Park design experts start from the ground up

Emancipation Park. Photo by Jack Looney Emancipation Park. Photo by Jack Looney

What should a public park contain? Swings and slides, shaded benches, a grassy picnic spot? Should there be gestures toward the region’s history, ecology and culture? Could a park be a place of encounter, of healing?

In June, following their decision to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from park grounds, city councilors issued a Request for Proposals to redesign the recently renamed Emancipation and Justice parks. That RFP was withdrawn on August 25 following the tragic August 12 white nationalist rally, but City Council decided last week to issue a new RFP under a two-phased approach.

In the first phase, the city calls for a wide-ranging community discussion about the purpose and character of the downtown public spaces, in an effort to fully incorporate residents’ values and intentions into the process. While an ongoing court challenge delays the removal of the Confederate statues, designers are also tasked with adding elements to the parks that would “reinterpret” the statues while they are still in place, to provide a more complete and honest narrative of Charlottesville’s past.

Phase I is slated to take a year to complete. Phase II (under a separate RFP to begin when the statues’ fate has been determined), will create new comprehensive designs for both parks.

Back to the drawing board

Unlike the landscape surrounding a private residence or office building, “a park is a public space that belongs to everyone, and a lot of meaning is embedded in it because of that,” says Joe Celentano, principal with VMDO Architects, whose offices overlook Emancipation Park. Landscape architects think deeply about the interactions between people and their environment, and are acutely aware of the ways public spaces affect communities.

The city’s initial RFP frustrated many local designers with its condensed start-to-finish time frame (18 months), limited financial commitment ($1 million) and scant articulation of vision or values for the project. Some have suggested that a three-year process might be more appropriate, particularly for allowing a collaborative discussion among the city’s residents.

“The first months to perhaps a year will be about healing and listening,” says Thomas Woltz, principal with Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, “the second year about design and the third year about construction. If you storm in with a design, if the pace is too fast, it will fail.”

UVA professor of landscape architecture Elizabeth Meyer, who consulted with city councilors on the new RFP, agrees. “Those sites mean something now that they didn’t last May, and we’re not at a place yet where we know how we want to react to that,” she says.

Expert designers—perhaps everywhere, but particularly in Charlottesville—are careful not to presume a vision for the parks. The key, they insist, is the process.

“Vision is not made on an island; it’s made on a foundation of values,” says VMDO senior associate Andres Pacheco. “So the first question is, what are the values of the city and its residents?” Though an unambiguous expression of those values in an RFP could be a jumping-off point, Pacheco’s colleague Celentano wonders if the two might have to proceed hand in hand. “Maybe the design of the parks has to be about helping to clarify what are our values.”

The city’s plan envisions a public engagement phase run by the design firm that is awarded the contract. The team should include designers with expertise in landscape architecture, the history of the American South, social equity and urban design, as well as a facilitator who is trained to draw out opinions, to weigh the louder and softer voices and make sense of the raw emotions—a sort of community-wide therapist.

Vinegar Hill Park. Photo by

Eye on the prize

When the designers at Bushman Dreyfus Architects decided to launch a public design competition earlier this year, they originally thought that Emancipation Park would be a nice location to start asking some questions about public art and community identity.  “[The park] was our initial site, but then, of course, events overtook us all,” says Principal Jeff Bushman.  “So we shifted our focus to Vinegar Hill Park, a small site at the west end of the downtown pedestrian mall.”

The competition, dubbed The BDA Prize, seeks proposals for a work of public art that will “embody the values and aspirations of a diverse community.”  Against the backdrop of the gentrification of neighboring Vinegar Hill fifty years ago, the competition poses questions about how best to express true narratives about our shared history, society, and culture.  Entries are to be submitted on a 30 by 40 inch poster, and BDA welcomes anyone who wishes to participate.  Regardless of material, media, or form, proposals must be focused on finding common ground, and “as such, they are aspirational.”

