Great parks define great cities. The Dorothea Dix Park Master Plan offers Raleigh a compelling vision for greatness that reaches deep into our sense of history and love of the land, a place where an individual can be alone in the landscape, yet where groups large and small can celebrate together. It envisions a place of recreation, of environmental restoration, of informal learning, and of community gatherings.
It has been said that parks are the lungs of the city. This Master Plan creates a framework for just that. It defines not just a green oasis in the heart of our community — although the park will, indeed, connect us to nature every day — but it also provides a rich mixture of places for the community to breathe deeply. Its highest aspiration is for us to work together to create a place not just in Raleigh, but of Raleigh. Let me explain.
The Master Plan
You can find the Master Plan online at https://dixpark.org/master-planning. It builds on three core concepts: 1) open up and connect, 2) build from what’s there, 3) and offer something for everyone.
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The first concept connects to Raleigh and Wake County’s remarkable greenway and open space system while allowing future opportunity for linkages to downtown and East Raleigh, the Fuller Heights and Boylan Heights neighborhoods, the Farmers Market, NC State’s Centennial Campus, and to the rest of the city.
In the second concept, build from what’s there, the rich history and exceptional physical setting inform six bold and evocative landscapes that define the park. Embedded within these landscapes are opportunities to honor the indigenous, farming, and healing histories of the land. The concept of this park as a place of wellness for mind and body in the present, as well as a place to honor the important legacy of those who lived here, worked here and were nurtured and healed here is critically important to this place, and this time in history:
The Creek: (inconsistent formatting) restores and widens the Rocky Branch Creek channel to a naturalized riparian landscape with a winding creek bed, stormwater ponds that improve water quality and provide wildlife habitat, trails and seating areas. At the same time, berms along Western Boulevard protect the park from traffic noise and accommodate the greenway bike and pedestrian trail.
The Grove: This “deep landscape” experience provides opportunities for science in the park and day camp programs. The Grove preserves Dix Hill’s beloved sledding hill while restoring an oak savanna ecology.
The Meadow: This expansive natural landscape offers urbanites nearly a mile of respite from the intense urban environment. At its heart is a meandering mown grass area for informal play and sunbathing with a carefully articulated edge of unmown prairie grasses, savanna shrub, and forest. From pick up ball games, to picnics, to birdwatching or wildflower photography, The Meadow reminds us of the agricultural heritage of the site and creates a sense of freedom while connecting Walnut Creek and the Farmers Market to the south, and Pullen Park to the north.
The Ridge: The highest portion of the park serves as the activity center surrounded by roughly a mile-long pedestrian promenade. Imagine joggers on the promenade weaving among families with strollers, people walking and bicycling, some checkers tables, and lots of benches. Observation points will take advantage of terrific views to the downtown skyline. It is the center of activity in the park – the symbolic high point as it was when the historic Hospital structure was designed in the 1850’s. The many features that could occur here on the Ridge include restaurants, plazas, gardens, cookout areas, children’s play courts, and performance areas. The wheels of my mind start spinning when I consider the possibilities.
The Valley and Grotto: Here the landscape is dramatically augmented by carving out an amphitheater, building an outcrop, and connecting that outcrop to The Ridge activity center via a trestle-like pedestrian walkway. This is high theater, designed to engage the daredevil in us. At the same time, it brings the community together for concerts and public events. It provides a dramatic “moment” in the park.
The Downtown Gateway: connects the park to downtown and the Fuller Heights neighborhood. Active use playgrounds, plazas, bus stops and other edge amenities adjoining Lake Wheeler Road form a link between downtown, Dix Park and the Farmer’s Market, and welcome visitors into the park experience.
The third concept, offer something for everyone, might be evident from the descriptions above. But that’s not all; we have the opportunity to build more into the park over time. The wonderful thing about a master plan is that it allows for future refinement by the community. And that brings me to the next question:
What is a master plan?
“A Master Plan is a ‘living document’ that provides a general verbal and illustrative framework for envisioning the potential future of a park. Predicated on conditions known, it is not the final implementation plan or the definitive blue print for what will be built. Rather, it is a dynamic, guiding tool, a structure and set of principles to be periodically reviewed, updated, and modified as deemed appropriate through ongoing rigorous public engagement processes that respond to evolving conditions and community needs and expectations” (Gene Bressler, former Head of Landscape Architecture, NC State University).
Conceived by visionaries as long as 15 years ago as the State of NC reconsidered the future of the Dorothea Dix Hospital, the idea of a signature park for our city in this location is the result of an unprecedented effort. Two governors, two mayors, community leaders who are part of the Dorothea Dix Conservancy, elected officials and many dedicated volunteers helped set the stage for this Master Plan. A competitive process among the best design firms in the world resulted in the selection of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates to help the community design this Plan. Led by the City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department, 22 months of public meetings, events, and comments collected from across our diverse community culminated in the Plan we have before us now.
The next step is a City Council vote for approval of the Master Plan, which is scheduled for February 19.
I strongly encourage approval of the Master Plan because I believe it will contribute to Raleigh’s continued prosperity and high quality of life. It’s rare to have a 300-acre park of this caliber so close to downtown. Like Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Dix Park will help sustain and celebrate Raleigh for generations as a great place to live, work, and play. After all, great parks define great cities.
Mark Elison Hoversten, PhD, is dean of the College of Design at N..C. State University.