Inside the Design of the Midwest’s First Climate-Resilient Park

By Published On: June 8, 20225.7 min read

Wendell Berry is not only known as a novelist, but an environmental activist. His book, “The Unsettling of America,” looked at the state of America’s agricultural business in 1977.

Critics say there hasn’t been much improvement in the environments he describes in the book 40 years ago. As Berry wrote in the book: “Only if we know how the land was, can we tell how it is.”

This quote feels like the gateway to the forthcoming Origin Park in the rural area of Indiana where the three North Shore communities of Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany meet. It’s slated to be “the next great park” in the Midwest and is scheduled to open next year.

It’s also the Midwest’s first climate-adaptive park, on the north side of the Ohio River, and will likely become a go-to for nature lovers.

“Origin Park is a dynamic, groundbreaking, and iconic public landscape, one that shapes a stronger, healthier, and more livable future for all,” said Susan Rademacher, Executive Director of River Heritage Conservancy, which is playing a key role on the project.

Susan Rademacher

Susan Rademacher | Image provided by River Heritage Conservancy

“Right now, we are moving from master plan to implementation,” Rademacher said. “That will begin with a large sector of the park, with the rest coming in a second and third phase over 10 to 15 years.”

The park spans 600 acres of land that was formerly a wasteland lining the river, and will create an outdoor, safe and healthy green space for walking, cycling, hiking, canoeing and kayaking. The cost of the project is roughly $130 million and is expected to be completed by the end of 2023, though the team said there is not an exact completion date for the entire park.

A man stands on a boardwalk surrounded by forest.

Origin Park Buttonbush Woods | Image provided by River Heritage Conservancy

In March the construction team broke ground on the first stage of the park, a canoe and kayak launch site where Silver Creek intersects with the Ohio River. Next up they will develop what will be called the River House building, which will be home to offices, an event center and arts programming for visitors.

“Origin Park is designed around the Ohio River and centers around the ‘dynamic factors’ from which the water comes,” Rademacher said. “From the standpoint of the master plan, everything about this place comes back to water. It was important to give people access to Silver Creek where they could canoe and kayak as the first experience of the park.”

Bikes roll down a sunny pathway.

Origin Park Infinity Loop | Image provided by River Heritage Conservancy

This very site is loaded in history. It was home to First Nations people over 10,000 years ago and was the first colonial settlement in Indiana. The redevelopment will start a new chapter for the region, focusing on climate resiliency.

“This area has been an epicenter of natural life,” Rademacher said. “Resources are still being exploited by industrial sources but will be turned into parkland. We have 450 acres to the left of Silver Creek, we control 70% of the parcels here, and we’re concentrating on those acres for parkland.”

“This park has rich soils,” she added. “The level of water in the river rises seasonally, and the landscape is molded by the river.”

The main issue is water overflow due to climate change. According to Rademacher, the Ohio River is expected to have an increase of 30% more water over the next 50 years.

That potential rise means the park’s landscape designers have to accommodate flooding of the river, which could affect the nearby walking paths. They’re protecting the river by adding elevated walkways that can become paddling trails when they’re flooded. This is the first time the Midwest is having climate-resilient design, Rademacher claimed.

“It’s about understanding how the rise and fall in water affects the landscape and how people use it,” she said.

“The key to climate adaptive design is finding ways to continue to tap into the benefits of open space and natural resources,” Rademacher said. “At the same time, we have to take a step back and create our designs to be more flexible and provide more choices for the degree of immersion that one wants to have.”

The park will also have cultural attractions such as the Clark Cabin, the homesite of war hero George Rogers Clark, who was the founder of Louisville. The cabin was destroyed by a fire last year and needs to be rebuilt.

“In a park, we’re fortunate to be in an environment with its own context, and our context is, how do we maintain and care for it?” Rademacher asked. “We have to adapt to the river’s changing nature.”

An overhead view of a canoe launch.

Origin Park Canoe Launch Plan | Image provided by River Heritage Conservancy

It isn’t a park in the middle of nowhere. Roughly 1.2 million people live within a 30-minute drive of Origin Park, and it’ll play an important role with local schools in the area, especially for its climate-resiliency, sustainability and green space. The park is expected to create over 2,300 jobs for locals in the area. It’s where visitors can see over 180 different kinds of bird species, explore 230 acres of meadows and walk through a forest of 75,000 trees.

A rendering of a riverside canoe launch.

Origin Park Canoe Launch Render | Image provided by River Heritage Conservancy

It’s all part of Olin Studio landscape architect Lucinda Sanders’ vision for creating something more than your run of the mill park experience. Sanders is the president and CEO at the female-led architecture firm working on the design. Sanders said her main goal is to bring locals closer to nature, something that we’ve all been seeking since the pandemic began.

“First, visitors can come to Silver Creek, a recreation and wildlife zone, it’s a national wildlife refuge, a rich area,” she said. “We’re removing a low head dam from a stream, then, we’re ready to open the area. It has many layers of history — it has a low part in the river, so it was a place of settlement and part of the escape route of the Underground Railroad.”

A map of Origin Park

Origin Park Site Plan | Image provided by River Heritage Conservancy

“Ecological regeneration is a huge part of this project — these are the elements that support our lives,” Rademacher said. “This landscape has been exploited for agriculture then excavation, sand and gravel, it bears stories and scars of all those uses. We’re finding nature reinstates itself.”

“Our approach is to take the ecology that exists and improve it over time,” she added. “It’ll help create a healthier environment for people.”

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