisville Parks & Recreation Department staff when he became a Louisville Loop project manager, has been working alongside transportation planner Milana Boz on the project for a long time; he jokingly added that they’ve “been in it since dirt.”
The planned Loop will take trail users through five parts of Jefferson County, giving them a taste of each section’s unique heritage, character and physiographic attributes. As of recently, all five segments have been planned out, with nearly 50 miles completed and various sections in design or construction.
From Concept to Case Study
From the start, the city has considered the Loop an essential part of Louisville’s transformation into one of the nation’s most livable cities. The Loop’s estimated impact on the city’s economic growth, connectivity and health are just a few reasons Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) reached out to the Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation Department (Metro Parks) about the project in 2017.
RTC now points to the Loop as a model of how communities are using active-transportation infrastructure development to address economic, transportation and health goals—with the project serving as a case study in its “Trails Transform America” campaign to ensure trails and walking and biking networks are included in federal infrastructure legislation.
Louisville officials are particularly encouraged by national studies showing the rise of property values close to trails, including the Little Miami Scenic Trail in nearby Cincinnati. The finished Loop will be within: 1 mile of 66 percent of residents, 0.5 mile of 94 percent of bus routes and 1 mile of 42 percent of public schools. It also connects to some of the city’s largest employment centers. In addition to creating an estimated 969 jobs, the Loop is expected to attract new business to the region and inspire more outdoor tourism. In 2017 alone, the Parklands of Floyds Fork, through which the Loop runs, saw more than 3 million visits.
“Louisville is such a great example for the country because it’s not a New York City or San Francisco—it’s Middle America,” stated Leeann Sinpatanasakul, RTC’s advocacy manager. “If Louisville can build a 100-mile trail system, anyone can.”
Over the River and Through the Woods
Metro Parks designed each of the Loop’s five sections—Ohio River Valley, the Knobs, Shale Lowlands, Limestone Belt and Floyds Fork—to display their distinct charms, while a cohesive wayfinding and interpretive signage system funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2010 ensures visual consistency throughout the network.
“It’s pretty exciting to think of a continuous loop that traverses the entire city and county,” said Erika Nelson, Metro Parks community relations administrator.
Mile 0 kicks off the Loop’s largest continuous section: the 25-mile Ohio River Valley segment. Heading west from the Big Four Bridge, visitors can soak up all that the downtown Riverwalk Trail has to offer, from public art installations at Waterfront Park to the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, and Olmsted’s Shawnee and Chickasaw Parks.
The off-road Levee Trail picks up from the Riverwalk, providing users with a diverse mix of vistas, as lifetime Louisville resident and Louisville Bicycle Club President Andy Murphy can attest. Every Thursday, he leads around 50 riders down this segment and back.
“On that Thursday morning ride, we get to see downtown, then we see the old architecture of houses in the West End, and then we get out to the more industrial part of the city, Riverport, and 5-acre tracts where people have horses. It’s really a neat little part of the world,” Murphy said.
Heading east from the river, the Knobs and Shale Lowlands will no doubt become a haven for adventurous hikers, geologists and nature enthusiasts. These segments will traverse one of the county’s most geographically diverse regions, featuring farmland, ancient lake beds and the 6,600-acre Jefferson Memorial Forest. The developing Limestone Belt South region boasts sights of limestone bedrock, the nearly 40-foot Fairmount Falls and McNeely Lake Park, a future focal point of the Loop.
Parklands of Floyds Fork
Undoubtedly the biggest development over the last decade has been the completion of the Parklands of Floyds Fork segment. This well-loved, 19-mile, off-road portion of the Loop follows the nearly 4,000-acre Parklands along its north-south corridor and lives up to its name, encompassing no fewer than four parks. From Broad Run Park in the south (near mile 55 of the Loop’s planned 111 miles) all the way up to Beckley Creek Park (mile 74), the Parklands segment provides adventurers with everything from canoeing and kayaking along Floyds Fork to mountain biking at Turkey Run Park’s Silo Center Bike Park.
At Trestle Point in Pope Lick Park, historians and rail enthusiasts will appreciate that the Loop passes directly under a late 1880s train trestle, where local lore alleges that a “Pope Lick Monster” resides. At the Strand, nature lovers can observe wildlife at Catfish Bend, while archaeology buffs can search for fossils deposited on the gravel bars of Mussel Bend. Trails and educational opportunities abound throughout this must-see destination that’s only a 20-minute drive from downtown Louisville.
Completing the Loop will be the suburban Limestone Belt Northeast, which will pick up from the northern tip of the Parklands and loop west to the city of Prospect and the Ohio River Valley Northeast. Extending the Loop to these more suburban areas is the next big hurdle for the trail’s designers. Though Metro Parks staff acknowledge this won’t be an easy feat, they can rely on the community for continued engagement with the Loop’s progress.
“The Loop encompasses every area of our community and our city,” stated Nelson. “That’s an easy way to keep people engaged and involved. They stay excited because they know it’s getting closer to them, and they’re seeing headway.”
The Louisville Loop is already living up to its goal of linking people to places and each other. The dynamic project has brought together not only trail users, but also a vast network of partners making the work possible.
“There’s value in being collaborative in your approach,” affirmed Swintosky, recalling how the CDC recognized the Loop’s potential to promote active lifestyles and decrease long-term health-care costs. Such efforts are bearing fruit in people such as Murphy, who has been riding with the club since the day he retired in 2007 and is determined to lead a more car-free lifestyle, partly due to health reasons.
“Life looks a little different from the seat of a bicycle,” he stated. “My wife and I live in the city, so I can be just about anywhere in 15 to 20 minutes on my bike.”
In addition to leading the 50-mile-roundtrip Thursday morning rides for bike club members, many of whom are fellow retirees, Murphy helps lead new-rider clinics in inner city areas. On a weekly basis, he witnesses non-experienced bikers transform into confident trail riders. Such victories exemplify what the city is seeking on a large scale, harkening back to Olmsted’s legacy of connecting people to trails.
Representing so much more than a recreational path, the Louisville Loop is addressing the quality of life, prosperity and connectivity of its community, making it a powerful example of how active transportation networks deserve a place in the federal infrastructure discussion.