A Forest in the City in the Forest

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In Atlanta, a surviving old-growth woodland becomes a teaching tool.

By Jonathan Lerner

Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History occupies a formidable 1992 postmodernist structure by Graham Gund Architects. Visitors enter through a lobby that looks down into an octagonal atrium dominated by enormous dinosaur skeletons posed as if on the brink of carnage. Beyond the atrium’s glazed rear facade is a narrow concrete terrace. Then the ground behind the building pitches steeply down 45 feet to a creek. So from inside, there’s a horizontal view straight out into the tree canopy, a promise of respite from the vaguely daunting scale and sense of menace inside.

This wooded ravine, which is sort of the reason the museum exists, was neglected and inaccessible until a recent intervention by Sylvatica Studio. Now, beginning right at the atrium’s back doors and set into the terrace’s pavement, the wooden planking of an elevated walkway leads into the trees. Not far along the walkway, just visible where it turns, a 26-foot-high, latticelike but curvilinear “tree pod” beckons from the midst of branches and leaves. Its shape and color mimic the blossom of the tulip tree, a common tree in these woods. The pod is a place to stop, or sit, gently protected by its rounded tracery. But it also offers a sweeping panorama down to the creek and streamside meadow. “It’s 35 feet off the ground. We wanted people to feel slightly—not afraid—but thrilled. ‘What is this experience I’m having?’” explains Sylvatica’s founder, Susan Stainback, ASLA.

From the tulip pod, a second one shaped like a cluster of fern fronds is visible farther along. Stainback says, “It was important that these moments appear to be an organic extension of the forest. So the idea of using biomimetic form was compelling.” The walkway itself can be felt to sway slightly as people pass, and this is on purpose. “We wanted to transcend that physical, mechanical, structural experience of the museum right at the beginning.”

In the uncommon experience of walking through the tree canopy, the pods give visitors a chance to pause and get oriented. Photo by Timothy Hursley.

In addition to a master plan for the Fernbank property, Sylvatica’s project there comprises a network of paths, viewpoints, and outdoor education spaces accessed via the canopy walkway, plus habitat restoration on the wooded hillsides, stream banks, and lowland meadow of the 10 acres immediately next to the museum building. This area, now called the WildWoods, serves visitors as introduction, inducement, and a portal to a significant surviving stand of old-growth forest, for the restoration and management of which Sylvatica has also developed a scheme. “The big idea was to create a direct connection to the forest, both programmatically and physically,” Stainback says. Until recently, museum and forest were separated by a small intervening tract; its acquisition makes the latter finally possible.

In 2011, the museum was prompted to articulate a strategic plan, because a 48-year lease was ending, under which the forest had been managed and used for education by DeKalb County. The plan’s three goals were to “tie back to the legacy of the forest, to physically connect the museum to the forest,” says Jennifer Grant Warner, the museum president and CEO, and “to identify where we have areas of opportunity” elsewhere on the grounds to express the institution’s mission. Translating these intentions into landscape architecture and restoration has been a big undertaking for a small, young firm; besides Stainback, there are only Ryan Jenkins and Curtis Alter. An Atlanta native, Stainback founded Sylvatica after having studied and worked in Boston. She moved home to “try to have a positive influence on a place that I cared about that wasn’t already saturated with people coming out of the schools in the Northeast,” she says. Sylvatica completed several smaller environmental restoration projects and became “known as one of the leading firms in Atlanta relative to ecological planning and sustainability,” she says. Because of the success of those projects, they were asked to interview at Fernbank against AECOM and some of the larger, more traditional architecture, engineering, and landscape architecture firms.

The form of the tulip tree blossom inspired one of the tree pods. Image courtesy Sylvatica Studio.

Atlantans sometimes refer to their town as “a city in a forest”—it has tree canopy over nearly 48 percent of its area. Some of this is remnants of the virgin forest that once blanketed the American East. Fernbank is located in an especially leafy early suburb, Druid Hills, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons. Given the constructed naturalism typical of their work, it is ironic that such a significant stand of undomesticated forest is situated there. It’s as if the existing contours and vegetation required the Olmsteds to specify less manipulation than usual.