The idea is to generate discussion on several fronts, says Bushman.  “What in the public realm can we somehow agree is representative of us as a community?  We may never all agree, and it would be boring if we did, but what we have to do is be able to talk to each other.”  Another set of questions touches on who is the decider.  “It could be good to have a discussion about who gets to decide what our public monuments are, and how that works,” he says.  “Is it Mr. McIntire?  If so, why him?”

The firm plans to host panel discussions and other public events at the Jefferson School in the spring to encourage an open dialogue about the entries.  “We plan to hold this competition every year,” says Bushman, “though it will be harder in future years to identify an issue that is accessible to everybody, like this one is.”  Due by February 2nd, 2018, entries will be judged by a jury of five cultural and design leaders, and monetary prizes will be awarded.  Learn more at

Local architectural historian Louis Nelson points to UVA’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers as an ongoing project whose design team carefully cultivated many different community voices. “That’s an example of an intensive, highly engaged collaborative process that fundamentally changed the design, messaging, content and location of that memorial,” says Nelson. “To try to walk in on the front end with a design already on paper would have been a catastrophe.”

Just as important, says Woltz, are the stories of a place. NBW begins its projects with a deep dive into the ecology, history and culture of a site to find what makes it unique. “This is an old earth,” he says, “and so often, stories of oppression or the taking of land go unrecognized or, at worst, hidden under our feet. Landscape is remarkably powerful at hiding and erasing history.” With a deliberate process of discovery, a park’s design can represent unique stories that only its native soil can tell.

“The designers can collect the clues and make refinements,” says Pacheco. “But we all as citizens have to figure out whether this is about history or the future, is it about grieving or about celebrating, is it a center or is it a space? It’s going to be challenging.

“Maybe the most beautiful thing about the project, then, is actually the process, not the product,” he says. “I can imagine the process being the heart of it.”

Ground rules

Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) sits on one acre of land on a square downtown block, next door to the Central Library. Philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire donated the land for the original Lee Park in 1917 (and for the 0.4-acre Jackson Park in 1918), and commissioned large memorial sculptures of Confederate generals to be placed there in honor of his parents. (His father, George, had served as Charlottesville’s mayor during the Civil War.) Other than a few replanted trees and shrubs, not much has changed in the parks since 1920.

Far from a blank slate, Charlottesville’s downtown parks are imbued with a history—both remote and recent—that will freight every step of the redesign process. Before work can begin in earnest, several legal and administrative processes will have to play out. Although City Council voted earlier this year to remove the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues from the two parks (at an estimated cost of $300,000 each), their fate is currently in limbo until a court decides whether a Virginia law that prohibits localities from disturbing memorials to war veterans applies in this case.

Adding to the set of obstacles for removal is the fact that both statues are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and, as the first public park established in the city, Emancipation Park is likely eligible for the same honor. These designations mean the sites must undergo a compliance review before they can be changed, explains local landscape architect and historic preservation expert Liz Sargent. “Someone with the Virginia State Historic Preservation Office is going to have to determine whether the existing historic fabric can retain its value if the statue is moved or if the park’s landscape is significantly changed.”

1. Local landscape architect Gregg Bleam worked with Bushman Dreyfus Architects to refresh and beautify Booker T. Washington Park, Charlottesville’s first African-American park. 2. Nelson Byrd Woltz designed Citygarden, a three-acre park in the heart of downtown St. Louis that celebrates the cultural and natural histories of the city and its environs. 3. Charlottesville landscape architect Nancy Takahashi worked in tandem with VMDO to create Scottsville’s Canal Basin Square, an interpretive park that chronicles the inextricable connection of Scottsville to the James River.

On top of that, the original donation of the land for Justice Park came with strings attached. McIntire stipulated in the deed transferring the land to the city that it must be named “Jackson Park,” that it remain a park and that no structures other than the Jackson statue be built there, including other monuments. Legal challenges may be posed one after another by groups opposed to altering the parks, further delaying any future design phase.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, UVA professor Meyer points out the statues are quite large for such small spaces. “But even if you take the statue out of Emancipation Park, it’s still not a successful space,” she says. “It’s lifted up above the street, which limits visibility across, so just entering may make people feel uncomfortable. Also, instead of buildings on all sides, the open parking lot [on East Market Street] creates a problem of closure.” As well, the park is not currently barrier free, with sets of stairs on three sides limiting universal access.

