How can landscape design help people better understand history? That was the challenge that Thomas Woltz and his team at Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBWLA) sought to answer with a thought-provoking new project that opened on April 21, timed with Earth Day this week.
As part of a broader 80-acre green plan for the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), NBWLA transformed an area once dominated by pavement and buildings into a seven-acre park that provides a verdant commons for the campus community while commemorating an important site for the civil rights movement. The space, then, aims to marry ecological justice with social justice.
“It is firmly my belief that environmental justice and social justice are inextricably linked, and we cannot have one without the other,” Woltz told ELLE Decor in an e-mail. “This project makes that belief manifest for all who visit the site to see.”
The park’s genesis was shaped by the project’s research phase. Woltz and his team learned that the setting of the new project would include the original site of the Pickrick Diner, where three Black students were denied entry into the all-white diner one day after the Civil Rights Act was passed in July 1964. The protest led to a court case that resulted in upholding the historic legislation.
To highlight those events, Woltz’s team designed a contemplative space in the footprint of the original diner. They first outlined the perimeter of the original restaurant with steel edging and filled the area with stones and native grasses. Three towering concrete slabs jut from the ground to commemorate the three students, George Willis, Jr., Albert Lee Dunn, and Woodrow T. Wilson. These monoliths face three longleaf pine trees and are surrounded by a grove of tupelo trees. When the deciduous trees lose their leaves, the three evergreens will continue to reveal themselves within the landscape.
“Literal gestures allow people to hold hands with history,” Woltz said, “while a narrative that is brought forward in more abstract and poetic ways elicits an emotional connection to the site.”
The contemplative site is part of a larger 80-acre landscape and woodland that will evoke streams that once flowed across the campus, later erased by the construction of roads and buildings. The EcoCommons will provide a setting for classes and research, a campus lawn, and a place of reflection for the students and the community. The entire project will be designed to capture and reuse 50 percent of rainwater that falls over the area.
Woltz calls the broader EcoCommons site a “living laboratory.” The variety of landscapes and diversity of the ecology—woodland areas, creeks, outcroppings, and lawn—make it stand apart from a typical college lawn or campus.
Though Woltz and his team have overseen the landscape design of high-profile spaces such as New York City’s Hudson Yards and the Flight 93 Memorial, set to open in Pennsylvania this fall, the landscape architect says the firm is in the midst of what he calls “a renaissance of southern landscapes.”
In addition to continuing to add to the Georgia Tech EcoCommons project, they are currently working on new projects in Asheville, N.C.; Savannah, Ga.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Houston—ones, according to Woltz, “that tell similarly powerful stories of horticulture and culture.”
“I have often said that our human history is embedded in the land right beneath our feet,” Woltz said. “We have to learn to hear it, see it, and seek it. It is very easy to ignore if that’s what we choose to do, particularly when that history is no longer visible.”
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