About a quarter mile south of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s main building, a muddy creek winds its way through a tangled forest.

From a paved path, Rachel Woods, the director of the museum’s park operations, points to a pool of dark water surrounded by fallen branches and river rocks—the exit to a culvert running underneath the Reedy Creek Trail.

“I kind of grew up in streams like that, playing in water,” she says. “It’s such an asset for our park that is not really accessible right now because it’s so eroded, the banks are so incised.”

Even to my untrained eye, it’s clear the creek is not supposed to look like this. The water stands at the bottom of a two-foot trench, a deep channel floodwaters have carved. The creek banks are ragged and torn, exposing tree roots that dangle helplessly from the dirt. It’s like a gash in the skin of the earth.

This unnamed creek is the focus of a multi-year project to restore the museum’s 164-acre park, repairing damage done to the land in past years and preparing the landscape for the future stresses of climate change.

The 200-page Museum Park Vision Plan also outlines how landscape architects will make the park self-sustainable, cutting down on the maintenance needed for things like trail repairs.

“A landscape, to be sustainable, cannot require a lot of funding and labor over time. It’s just not maintainable,” says Woods. “We’re looking at restoring the site to what it would have been. I won’t see it in my lifetime, but I know what it’s gonna be over the long term.”

The water story

At different times in history, the museum park land was used as a prison farm, military training camp, and part of NC State University’s veterinary school. Crop growing and cattle grazing left the land stripped of its natural grasses. Later, trampling by boots and tanks kept plants from taking deep root.

The grasses that have taken hold in the park’s upper meadow today simply don’t have deep enough roots, says Martha Eberle, a landscape architect with Andropogon Associates, one of the companies involved in creating the park vision plan. Rains often run straight off the topsoil into the park below, washing sediment downhill, worsening water quality, and eroding areas downstream.

“It’s not all that different than having an impervious surface, like concrete or pavement,” Eberle says.

Part of the plan to restore the park includes planting warm-season grasses like wild rye and flowers like sunflowers and cornflowers in the upper meadows. These native plants have deep roots, Eberle says.

“They’re capturing more of that stormwater and and allowing it to filter back down into the water table,” she says. “Then that is setting off all of these relationships in the soil that’s allowing for more things to grow. More plants means more carbon being stored, in the actual plants but also in the roots and in the soil.”

The park vision plan also calls for expanding and protecting the park’s existing wetlands, and planting additional water species in the area that will help retain stormwater. Some paths will be rerouted to slope more gently down the hill and avoid biologically diverse areas.

“Just looking, I can tell water stands here,” says Woods, pointing to a clutch of river oats next to a wooden bridge that arcs over House Creek. “The plant material is telling me this area wants to be a wetland. The infrastructure [bridge] is in conflict with what the stream is trying to naturally do.”

Expanding wetlands and stormwater detention is one of the most important parts of the plan. As climate change worsens, North Carolina has started seeing stronger and more frequent storms that lead to flooding of rivers, roads, and highways.

“One of the main reasons we were brought in for the art museum project is that the landscape there is really feeling the effects of climate change,” Eberle says. Development around the museum and in Raleigh is putting additional strain on the landscape, she says.

“There’s a lot more impervious services surrounding the museum,” Eberle says. “So that’s bringing faster and higher volumes of stormwater in. Just being out there on any day, you can see the impacts it’s having.”

Improvements to the museum park will help mitigate flooding in House Creek and the Crabtree area, according to Woods.

“Our whole site is falling toward downtown. Blue Ridge Road is like the ridgeline,” Woods explains. “So [we’re] looking at how to, along the way, do little rain gardens or wetlands that will [naturally] let that water immerse into the ground, replenish the water table.”

At the heart of the project is the stream restoration, which involves moving dirt, removing fallen and dead trees and raising the level of the stream channel that’s been eroded over time, says Eberle. Even there, however, the team plans to work sustainably, ensuring nothing goes to waste.

“Any trees that have to be taken out or any trees that are already dead … we’ll repurpose those as structures in the stream restoration, or even milling up lumber for benches or signage,” Eberle says. “Any piece of a tree you can’t use, you build up these mounds of vegetation and let them decompose over time … in places that really need targeted soil building.”

Carbon conversion

One of the long-term goals of the park project is to restore the park’s natural habitats, removing invasive species and cultivating native plants. That, in turn, will help pull more carbon out of the air, says Woods.

