A visually memorable city captures the imagination and leaves a lasting impact on its residents and visitors. - Kevin Lynch

The quality of our urban spaces has a direct effect on our connections to, and sense of place. Without exceptional intentionality in the design of our cities, all of the concrete and asphalt that make up our urban centers can present a forgettable experience at best and at worst promote associations that can lead to perceived or a real lack of community and safety. Substandard design quality of city streetscapes can negatively affect mental health, while erasing our cultural health, and setting the stage for reduced physical health as once vibrant walkable areas become places to avoid.

The task of revitalizing downtown Louisville will not be simple. There are many factors that have led to where we are today, that will require a complex web of solutions. Some factors are of our own doing, such as the poor and often exclusionary planning decisions during the era of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s that not only wiped out large swaths of buildings but also destroyed a thriving African American commercial corridor and community along Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Blvd), delineated in yellow in the map below.

Urban renewal zones of the 1950s and 1960s in downtown Louisville

Our community’s lack of foresight over the past 100 years is ever present when we discover all the amazing buildings we have destroyed… in many cases to become surface parking lots.

1928 view of southwest corner of 5th and Walnut (Muhammad Ali Blvd) | Source
Current view of the south west corner of 5th and Muhammad Ali Blvd (Walnut)

Though out of our control, the pandemic and move towards remote working has gutted our daily downtown population. And the list can go on.

There are things we can do now that can have an immediate positive impact. So many of our vacant downtown storefronts are a drain on street life, both because of the opportunity cost of them not being a destination that brings people to the street, but in the interim, dark empty storefronts tell visitors that they are alone and the community doesn’t value the place they are in.

As we continue to redevelop A New Vision of Health Campus at the corner of 5th and Muhammad Ali Blvd, we are trying to actively change the narrative and improve the visual memorability of our corner in the heart of downtown. The University of Louisville’s Urban Design Studio, within the Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, is focused on testing and prototyping these efforts to incrementally improve downtown now.

A New Vision of Health Campus rendering

When the Manhattan Grill closed, instead of leaving the storefront empty as other construction efforts took place, we decided to create a temporary event and meeting space that would activate a very visible corner. With our focus on greening and health and inspired by creative plant shops in cities we have visited, with a modest investment, we think we have created a welcome addition to the streetscape and a functional place to have constructive dialog about how to improve our city.

Empty storefront in December 2023
Reactivated storefront today
A New Vision of Health campus innovation and design meeting
Emily Liu's retirement party with our friends from Louisville Metro

Over the past two semesters, University of Louisville students, in the Designing for Public Issues course at the Hite Institute of Art & Design, conducted interviews and workshops with local business owners, office workers and residents. Their research led them to recommend a variety of interventions including the introduction of color to create a more visually appealing environment. So we built on this idea.

Hite Institute students present ideas for creating a more vibrant experience downtown

Though most of the reconstruction work going on in A New Vision of Health Campus is inside the buildings at the moment, we didn’t want to neglect the effect of our construction on the pedestrian experience along the street. We worked with artist Danny Seim to develop a colorful mural on the plywood boards that will soon be beautiful revitalized storefronts. The massive scale of the mural matches the hopes and expectations of the new campus while visually tying together the buildings and spaces that are forming a new hub of innovation around a new vision of health.

Early prep work on the facade
Friday morning
Friday afternoon
Friday night, Eve of Thunder Over Louisville
Sunday Morning
Helping hands with the painting
Artist Danny Siem in front of his completed work

More iterative improvements are in the works while we do what we can to improve our corner in the heart of downtown through experimentation and prototyping. Our goal is to provide examples of how we can work together as a community to address what we can control and improve right now, laying a solid foundation for the larger and more complicated tasks ahead.