Louisville, Kentucky: More Than Horses, Baseball Bats and Fried Chicken

1 / 2
Louisville hit a homer with its local food and energy-efficiency initiatives. 
2 / 2
The organization 15Thousand Farmers helps Louisville residents grow more of their own food.

Kentucky’s largest city?–?home of the Kentucky Derby, the University of Louisville and Kentucky Fried Chicken?–?is hardly off the beaten track. But what’s less known is that, in recent years, Louisville, Ky., has quietly emerged as a major center of cultural diversity and sustainable development.

“It’s a small town with a huge heart, and it’s also a really culturally diverse place,” says Valerie Kausen, who moved to the city from California three years ago with her spiritual healing practice.

The diverse Old Louisville neighborhood has one of the country’s largest collections of restored Victorian homes, and it also boasts an extensive system of pedestrian-only streets. Recent development projects show additional promise. Film producer Gill Holland, Louisville Magazine‘s 2009 “Person of the Year,” has purchased tracts in the downtown area and is helping to reinvent the neighborhood as an arts district built on sustainable development. Holland’s neighborhood centerpiece is The Green Building, a 15,000-square-foot converted dry goods store that houses a café, gallery and office spaces, and is Louisville’s first LEED Platinum green building project.

What’s even more impressive about Louisville is the organization 15Thousand Farmers. Co-founded by Kausen, along with residents Gary Heine and Steve Vice, the organization defines home food gardeners as “farmers” and builds community by bringing “home farmers” together to share advice and harvests.

As the organization’s name suggests, 15Thousand Farmers aims to add 15,000 farmers to Louisville by 2015. The group recruits new farmers by providing a simple approach based on the square-foot gardening model. The idea is taking off. Kausen reports that in its first five months, the organization has signed 1,000 new farmers.

“A lot of new people are inspired by the simplicity of what we’re offering,” she says. “And even with one 4-by-4-foot box, they’re learning a lot. If nothing else, they’re learning how much work it takes to grow food, and they appreciate the beautiful farmers market food that they’re buying.”

The grass-roots spirit reflected in 15Thousand Farmers is matched by an active city government. The comprehensive “Go Green Louisville” program includes sustainability directives?– and the tools to back them up. Residents can receive a rebate for trading in a gasoline-powered mower for an electric model. In October 2010, Louisville announced an energy efficiency program designed to save the city $13.5 million in energy costs over the next 15 years. The city has even installed a green roof on the Metro Development Center.

Stats: Louisville, Kentucky

Population: 569,135

Median household income: $46,661

Weather: A distinct, four-season climate with hot, humid summers and moderate winters.

What makes it great: A pedestrian-friendly town with community-wide support for home gardeners, plus government-backed sustainability initiatives.

Check out the other towns featured in our 2011 installment of Great Places You’ve (Maybe) Never Heard Of.