“A lot of these plants that were native to the Piedmont region actually do a lot of carbon fixing,” Woods says. “They pull a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere and kind of store it in the ground.”

Almost every aspect of the plan helps increase the park’s potential for storing and sequestering carbon. The stream restoration will help create new wetland areas where plants can grow. The planting of native grasses will improve the park’s soil quality and reduce the need for irrigation and maintenance, which costs energy.

The plan will ultimately add more than 12 acres of forest to the park and install small trees and shrubs along the forest edge, adding to the green space and reducing the amount of turf. Plans include expansion of the existing walnut tree grove and installation of a bald cypress grove.

The process of restoring the park’s habitats will be a long one, however. Woods has already organized several community service days to take out invasive plants, but it’s an ongoing battle, she says. Ultimately, the work is worth it.

After volunteers took out much of the park’s privet, an invasive plant that prevents even tree seedlings from growing, they saw some native species naturally return to the park.

‘We saw lots of species of fern, even several species of orchids coming up, all because they now have some room to grow,” Woods says. “It’s thrilling, to be honest.

“It’s a lot of manual labor to do this work. So when you see those results of things we’ve planted … It’s just great to see the things you plant grow, and have that reward of ‘This is beautiful now.’”

Restoration of these natural habitats will hopefully bring native wildlife back into the park, Woods says. It will take time—years—but the park should eventually be a biodiverse haven for songbirds, owls, ducks, otters, turtles, salamanders, and even beavers.

Inspiring change

As new construction springs up around the museum and across the Triangle, Eberle is hoping the park’s environmentally friendly design will be an inspiration to developers, showing them how to work with the land.

“It really comes down to what we call a regenerative design,” she says. “You’re not just coming in and plopping down a building. You’re coming in and trying to understand the systems and the networks that are in place within that site … the ecological networks of water and soil and plants and animals. It’s really about knitting those systems back together.”

The Southeast has been a little slow to start using these concepts of environmentally friendly design, Eberle says. But as hurricanes sweep in, heat islands increase in temperature, and more people pour into Raleigh, they offer a promising solution to some of the area’s biggest problems.

“I do think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Eberle says. “Not every developer has a forest on their site they can protect. But there are principles [of regenerative design] you can bring into any development or any property.”

Meanwhile, museum staff plan to use the project to help educate museum and park visitors about nature. Hopefully, people will leave with a better understanding of the environment and how they can make some changes in their own backyard, Woods says. Expanded hands-on educational programs for everyone from elementary schoolers to ecology students at NC State are on the horizon.

The coronavirus pandemic has given many North Carolinians a greater appreciation for green spaces, Woods says. Starting in 2019, the museum park saw an explosion of visitors, with a 23 percent increase in the number of visitors in 2021 over that year. In 2020, the park was just shy of a million visitors.

“Having that kind of space for people to have serenity [is important],” Woods says. “That’s what we heard a lot from people, that they came to the park and they found peace and rejuvenation.”

In an urban setting like Raleigh, it’s important for people, especially children, to get out into nature, Woods says.

“Nature should be experienced,” she says. “It shouldn’t just be this sort of textbook [image] or elusive idea. It should be engaged with.”

Eberle, who also works on increasing social engagement with green spaces, agrees. One concept her company uses in design is biophilia, the innate instinct to connect with nature.

“It’s the concept that people need to experience nature in their everyday life in order to be the healthiest people we can be,” Eberle says. “So how do we bring that into the hard, urban environment?”

The overall goal of the project is to heal the park’s natural systems, create a more unified campus for the museum, and allow visitors to immerse themselves more deeply in nature, Eberle says.

“This is such a beloved landscape in Raleigh,” she says. “I think the museum is really interested in making sure that that legacy is continued. You can see [the park is] being threatened right now. You can see how the streams are suffering. I think [museum staff] saw that and realized if they didn’t do something, that they were going to lose this gem they have.” 

A free museum exhibit, To Be Rather Than to Seem, explores the history of the museum park and the new environmental vision plan designed by Andropogon Associates, Biohabitats, and WK Dickson. Work on the park, starting with the stream restoration, is expected to begin next year. See the NCMA Museum Park Vision Plan below. 

Ncma Museum Park Vision Plan Reduced File Size(1) by Jane Porter on Scribd

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.