Through a new framework plan, the 317-acre Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee is being re-imagined as an accessible, equitable educational center that tells the story of the incredible biodiversity of Tennessean landscapes. Once a drive-through arboretum, Reflection Riding is poised to become an important model for ecological restoration and wildlife conservation, with expanded enclosures for wolves and eagles. As part of a six month planning process, SCAPE Landscape Architecture developed a proposal that will re-orient and create new buildings, offer a new entry sequence and visitor center, prioritize restoration areas, and expand a forest school and kindergarten, canopy walks and trails, and a native plant nursery.
“We are fortunate we can work with clients that align with our ethos and values. Reflection Riding is focused on some of our key priorities: access, education, and conserving and restoring natural landscapes. This is what landscape architecture in the 21st century should be,” explained Nans Voron, senior associate at SCAPE, in a phone interview.
The framework plan celebrates the vision and legacy of John A. Chambliss, who founded the arboretum in the early 20th century. SCAPE and the arboretum sought to maintain Chambliss’ core values, rooted in “his deep love and respect for the landscape.” But they also sought to make the arboretum more accessible and equitable through a more welcoming entry sequence and expanded educational programs geared towards underserved communities that live nearby.
In its first few decades, the arboretum was designed as a drive-through loop. Later, once cars were excluded, horses became a means of exploring the landscape. With the new ecological restoration goals, the horses stabled on site will eventually be phased out.
“My impression is that many people who live near Reflection Riding don’t know it exists,” Voron said. This could be a result of the gates that limit access at the entrance; the horse-back riding in the arboretum, which may be viewed as exclusive; and confusion about the arboretum’s connection to a neighboring national park.
With a redesigned entrance, SCAPE hopes more visitors will feel the arboretum is also a place for them. A new visitor center will make all the educational options more easily understood. The existing forest school and kindergarten will approximately double in size and be moved closer to the entrance, where an expanded native plant nursery, which offers plants for sale to the public, will also be located.
Trails throughout the arboretum and nature center will be made ADA accessible, and a new “Braille trail” for blind and low vision users is being considered. SCAPE proposes a series of learning stations along shorter loops organized around themes such as geology, hydrology, and the role of this landscape in the Civil War.
While the framework plan is rooted in a comprehensive analysis of the many complex natural systems found within the arboretum, which range from creeks and streams to meadows, wetlands, and forests, Voron said SCAPE focused in on some key restoration opportunities in the wetlands around Lookout Creek and the many small streams that feed into it. “There are currently two artificial ponds; we instead propose restoring the wetland and tidal landscapes so they can create more wildlife habitat and also better accommodate more water in the wet season.”
Elevated canopy walks now exist in the arboretum but will be extended into the restored wetlands and redesigned to offer greater flexibility, a lighter footprint, and a higher elevation to accommodate for climate change. “The new canopy walks will be more resilient and offer a different experience,” Voron contends.
In forested parts of the arboretum, there have been continual efforts to remove invasive plants. New plans to scale up the native plant nursery create opportunities to accelerate the restoration of the natural landscapes and make the arboretum a showcase for restorative design. Another goal is to invite researchers to study ecological change, making the arboretum a true learning laboratory.
New enclosures for the animals protected in the arboretum’s wildlife center won’t function like a typical zoo. “While the animal enclosures will be accessible to the public during business hours, Reflection Riding won’t be caging animals in small pens. You may or may not see the wolves and raptors when you visit.”
Voron explained that the new plan for the wildlife center was challenging, because “each species has many requirements, and some couldn’t be adjacent to others.” Different species of native eagles and other raptors will be carefully separated from various kinds of native wolves. “The goal was to limit disturbances to each species.”