Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve

About 20 years ago, I designed a system of trails, observation decks, steps, and boardwalks for a 136-acre nature preserve in Cary, North Carolina. It was an absolute delight to work on this project, because Hemlock Bluffs is such a magical place – a natural oasis within an area of suburban development. It features a series of tall north-facing bluffs that shelter a community of Eastern Hemlocks. This is unusual because these trees typically do not grow naturally in the piedmont region of North Carolina – this species is much more common in the cooler Appalachian Mountains more than 200 miles to the west. In addition, the preserve includes an extensive upland forest and a wooded floodplain area with vernal pools and a rich variety of plants.

A system of steps takes visitors down along the bluffs.

One of several observation decks affords views of large Hemlock trees growing on the bluffs.

Plant beds near the Stevens Nature Center building are filled with native wildflowers and trees.

A boardwalk meanders through a lush floodplain.

Photos by Alice Webb

Newton Hill at Elm Park

Worcester, Massachusetts, is known for its numerous hills. One of those high points, called Newton Hill, is part of historic Elm Park. It was acquired by the city in the late 1800s and a system of trails was built at that time. My company, EarthDesign Landscape Architecture LLC, designed a master plan for Newton Hill in 2007, which retains the historic trails (shown in red in the plan above), adds some new ones, and eliminates steep unplanned paths. A paved multi-purpose loop trail is also proposed along the perimeter, near the street level, and improvements are recommended to trailheads along the adjacent streets. In addition, a memorial at the top of the hill is planned that will celebrate Edward Winslow Lincoln, the chairman of the Worcester Parks Commission for 26 years in the late 1800s, who was instrumental in the city’s acquisition of the Newton Hill property.

The original system of trails gradually winds up the wooded slope, and one of these pathways fades out where the forest opens up to a grassy summit. The plan includes a continuation of this trail, to be surfaced with stone pavers, spiraling up the hillside and terminating at the memorial site at the top (as shown in the plan detail above). All components of the memorial would be at ground level, for two reasons. First, we wanted it have a low visual impact on the landscape and to contain an element of surprise, not revealing itself until one reaches the top of the hill. Secondly, we wanted to avoid including any vertical elements that might be attractive to vandals, mainly because a high school is situated adjacent to the park site.

One of the historic trails on Newton Hill
This trail is close to where the forest opens up to the grassy summit.
One recommendation of the master plan is to selectively thin out some of the smaller trees in spots to open up views from the summit.

Not much of the plan has been implemented to date, due to lack of funding. However, a signage system has been installed, and the non-profit Friends of Newton Hill has continued efforts to raise money for the project and to keep the site maintained.