Transcript of Episode 12: West Louisville Outdoor Recreation Initiative
with host David Richards [DR] and guest Bennett Knox [BK]. 
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[DR] Hi Healthy Communities podcast listeners. The finalists of the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge have been announced! These next episodes are dedicated to them and their amazing stories. Our fourth episode in the series is on the West Louisville Outdoor Recreation Initiative with Bennett Knox, Parks Administrator at Louisville Parks & Recreation. Enjoy!  

[DR] Welcome to the Healthy Communities podcast; a public health-themed podcast that breaks down common health issues in our communities, and how Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge projects aim to address them. I am your host, David Richards from APHA. This is Episode 12: West Louisville Outdoor Recreation Initiative.


[BK] Well, it’s been a fantastic experience for the last two years plus. It’s meaningful for us to be recognized by the Aetna Foundation, National Association of Counties, as well as APHA, for our approach. Going into this we are a Parks agency doing parks work and to make that connection not just an association over county government and a health entity that really recognized the work that it has had in terms of public health is groundbreaking for our department. It’s laid fantastic groundwork for us moving forward. 

[DR] Let’s talk about that approach. Where did that idea come from where more exposure to the outdoors is going to have these real positive health outcomes? 

[BK] We are part of the Parks division that manages parks and natural areas and natural spaces, and so we recognized some time ago the inequities that exist between the access to nature and especially to a city like Louisville, which is highly urbanized. It’s a merged government which encompasses the city core as well as suburban areas. We’ve had inequality related to how different populations in their community are served and diving into the research, we’ll talk about how we brought together the health related partners but also service providers doing job training in the community and how can we make that access relevant for urban youth and families in a way that it hasn’t been before. That approach really required us to change how we do business as an agency and look at ourselves critically at how we were allocating resources in terms of programming, in terms of infrastructure. The process here from the HCC Challenge has really had us refine that approach. We’re forced to ask conversations with our partners, who all have shared missions but who all needed to connect the work between us in a way that was going to be meaningful. Having us look at what we do as the agency has been really important to us.

[DR] Do you mind talking about Louisville geographically and how these West Louisville neighborhoods are isolated or disconnected from natural areas or parks? 

[BK] In terms of Louisville, in aggregate, we are actually very diverse. But in terms of distribution, we’re a very segregated city. Demographically our urban core is predominantly African American and located in areas in West Louisville, moving a little bit to downtown. There’s a lot of history here. Those areas have had less investment in some of the natural infrastructure. And actually there are a great amount of parks in that part of town but they’ve been under invested in terms of natural infrastructure, for example access to the river went by the wayside in the 50s so we haven’t had access to the river for fishing and canoeing. There are a good number of woodlands in the parks in West Louisville, particularly along the river bank but they have not been maintained in a way that makes them safe and inviting for families. We have a lot of illegal activity in terms of dumping. We’ve had a challenge of having safe places where families would consider taking their kids for recreation. Before we started there was no soft surface trail for hiking or mountain biking, which it a basic outdoor recreation activity. We’ve had not only a lack of safe infrastructure and the programming reflected that as well. Historically the types of programming that our department has done focused on community based center recreation, court sports and crafts, things like that happen mostly indoors and if they’re outdoors it’s in a very structured setting. The nature programming was not existing so for the people who live in West Louisville would have to go to a different part of town to do that safely, which is not where we want to be as a department providing families and youth opportunities for nature in their environments, neighborhoods and backyards. To have that close access because it’s that access that is going to be the most impactful. That’s what we’re after, access to nature as a way of life so that kids who experience that have the same opportunities as those as kids in different parts of town. Then you really get into the social determinants of health, and what are the changes. We feel like, and there’s research to back it, that access to nature opens up door ways to educational opportunities, and it has proven opportunities in health by getting kids out to do physical activity and fresh air and all that good stuff. By extension, that access opens up job opportunities, which is one thing we’re trying to create in West Louisville, diversification in the field of environmental protection and Parks and Recreation in general. All of these things that feed into health and equity in our city, we’re trying to focus on those root causes that can change the dynamic for youth in urban neighborhoods. 

[DR] Getting into your work, what would you say is your greatest achievement? 

[BK] We’ve had some concrete achievements throughout this grant period. One of which is that we created a mobile play unit which is equipped now and going into the community to bring nature-based recreation to neighborhoods in partnership with community centers. We’re giving younger kids to experience nature play by the mobile nature play unit. We’re bringing things like archery. We’re bringing shelter building which sounds strange, but is a great thing to experience as a child, archery, fishing; things are things that we’re able to bring mobile to West Louisville. We also worked with young adults to build a bicycle pump track, which I mentioned, for the soft surface trail in West Louisville officially. That’s an achievement this year. Those are two infrastructure related pieces and programming related pieces. But I’s have to say, the real thing that I’m excited about is how we’re changing our internal processes at Parks to be able to sustain this work. What we’re launching this spring, which we laid the groundwork on from the HC50 process, is tracking dosage of program participants. We’re able to identify by child how much time they’ve spent in nature through our programming. We’re going to be using that as a metric to see how well we’ve been doing. Are children receiving a higher dosage because we’re being successful in programming or maybe we’ve successfully engaged these parents to let them know about these activities and they themselves are empowered to give their kids more opportunities? And on the flip side, there are maybe some children who aren’t receiving as much benefit. It helps us guide areas for improvement. Related to that is this notion of long-term engagement with youth. We’re trying to set up a pipeline which we call cradle to career for access to nature where we’re engaging children at a young age; they’re having a great number of opportunities in the outdoors and that, as I mentioned earlier, is opening up pathways that we can hopefully facilitate whether that be to a job, another service provider who is offering similar programming in different parts of the county they might be interested in, to put them in touch with career fields that might be engaging particularly those around the environment like landscape architecture, engineering, environmental engineering, environmental education, things like that, that are related. 

