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Big Park, Great City?

The urban landscape has become increasingly important for cities striving to be taken seriously on the world stage. And while creating big parks is an obvious trend, getting the small moves right can be just as important.
Mark Hough | January 20, 2015, 2pm PST
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Mike P.

You don’t have to look very far these days to see that we are in the midst of an urban park renaissance. Examples from all over the country are proving that parks can raise city profiles, stimulate development, increase property values, attract tourists and, most importantly, improve the quality of life for urban dwellers. Because of this, well-designed open space has become a must-have for cities striving to be considered world class.

Big cities attract most of the attention for this, but medium-sized ones such as Birmingham, Santa Fe, and Tulsa are making statements with new parks, as well. Now, thanks to a pending $52 million land deal, Raleigh, North Carolina may soon be added to this list. For it to succeed, however, the city needs to prove it has grown up and is ready to be more urban. It certainly has the potential to be a shining example of how to build a 21st century urban park, but it could just as easily become a cautionary tale.

View across the Dorothea Dix campus. Photo by flickr user abbyladybug

Raleigh was recently given the tentative go ahead to purchase the campus of Dorothea Dix Hospital, a former state-owned psychiatric facility located on a stunningly beautiful piece of land near downtown that the city has been coveting for decades. At its peak in the 1970s, the property was over 2,000 acres, but has since been sold off in pieces. Today, along with some historic buildings and hospital infrastructure, a little over 300 acres of rolling pastoral hills, verdant lawns, stands of mature trees, and a picturesque view to Raleigh’s skyline remain. Turning it all into a park is a no-brainer.

How best to use this land has been a major topic of conversation ever since the state let it be known in 2004 that the facility would be closing. A plan created by the Urban Land Institute for the legislature proposed a fairly dense mixed-use development, leaving 200 acres for a park. This was met with resistance from citizens wanting the entire property turned into public open space. A second plan, commissioned by a group of park advocates, proposed just that, but did so with such an underwhelming vision that it never really sparked a lot of interest.

Now, with this new momentum, it is looking as if it might finally happen, and there is reason for both hope and skepticism. The start and stop process has generally headed in the right direction, but political gamesmanship has overshadowed any meaningful discussions about real issues, like maximizing the cultural and economic value of the land. Even now, there are no guarantees until the dotted line is signed. Assuming the deal does goes through—and it should—the really complicated work of getting it planned and designed will begin.

Sledding on Dix Hill. Photo by flickr user Alex Ford

My worry is that Raleigh’s track record of poor decision-making regarding its public realm will prevent it from making things happen. A particularly irritating example of this occurred when the City Council scared off the renowned artist Jaume Plensa (along with a $2.5 million gift for one of his works) by constantly dumbing down his proposed art piece to the point he no longer wanted to do it. What could, and should, have been a game changing piece of art in the heart of a resurgent downtown—something to help Raleigh shed its sleepy, small town image and be taken more seriously—was abandoned, leaving behind a drab and soulless plaza and streetscape, screaming for something interesting.

More recently, a city-sponsored design competition was bungled when the master plan for the redesign of an important historic square was awarded to a scheme that seemed little more than a poorly disguised retread of Teardrop Park in Lower Manhattan. It wasn’t that the plan was necessarily bad; it just had little or nothing to do with Raleigh’s culture or context. The fact that those who picked it could not recognize its lack of civic response makes me question their ability to get it right the next time.

Winning master plan for Moore Square. Image from New Raleigh

Raleigh has obviously done a lot right—it is a thriving city. But while some may consider public art and open space design frivolous things, they directly affect the quality of urban life and, when valued, can be the sort of intangibles that separate really great cities from the wannabes. For Raleigh, these cases are compounded by a stubborn resistance at the county level to participate in a plan for regional transit—something that would be critical to making a new park on the Dix property a major destination like many people are hoping for. It is hard to make big moves while thinking with small minds.

Assuming Raleigh successfully acquires the land, it will need to quickly craft a coherent vision for the park that can garner some semblance of consensus. It is highly unlikely that a patron will step forward, as was the case in Tulsa, where the George Kaiser Family Foundation pledged $200 million for its massive new park. Raleigh will likely have to rely on a more grassroots approach, along with significant public bond support, in order to get anything built. An overarching vision that manages to both inspire and seem reasonable will be needed to get backing by the public.

Dorothea Dix campus. Photo by flickr user Mike P.

Equally important will be to hire the right design consultant. There have been a number of famous big city projects designed by A-list landscape architects over the past few years that will undoubtedly attract Raleigh’s attention. However, it would be a mistake to select a consultant based on name recognition or perceived cachet. It will be critical to select a firm that proves it can be intuitive about, and responsive to, the history, culture, ecology, community, and site conditions specific to the campus and to Raleigh. Merely reinterpreting successful precedent from other places will not cut it.

In the end, building huge parks is not the only answer for cities striving to attract people. It can’t hurt—at least when done well—but an all eggs in one basket approach will not ensure success. Cities like Raleigh can certainly benefit from aiming high, but sometimes proving adept at many small moves is just as important.

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