CURBED: The nation’s most exciting park project is taking shape in North Carolina

July 9, 2019

Curbed Article header with title, Curbed logo and image of Raleigh skyline

The 308-acre Dorothea Dix Park wants to be a model for civic space

If you’ve ever wondered how different cities’ signature parks, like New York’s Central Park or Chicago’s Lincoln Park, would look if they were designed in the 21st century, keep your eyes on Raleigh, North Carolina.

Dorothea Dix Park, currently taking shape on a former mental hospital campus adjacent to the southern city’s growing downtown, may be the nation’s most exciting park project right now. It’s being described as the Central Park of North Carolina—and it’s not hard to see why.

How many cities get to build a new, 308-acre downtown park on protected land that’s mostly been spared the last century of urban development and redevelopment? How many get to do so after projects like the High Line, Beltline, and others have showcased the promise and peril of contemporary parks as engines for both redevelopment and displacement?

In February, the city council approved a new master plan for the Raleigh park from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the landscape design firm behind Brooklyn Bridge Park and Maggie Daley Park in Chicago. It features a multifaceted design incorporating community spaces, botanic gardens, water features, and secluded woods.

“Operating a park while planning a park, this isn’t how things normally happen,” says Kate Pearce, planning supervisor for Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh. “This will continually challenge us to be bold, but it’ll also be a testing ground for new ideas.”

While a spokesperson for the firm wouldn’t comment on the plan—“the project is just emerging from the planning stage and not yet a landscape design”—others have described it as balancing between two visions, acting as both a bridge to a more bustling 21st-century civic center and an escape into nature in the middle of the city. The city’s parks department and the public-private conservancy that will manage Dix will begin updating park infrastructure this year, in anticipation of breaking ground on phase one next year. There’s no final price tag on the project, but Pearce has previously said similar projects cost about a million dollars per acre.

Modern parks create place, and define a lifestyle

City leaders hope the park will be not only a major amenity for current city residents, but also a magnet for talent and development. Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who helped spearhead the push to purchase the land and develop the park, says part of the drive to develop Dix is rooted in economic shifts... 

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