One bit of artifice they did envision, damming a creek for a lake, was never constructed. And the owner of a sizable tract sought by Druid Hills’ developers refused to sell. The owner’s daughter, Emily Harrison, a visionary early environmentalist who named their property Fernbank, persuaded her siblings to sell their last 70 acres to what is now the nonprofit Fernbank, Inc., in 1939. Fernbank was originally formed to establish a school for nature education. The school was never built, but the educational purpose is now embodied in the museum—which sits in a spot that would have been partly inundated by that Olmsted lake—and in Fernbank Forest, at 65 acres said to be the largest original Piedmont woodland surviving in an urban context.

The WildWoods walkway leads around and down toward the creek and the forest proper, in some places at grade and in others raised. From below, the columns supporting it and the pods aren’t easy to pick out. They are smaller in diameter than the largest trees, and painted a slightly greenish gray so they simply read as trunks. They also mimic trees in how they are “planted.” Each column sits on a small rectangular plate, from which two steel piles descend into the ground. “It lands at the ground just like the root flare of a tree, and then it has the in-depth structure below,” Stainback says. The plates are aligned with the topography, not with the structure above them. Detailed drawings were made to determine the siting of these walkway supports relative to the trees’ critical root zones. “It was threading the needle.”

At points there are simple interpretive installations depicting things like animal tracks and scat, different kinds of bark, and the variety of textures in nature. “WildWoods is a way to prime your senses, so when you go into a place like the forest, you’re really observing,” Warner says. There’s a rudimentary weather station, and the Fernbug Hotel for pollinators. Interpretive text is minimal. “We didn’t want it to be signapalooza,” Warner says. A screened pavilion projecting over the hillside serves as classroom and lab. Side paths lead to educational play areas aimed at different age groups. An outdoor Nature Gallery shows rotating installations; the first one was the Atlanta sculptor J. D. Koth’s hobbit-like domed and spired structures of woven branches, irresistible for small people to clamber through. In an area meant for ages eight and younger, called Nature Stories, a simulated creek where water flows down a network of rocky channels has hinged gates that allow kids to direct the stream. (On a recent morning, right after many Atlanta facilities had observed “a day without water,” turning off fountains, some kids were playing near this still-dry water feature. When a trickle suddenly began to emerge, first one and then another noticed, and the collective race to dam the flow was on. “C’mon!” “You want to try it?” “We can beat this!”)

Image courtesy Sylvatica Studio.

The exhibits themselves were designed by the Los Angeles-based Thinkwell Group, but the thought behind their siting is a significant, if subtle, example of Sylvatica’s approach to the WildWoods plan. Nature Stories and a more physically challenging area for older kids called Adventure Outpost are not visible on first emerging from the museum, but are close enough to be heard and noticed—and easily reached, with quick return, too, to use the building’s services. The Nature Stories space was previously an aboveground detention pond, so there were no large trees to be removed; now this space sits atop an underground stormwater detention system with increased capacity. The Nature Gallery area was heavily invaded by invasive shrubs, so there, too, few desirable plants were sacrificed.

By no means was all the educational intent left to the exhibition designers. There is a route from the creek back up to the museum through a rather steep draw, passing twice under the much longer winding path of the elevated walkway. If ignored, it would almost certainly have been trampled into an informal line of desire anyway. Sylvatica’s solution was to establish it with a series of short flights of steps, unpaved but rustically defined by timbers. This is also an ephemeral flow way. The slope has been stabilized, as if randomly, with big rocks, and at several points the path itself is crossed by granite curbstones laid on their sides atop gravel and riprap. Stainback explains, “The drainage in a small storm flows under the ground, through those rocks, and into the wetland. In large storms it flows over the granite. It gives people immediate contact with that experience. You can see it happening. You can even walk through it.” The plantings here are based on vegetation patterns in similar North Georgia draws, including native azaleas and ferns, mayapple and pawpaw, and umbrella tree and American hornbeam.

Image courtesy Sylvatica Studio.

In a larger sense, “our project site is a good place to teach about hydrological systems as part of Fernbank’s natural science programming,” Stainback says. The eastern subcontinental divide runs less than a mile away. “One of the great ecological strengths of Fernbank Forest is that because of the topography, urban runoff from lands around it doesn’t flow into it. The forest is in its own small subwatershed. Rainwater that falls in the forest simply runs over leaf litter, to the stream, and then out. The few residential lots that do send in overland runoff tend to be very deep and wooded.”

