At Leading for Landscape IV: Transforming North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) and invited speakers showcased three public park projects that represent the region’s aspirations and suggest that — at least in design of the highest-profile public parks in Raleigh — there is mainstream acceptance of parks as cultural landscapes with the potential to bridge histories, promote democracy, and serve pluralist communities.
Daniel Gottlieb is director of planning and design at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which in the 1980s moved from downtown Raleigh to a 164-acre tract a 15-minute drive away. He has overseen the development of the Museum Park, which began with unplanned use of the campus open space by people who found their way there by car or greenway. It has since become an intentional effort by the museum to welcome and engage the public.
Gottlieb described the pre-museum history of the site, which most recently held a violent and segregated youth prison. He said his goal has been to use “ethical design” to transform the site into a place of gathering, diversity, ecological restoration, and public benefit. “The narrative arc for the North Carolina Museum of Art campus is one, you might say, of redemption — from incarceration and decay, from racism and segregation, to one of a cultural campus and of healing.”
Mark Johnson, FASLA, founding principal at Civitas, has overseen the latest addition to the Museum Park, a designed landscape that pulls visitors into the site and makes connections between the road and the park, between the museum and the park, and within the park itself (see image at top). Johnson described the firm’s use of precision in the landscape — perfect lines, a perfect ellipse, all softened by a native plant palette — to create spaces “that would support the idea that this was museum space. This is an outdoor gallery, but it’s also nature, but it’s also open-ended for you to experience however you want.”
The two other parks celebrated at the conference are City of Raleigh projects. Stephen Bentley, assistant director for Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources department, said Red Mountain Park in Birmingham and the Atlanta Beltline offer lessons in the promise and challenge of dealing with histories of racism, segregation, and gaping divides between haves and have-nots.
“Everything is not hunky-dory,” Bentley said of the cultural and economic divides in the Triangle. “We have a lot of success and a lot of great projects in the Triangle, but with great success comes great challenges. We have a lot of great momentum, and I think we should constantly be clear about the decisions we make, who we want to be, and where we want to go from here.”
The City of Raleigh hired Sasaki in 2015 to redesign Moore Square, one of two remaining downtown public squares of the four that were set aside in Raleigh’s original 1792 plan. (The loss of the public open space provided by the two other squares has been decried for more than a century; TCLF president Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, suggested in his opening remarks that Raleigh’s world-class greenway system is a 20th-century realization of its earlier, abandoned vision of accessible public space.)
Moore Square had become cluttered and underused over time; its newest iteration is currently under construction. Gina Ford, FASLA, formerly of Sasaki and now principal at Agency Landscape + Planning, traced Sasaki’s work redesigning Moore Square to an exhibit the firm had created to explore how legacy park systems were adapting for the 21st century. She said that lens — understanding the original plan, and how it might fit into a downtown Raleigh defined by growth and aspirations of equity — was key to their vision for an updated Moore Square. The design team included historians and local experts. They analyzed historical view sheds and relationships, the material nature of other historic downtown spaces, and the well-being of the square’s heritage oaks, some of which were more than 200 years old.
“Through all of this scalar exploration of Moore Square, from understanding its role in the district to understanding its role in the city, the park, all the way down to its material quality and its programmatic overlay, we hope that people who come to this new place see themselves through this landscape as part of that historic stream,” Ford said.
The biggest park project in the Triangle is Dorothea Dix Park, a 308-acre site of rolling hills and heritage oaks right on the edge of downtown Raleigh. The site was home until 2012 to Dorothea Dix Hospital, a mental health institution named after the 19th-century advocate who founded it. The City of Raleigh purchased the site in 2015 and hired Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) in 2017 to oversee a two-year master planning process.
Kate Pearce, senior planner with the City of Raleigh for Dorothea Dix Park, hopes Dix will become a world-class park that “redefines what it means to be making pubic space in our communities.”
“I feel like we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something that is going to impact lives for years to come,” Pearce said. “And we have the great opportunity but also the great challenge to ensure that as we create this park, the entire community believes that it is of and for them.” Pearce said the city was getting creative in reaching people who don’t usually come to planning meetings.
Adrienne Heflich, ASLA, associate at MVVA, gave an update on the firm’s attempts to pull a coherent and world-class park design from an enormous tract that still holds remnants of a landfill, a cemetery, and a hospital, including dozens of intact buildings.
The MVVA team has conceptually divided the site; about half of it would be inspired by the ideas and values of 19th-century American landscape architecture, “to embody the feeling of boundlessness, evince a lack of discernible edges, and support restored Piedmont habitats that have been erased or obscured or not celebrated previously.”
The rest of the site, including most of the buildings and the connections to downtown, would evoke a 21st-century activated park, “where there’s a successful juxtaposition of program, art, building reuse, interpretation of historic landscapes — and those are all blended together to create a new expression of urban and civic space really relevant to Raleigh and to the region.” Heflich cited Millennium Park in Chicago as an example.
At the end of a day of presentations that featured stunning but largely stand-alone landscape architecture projects around the Triangle, a final panel weighed in, offering additional and complementary visions for what it could mean to lead with landscape in the Triangle.
Andrew Fox, ASLA, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University, shared a quote from Frederick Law Olmsted, who remarked on a trip in the 1850s that “the country for miles about Raleigh is nearly all pine forest, unfertile and so little cultivated that it is a mystery how a town of 2,500 inhabitants can obtain sufficient supplies from it to exist.”
Fox reminded the audience of issues facing the Triangle today — the degradation of local ecosystems and loss of farmland to sprawl; record-breaking heat; record-breaking drought; record-breaking deluge rainfalls; and projected population growth, among the largest and fastest in the country. Olmsted’s question of capacity remains, Fox said: “New issues are in many ways amplifications of old issues.”
Alexandra Lange, Curbed‘s architecture critic who grew up in Durham, was one of several final panelists to lament the absence of discussion regarding regional public transit and broader regional connectivity. “Maybe if this conference comes back here in 10 years, should it all be about paths and not parks?” Lange proposed.
Randolph Hester, FASLA, Durham resident and director of the Center for Ecological Democracy, pushed the audience to pursue democratic design, to foster authentic and open-ended public dialogues, and to advocate for their communities with vision and courage. “We have talked a lot about special places today. I think the real challenge is about the neighborhood. Most people live in neighborhoods. There are some really great stories and some really terrible stories about neighborhoods, and we need as we move forward to keep those in mind. The neighborhood is our closest and dearest public landscape.”
He brought up Chavis Heights, a neighborhood that he had helped to protect from urban renewal in the 1960s and that had declined due to a lack of public investment. “If we can do a Dix Park, we should be able to revitalize Chavis Heights as one of the unique black communities of this country.”
Mitchell Silver, Honorary ASLA, former director of planning in Raleigh and now commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, reminded landscape architects to look beyond the history and transformation of the land.
“There’s stories to be told in our land, but there’s also stories to be told by the communities that inhabit them,” he said. Change that will result in greater regional connectivity and density will require a broader approach: “It’s not just about transforming the place; it’s also transforming ourselves. We’re going to have to ask ourselves some difficult questions.
Walter Havener, ASLA, founding principal at Surface 678, asked the audience to remember the vital contributions of local design communities and institutions in leading with landscape through daily practice. “And I think that NC State has been integral to that process of promulgating those people and putting them out in the society, and I think that is one of the legs of the stool which holds up the Triangle. It is a remarkable story, and I think that it has been just as transforming as any other phenomenon that we’ve seen today.”
This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.