Rocking Out With Equitable Climbing

October 26, 2023, Department, by Paul Hooper

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When people think of Kentucky, they often think about the horse farms beautifully arranged throughout rolling hills or the bourbon industry that calls the state home. But to climbers, Kentucky is known to have one of the best climbing destinations in the world — the Red River Gorge (RRG). Lexington, located a short drive from this iconic location, recently unveiled the first outdoor public climbing boulders in the state at Northeastern Park — one of the more than 100 city parks the City of Lexington Division of Parks and Recreation (Lexington Parks and Recreation) manages — in the city’s East End neighborhood.

The East End neighborhood has been experiencing a renaissance of green space growth and park additions through a mix of public and private funding and grants. Perched atop a hill a few blocks from Charles Young Park and across the street from the picturesque views of Thoroughbred Park, Northeastern Park provided a unique opportunity to explore ideas outside standard playground features and bring something distinct to the city that would not only meet the neighborhood’s needs but also draw new people to the area.

Lexington Parks and Recreation identified the park as a priority for updates based on its master plan as well as the age of the existing play structure equipment. Working within a diverse neighborhood that has been under-resourced historically, staff prioritized the needs of the community members. The team gathered feedback through online and paper surveys distributed to homes, businesses and apartment complexes. They also hosted a community feedback event at the park and encouraged neighbors to attend. Through careful surveying, the most requested element was clear — climbing features.

Inspired by an article in Climbing magazine and the intention to bring more natural elements to parks downtown, Lexington Parks and Recreation’s planning and design team worked with a design firm and a vendor that specializes in natural-looking fabricated climbing boulders. Climbing can have a high barrier to entry due to limited access to climbing areas and the need for equipment. Thus, the team prioritized free access to boulders designed for all skill levels so all would feel welcome to explore the sport. Because of Kentucky’s association with the RRG, the designers used photos of the rock formations from the area to create boulders that mimicked natural Kentucky rock.

Since the park opened in March, it regularly sees activity from area climbers looking for challenges as well as neighborhood kids and families exploring the sport. Lexington Parks and Recreation began offering Introduction to Climbing (Bouldering) classes at the park in September and has planned future collaborations with climbing organizations.

Paul Hooper is Information Office Supervisor, Lexington (Kentucky) Parks and Recreation