[DR] You did mention a lot of those individual benefits you get from dosage and being out in nature, but why are these initiatives important on the community levels and neighborhood levels? Has the neighborhood talked about this? Are they getting inspired or encouraged about natural areas?

[BK] I think in terms of what we’ve seen, again we’re building. The feedback that we’ve gotten from community members through the programming that we’ve done for instance we are bringing canoeing to residents in West Louisville and we’ve gotten steady feedback from parents that they love this opportunity that didn’t exist before. They want to see more of it. That creates a dynamic where you’re starting to see people, residents, envision a different outcome for their neighborhood, one that is more vibrant and offers more opportunities for youth. We hear constantly in Louisville that kids need positive things to do and they need positive relationships with mentors. Part of what we’re trying to do through our efforts of engaging youth and creating this pipeline, is that we’re trying to create this new generation of young adults who are experienced in nature and also prepared to give back in their neighborhoods. One of the things that the HC50 initiative has helped us with is bringing us closer to having a satellite education center in West Louisville. Right now, we’re in a capacity building phase where we’re creating programming and youth that is both providing this service and benefiting from it and ultimately that is going to lead us to this center where we’ll have staff that represents the neighborhood running. For us, that is the ultimate change that we’re creating capacity that is generated from the neighborhood. That can give back and lead this neighborhood to create that change within their own neighborhoods.   

[DR] The outdoor education how is that going and what do you hope to teach children there?

[BK] That’s great. We have in Louisville a number of locations where there are centers doing environmental education. We don’t have that in West Louisville. This idea that you have a place where you have the ability to cater to school groups who might want to come learn about the environment and partnerships with schools. A place where we can store all manner of outdoor recreation equipment. There is in our plan, there are other facilities that we are trying to create. For instance, this summer there will be a boat ramp that is going in to the park where the environmental center will go. The bicycle pump track that we built with the help of the support from the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge is in that same general area. We’ve been able to leverage the Aetna funding to help lead us to restore a pond in West Louisville not far from where this center will be located. I’m trying to paint the picture that it isn’t just a center. The center is a base for programming, but it’s mostly going to be used in conjunction with amenities improvements that we’re making in the parks and the neighborhoods. We’re on the path to creating wonderful opportunities for youth and families to experience nature right where they live. That is the most wonderful part in terms of where we’re going. 

[DR] Definitely, what has the Challenge meant to your project and your community? 

[BK] We’re fortunate to have received the HC50 funding. We had just prior to receiving that had been able to participate in a network which is a partnership with Children in Nature Network and the National League of Cities where by they were looking at how municipal governments were helping to provide service to children to nature. Louisville was fortunate to be one of the first seven cohort cities. When we talk about our phasing, our first phase in this work was to develop an implementation plan. That was based on asset mapping, community surveys, that were done through the connecting children to nature initiative. When HC50 came along, it was perfect timing because the HC50 funding and process allowed us to focus on our second phase which was building capacity. Everything that I talked about was and still is for the next couple years about building capacity and that is leading us to our third phase which is actual implementation of some of the infrastructure improvements.   

[DR] My last question is what does the future hold for the West Louisville Outdoor Recreation Initiative? 

[BK] Well, we are very optimistic about the future and where we’re going. I think it’s important to talk about what it means for West Louisville. It’s also important to talk about what it means for the community as a whole so maybe I’ll start with that. Fifteen years ago our city had a city government and a county government; we merged those governments so Jefferson County became whole; at least it had the promise of being whole. One of the things that this project is doing in combination with some of the other initiatives in the community such as creating a green way around the community that connects neighborhoods and parks. This effort in West Louisville will give kids and families the opportunity to experience nature on an introductory way to some degree that will pay dividends and benefits to those residents, youth and families, as they seek to explore the rest of the county and across the state. We are blessed with a lot of natural areas, natural spaces and natural parks. We really do see the overall impact being and helping to alleviate an equity issue and through that work helping to connect our community together more wholly. So that’s our community focus and that means a lot to us and our mayor who is very supportive of our project thankfully. On a local level what it means for West Louisville residents, we talk about the vision of, for instance what if through our efforts we can in twenty years, the next great environmental scientist or landscape architect or environmental engineer is a participant of our programming, who has gone on to school and great things. That would be tremendous for us. Personally, we want to have world class facilities in West Louisville, our residents have told us that they want that and we’re trying to create that. Together with the folks, the parents, the community members, who are engaged with us in this journey, I think we’ll get there.        

[DR] That’s the show this week! Thank you to my guest Bennett Knox, and thank you all for listening. Links to more resources can be found on the Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge website at healthiestcities.org under about the challenge, podcast. I’ll see you next time.