Confederate monuments aside, there is a growing awareness among architects and geographers of a simple and sobering concept called “racialized topography,” evident in the ways cities have historically developed. “The parks are racialized not just because of the statues, but also because of their elevation,” says Meyer. “High places are dry and have good views and tend to be white places in the American South. The parks are in a place where they read as privileged, and those things are not going to be changed by just taking away a statue and putting in a fountain.”

Paint me a picture

Ever the optimists, landscape architects try to wrap all of these considerations into their quest to create something both beautiful and affecting. Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American landscape architecture and designer of Central Park in New York City, said, “A park is a work of art, designed to produce certain effects upon the minds of men,” an idea that inspires Meyer and her colleagues. “We know from neuroscience that immersion in nature does affect your brain,” she says, “and so parks can become centering places of memory, or of personal experience.”

“There are essential human needs that a park can supply—shade, fragrance, prospect (as one looks out across one’s city), places of quiet gathering or larger civic engagement, contact with plants, color, water,” says Woltz. “Beyond these, if we can make the ecologic and cultural histories of a place evident to the public, then the design can help to build a strong bond between people and the place they live.”

New way of thinking

WHAT IF… like the Freedom of Speech Wall at the end of the mall, one element of the design is nothing until someone does something to engender dialogue, like, for instance, an empty stage.—Jeff Bushman, principal with Bushman Dreyfus Architects

Elizabeth Meyer. Courtesy subject

WHAT IF… we identified a network, or constellation, of historical and cultural sites all around Charlottesville that told a more interesting, less didactic story, and liberated us from focusing just on the statues.—Elizabeth Meyer, UVA professor of landscape architecture

WHAT IF… we were to excavate in Emancipation Park and submerge a portion of the Lee statue underground. …There could be a subterranean museum, and a garden terrace on top, so we would leave the statue on site but reclaim the public space.—Louis Nelson, architectural historian

Andres Pacheco. Photo by Eze Amos

WHAT IF… the park went from being a hot potato to just a wonderful place for children to play—to encourage children of all races, religions and backgrounds to play together, and they’re going to remember this park because of that.—Andres Pacheco, VMDO senior associate

At once down-to-earth and starry-eyed, like visionaries with protractors, landscape designers tend to dream big. “What if you could look four years into the future at the park’s opening ceremony, what would you want to see?” asks Celentano. “People of all races supporting what’s been done, celebrating something that brings people together, right? So, we have to back it up from there.”

Meyer sees value in separating the commemoration issues from how to make the park a good social space. “Instead of thinking of it as something empty waiting for a thing to be put there, it could be more of a place of encounter, and that may start with how you design a bench or a seat,” she says. “In Central Park, some of the benches are quite long, so you sit down next to strangers. We could try to imagine this as a place where you could encounter people not like you in a way that’s dignified and comfortable, eye to eye.”

Even within the small city block of Emancipation Park, designers’ imaginations take flight. What if the entire space was a children’s playground, inviting kids of all races and backgrounds to simply play together? What if it was a lush garden, planted with native species of flowers, grasses and trees? What if Emancipation Park was linked with Justice Park and other sites along a larger constellation of historic places, forming a trail through the city?

“If we could take a vision and actually paint with it—paint with emotions and intent—we would do it,” says Pacheco. “The job of an architect is to fine tune and strengthen the vision with whatever built materials come to this park. If it’s about healing, or playing, or unity, every detail in the park should point to that.”

And while the idea of the community arriving at a consensus on a particular design is appealing, the steps along the way may be more important.

“The goal,” says Celentano, “is to have a very elaborate and inclusive and complete process so that people agree on what the vision is, and feel that their voices have been heard. Only then can the ultimate design be satisfying, because it honors the vision.”



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