Fertile Ground

Bennett Knox, Parks Administrator for the Natural Areas Division of the Louisville Parks Department, and Executive Director of the non-profit foundation Wilderness Louisville, Inc., talked to us about joint ecological projects, Louisville’s parks and his love of Russian national cuisine.

In recent times there has been an ever-greater focus on ecological issues. How is the situation playing out in Louisville? Is it true to say that the authorities are providing more resources for tackling ecological problems, and that citizens are paying more attention to these issues? How much are residents getting involved in discussing and tackling ecological problems?

Louisville is a city in the Midwest of the USA which sits on the Ohio river. Like other similar cities on rivers, its economy has changed significantly over recent decades, moving the emphasis from industrial production to service provision. Louisville competes with other cities in its aim to attract large corporations here to set up headquarters and create well paid jobs. As a result, the authorities are paying more attention to quality of life.

I can say that more resources are being allocated to tackle key issues, but to be honest, state finance is only sufficient to deal with the most pressing problems. In Louisville, as in other cities, the authorities are developing partnerships with non-profit organisations, charitable foundations and business, and getting support that way.

I think that at a local level this is very much the right approach. People are willing to get involved in volunteering through public organisations. These organisations in their turn push the authorities into action.

What are the main ecological issues facing Louisville today?

There are many problems, but if we look where the money is primarily being spent, then it is on water quality, the consequences of climate change and ecological justice. These are the principal issues. In Louisville, a large and costly project is under way to reduce the amount of untreated waste water being released into the rivers. Climate change is both an international, national and local issue. Here, one of the key projects is a move to electricity and gas.

What do you have in mind when you talk about ecological justice?

We are now talking at a national level about historical racism, and about how ecological problems are more acute for regions where non-white people live. The authorities and public organisations are now investing more and more resources into these areas.

People say that Perm is the greenest city in Russia. Tell us about Louisville. Are there a lot of parks, and do people use them for leisure? How do they spend their time? Who manages the parks? How is the local council involved, and how is business involved?

I can see from social media that people in Perm love nature, and it is simply breathtaking along the Kama. Perm and Louisville are both on rivers and this defines our history. Several decades ago, the main focus was industrial development, and no consideration was given to leisure and natural beauty. But in both Louisville and Perm things have changed a great deal, and we (the citizens, the Mayor’s Office and business) have turned our attention to our waterways.

We also talk about Louisville as a city of parks. There are more than 120 parks. Several of them are large regional parks with a variety of leisure services, the others are smaller. In practice, there is no single parks system, but a number of different systems linked via a network. These parks are managed mainly by the city administration, but also by Kentucky state agencies and private non-profit organisations. Although you can’t ski or go mountain climbing, in Louisville there are a lot of other opportunities for leisure in the outdoors.

Is there cooperation between Louisville and Perm on ecological issues? If so, in which areas?

I am happy to answer yes to that question. So far, we are in the early stages of cooperation.  Representatives from our cities’ authorities responsible for tackling ecological issues, resource management and public engagement have been in contact online. Perm and Louisville are after all partner cities. In Louisville, we are implementing similar projects to improve quality of life by reducing negative impacts on small river valleys.

It is clear that our cities have similar challenges. For example, how to work with private owners, how to fully protect ecologically sensitive areas through well-thought-out design of the whole space, how to deal with storm water drainage system problems, how to broaden participation in civil society and improve environmental education. All these questions provide fertile ground for mutual learning experiences. We are very much looking forward to our next meetings and hope to collaborate further.

A few more questions. Why are you interested in Russia? How did you first encounter the Russian language? Perhaps you are familiar with things connected with Russia – with contemporary literature, cuisine, music and sport…

I could write a book to answer that! I am now 51, and I remember the “cold war”. I was born in a small town, and in the final years of high school we had to write an essay. I don’t know why, but I wrote both essays about the Soviet Union. The first was about samizdat literature and Anna Akhmatova, and the second was about the US military space programme at that time. Then, when I had to choose a language to learn at university, I chose Russian. In 1991, I lived in a hostel for foreign students at university. My first roommate was from Vladimir. Of course, we were different, but this didn’t stop us getting along really well. To this today, he remains one of my closest friends.

This experience became part of my very positive attitude to Russia. After I finished university I dreamed of working in Russia on environmental issues. I arrived in Moscow in 1993 to study Russian and do some research. There, I met a remarkable and inspiring student called Sergey Nikolayevich Nikolayev. He was one of the leaders of the All-Russian Society for Nature Conservation and was involved with setting up nature reserves in Kamchatka. Sergey Nikolayevich has sadly died, but I hope to visit Kamchatka in his memory.

I enjoy learning about foreign culture through food. Before the coronavirus restrictions, my wife and I would invite foreigners visiting Louisville to our house. This is why I like to cook our national dishes. I was shown great hospitality when I was in Russia. I remember my favourite Russian (and Soviet) dishes very well: solyanka, pelmeni, borshch, dressed herrings, kharcho and shashlik. Great tasting food. Not long ago we had a “Russian Evening” at home, and I prepared some of these dishes for my friends. Everyone really enjoyed them.

What would you like to show people from Perm in your native Louisville?

You have to visit the best-known sights, of course: the Bourbon Whiskey factories and Churchill Downs (the legendary racetrack). Louisville has good museums, restaurants and music halls. I would definitely recommend a tour of Kentucky State, which is about two thirds of the size of the Perm Kray region. There are lots of natural sights to visit not far from Louisville. I would recommend the Mammoth Cave National Park and the Red River Gorge Geological Area. But if you like running or walking in the forest, then you have to visit the place I work: the Jefferson Memorial Forest.