The challenge of simultaneously rendering the old forest accessible and ensuring its healthy preservation was addressed by the complex site-analysis phase of master planning. Some areas of investigation would be pretty obvious to delve into, such as topography, vegetation, species, hydrology, and soils. Soil carbon sequestration levels, by the way, were found to be very high, confirming that the land had not been plowed. Other queries were more rarefied. The imperative to provide visitors with a distinctive and revelatory, even profound, experience made analysis and diagramming of immersion in the forest, and its perceived edges, especially vital. The property, after all, is not enormous. Knowing where within it the perception of being surrounded by nature is complete and where hints of the encroaching built environment begin to intrude indicated the best locations for trails that have an educational purpose. Places “where one feels more immersed tend to be the areas where plant growth is most dense and diverse, where soils are least disturbed, and where wildlife and natural systems tend to be more intact,” Stainback says. Even in the WildWoods, which, though wooded, has been historically much disturbed, these studies indicated where views could be “focused up and down these immersed corridors, and directed away from the areas that take one out of the natural setting.”

The lowland meadow has been replanted with native grasses including river oats. Photo by Timothy Hursley.

Given the potential for erosion and habitat destruction, the elimination of invasive plants is being done painstakingly, by hand. There is a substantial population of salamanders, for example, presumably sheltering for now under the patches of ivy. So it’s an ongoing, slow process. “Emphasis on slow,” Gus Kaufman, a birder who leads Audubon Society walks in the forest, grumbled recently, adding that the name WildWoods “is awfully pretentious—it’s not wild woods.” Residents of Druid Hills, famously protective of their historic neighborhood, became supportive of the museum’s plans once, as Warner says, “we sat with them in their backyards”; they grasped that if anything, the master plan would channel the Olmstedian spirit of the place. But, as often occurs with projects on what is perceived to be public land, even when it isn’t, some people have been resentful, specifically of the fact that access to the forest was closed for a period and is now limited, whereas it was freely open when managed by the county. Stainback recalls “preposterous” assertions by a few people on social media: The museum was going to log the forest, or install a zip line. Of course, the invasive species presence says something about the county’s long management of the property. Still, an online petition with 751 signatures objects to what Fernbank has done and asserts its “inherent duty to use the forest as a teaching tool for as many people as possible.”

Without steps and handrails, the flow way would likely have been a destructive pathway of desire. Photo by Dorian Shy.

Entry now requires a museum ticket: kids $16, adults $18. But the educational mission has been enhanced. Since WildWoods opened and the forest reopened, museum attendance is up by about 15 percent. There are five new outdoor programs for K–12 students. Schoolkids on field trips pay $7, though of the 50,000 who come every year, 15,000 from high-poverty Title 1 schools pay a further reduced, or entirely waived, admission. The husbanding of a nearly pristine environment involves limits. “That’s something we had to address” in public presentations, says Stainback, who believes that to most people it became clear “that we understood the more intimate details about the place and were passionate about communicating those to people, and about producing aesthetically compelling graphics that pulled them in, that allowed them to access what we were feeling so strongly attracted to and passionate about protecting.”

Jonathan Lerner’s memoir, Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary, was published in 2017.

Project Credits
Client Fernbank Museum of Natural History/Fernbank, Inc., Atlanta. Prime Consultant, Lead Planner, Lead Designer Sylvatica Studio, Atlanta (Susan Stainback, ASLA, principal; Ryan Jenkins, associate landscape architect; Curtis Alter, landscape architect). Master Planning and Landscape Consultants Reed Hilderbrand, Cambridge, Massachusetts (John Kett, ASLA, principal). Architect Perkins+Will, Atlanta. Civil Engineer Long Engineering, Atlanta. Structural Engineer Uzun + Case, Atlanta; CFD Structural Engineering, Atlanta. Ecological Assessment/Forest Stewardship Plan Steven N. Handel, Honorary ASLA, Rutgers University Program in Ecology and Evolution, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Christina M. K. Kaunzinger, Rutgers University Department of Landscape Architecture, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Historical/Cultural Evolution Overview Tunnell and Tunnell Landscape Architecture, Atlanta. Exhibit Design Thinkwell Group, Los Angeles. Planting Contractors Boak Landscaping, Cumming, Georgia; Rock Spring Restorations, Atlanta. General Contractor Van Winkle Construction, Atlanta.

One thought on “A Forest in the City in the Forest”

  1. Really, who can read your light blue script. and smaller than black text! and a thin font. Get serious. R. Terry Schnadelbach, FAAR

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