Dorothea Dix Park — Place, Community, Planet

Dorothea Dix Park — Photo Credit Raleigh Parks

The Design Imperatives conference hosted in Raleigh this September focused on challenges facing our region today and opportunities for the future regarding how we build more connected, sustainable communities. The first day began with a series of walking tours to public spaces in the city, some in process and others completed. At the top of my list was Dorothea Dix Park, a 308-acre master planned public park located southwest of downtown Raleigh. We began our tour of the park-in-progress from its northwest margin which follows the Rocky Creek waterway. The hillside leading up from the creek is like a steep canyon wall in comparison to the low, rolling hills of the Piedmont around it. At the top of the ridge sits a dozen historic structures from different decades over the last century. Here our guide began a tour that grounded us in the history of the land, and the vision for its future.

The park’s history is complex and at times violent. The land was first stewarded by Native Americans as a foraging and hunting grounds. When they were killed or displaced by colonial forces it was then cultivated by enslaved people forced to labor on the plantation once sited there. At the end of the Civil War the Union army camped on the ridgeline with canons pointed toward Raleigh awaiting the surrender of secessionist forces fortified there. And during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, forays into psychiatric treatment at the former hospital on the site were fraught with numerous human rights abuses. The project team and community members engaged in creating Dorothea Dix Park know this history is critical to understand and discuss to create new stories. Parks always contain multiple layers of history, but no single story defines the communities that now exist on landscapes of past atrocities.

In her time Dorothea Dix was a reformer of medical treatment and offered pathways through which new stories would emerge for the site. The park’s program incorporates this history and conversations about the land’s future into its design, weaving together a multi-layered experience. Standing on the highest point of elevation in the park during the tour, we turned west to see the field where Fayetteville-born rapper J. Cole’s ‘Dreamville’ festival was held in April. Our guide shared the vision of a future pedestrian trestle bridge that will descend from the ridge to the field like a steel angel of infrastructure from the park’s center, connecting cyclists and pedestrians around Raleigh to this future cultural hub. In the grove on the park’s eastern edge, we lamented the loss of several mature oak trees in this year’s storms and discussed the trees that might now thrive in the absence of their shade. In the Flower Field, we caught the last yellow flashes of color from mammoth sunflowers. I couldn’t help but think of the bright-eyed students who will visit the park on field trips, or on weekends with friends and family, learning the names of the flora and fauna that call it home — their thumbs growing greener with every visit.

The intricate ways in which place, community, and planet are threaded together across North Carolina truly are encapsulated by the program of this space. I left the conference connected to likeminded urbanists from around the state, and I look forward to what the future holds for public space in their locales, and seeing the vision of Dorothea Dix Park unfold in the future. If you’re headed to Raleigh make it a point to stop by and check the park out for yourself — who knows, maybe you’ll leave with your own story to tell.

Note for the reader: I can’t adequately describe the park in the characters allotted here. If you’d like to familiarize yourself with the design and scope of the project before or after reading, there’s a great webpage here to help you do so.

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Advances the quality of the built environment, creates public awareness, and communicates the importance of urban design in Charlotte, NC.