“Forty-five million, twenty one thousand, two hundred and eleven,” says Dan Jones, a tall man wearing hiking boots and looking like he belongs on a trail instead of the yellow school bus we’re driving in. The number is a riddle he says, as though it’s obvious. That’s all the instruction he gives. Only one person has ever cracked it.
He lets the riddle settle on me and the group of other interns on the bus like a soft dew on grass. Jones is the founder of the non-profit 21st Century Parks and the creator of the Parklands of Floyd Fork, a 4000 acre park system that cuts through the last major undeveloped section of Louisville Metro. Modeled off of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s philosophy of bringing nature into neighborhoods, the Parklands providing a sprawling five-park system that contain a variety of outdoor offerings. Visitors can use hiking trails, parks (for humans and dogs), multi-purpose sports fields, event venues, and playgrounds; go canoeing or enjoy panoramic views; or utilize 19 miles of the Louisville Loop, a 100 mile multi-use path that will eventually surround Louisville in its entirity.
Jones has us step off the bus to start our official tour at a bright-yellow, repurposed grain silo. Each of the five parks that make up the Parklands is thematically named after waterways in Kentucky and yet, although cohesive, each park was built to have its own outdoor specialty. The silo we approach stands tall in the middle of Turkey Run Park, which was designed for rugged adventurers. We walk towards the silo as bikers pass us on the path that surrounds the structure. Inside, the silo is much bigger than it seems, with a winding metal staircase that lets us out to a panoramic view of the trees that fill the park. The trees seem to stretch out by the millions in every direction. All of them are a vivid, inside-of-a-kiwi green. From the top of the silo, I can see a young girl cartwheeling over and over on the stretch of grass below.
One of Jones’ main focuses as he developed the Parklands from the acquisition of around 80 individual properties was “the 90%.” In this case, the 90% refers to the activities that 90% of park users will want to use. Building soccer fields that can only be used as soccer fields doesn’t take into account the future, and the future is central to Jones’ conception of the Parklands. By building open swaths of grass that double as soccer fields, Jones has created a park that is defined by the user. The park can be adapted as humans adapt. Jones emphasizes that we have no way of knowing what the soccer of the future may look like, but a multi-use field will suite it far more than a field that can only be used for soccer.
The Parklands are a short drive from downtown Louisville, but Jones built them knowing that, eventually, Louisville will grow to tightly surround the Parklands. Parks, in his opinion, need to be created before a city grows around them and take careful planning in order to be sustainable for generations.
He wants his parks to be ready when the future arrives.
Our next stop is the Parkland’s newly opened Moss Gibbs Woodland Garden, which contains a misty mix of native plants and designed infrastructure. A stone path tip-toes through the trees, leading us from the road into what Jones refers to as “the parlor.” The parlor is a clearing of trees above woven wooden chairs that rest on the spongy earth. Jones informs us that the trees will soon grow together into an intertwined ceiling.
The path slowly brings us deeper into the woods until we reach a small stream. Across the stream is a stone bridge that was built without the use of mortar. The stones of the bridge are not forced into place but settle there. The bridge feels emblematic of the garden that so effortlessly creates a mix of the man-made and the natural.
Here, time freezes in the mist.
Walking out and back onto the bus, I feel far more relaxed that when I arrived. The playground we arrive at next, in Beckley Creek Park, shows me the true versatility of the Parklands. Screaming kids (and a few college-aged interns) run around to the swings and slides. They play tag on the expanse of well-groomed grass—so different from the untamed garden we had been in just a few minutes before. I was disappointed when I had to jump off the swing to get back onto the bus.
As we drive back to the Welcome Center where our tour began, Jones stands up, turns to look at us, and asks if anyone has cracked the riddle. When no one responds, he pauses for only a second before telling us the answer.
Forty-five million, twenty one thousand, two hundred and eleven.
Four hundred and fifty million: 450 million years ago, the bedrock of limestone developed.
Twenty one thousand: 21,000 years ago, Last Glacial Maximum, or Ice Age, occurred. Around 42 species went extinct.
Two hundred: 200 years ago, the city of Louisville was founded, and Eurasian species entered the landscape.
Eleven: Split into ten and one, it takes ten years for the growth trajectory of planted ecology to become clear and one year for the annual ecological cycle to occur.
As I step off the bus, it becomes clear to me that I am standing in a park impeccably suited for the present. The Parklands were created on the bedrock of the past, but they were designed for the Louisville of the future.