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Preserving our cultural heritage through planning

A well-done master plan can help tell the story of a historic site while considering modern elements—all within a seamless design

By Andrew Kohr, Senior Landscape Architect (Atlanta, Georgia)

Oakland Cemetery, with its centuries-old trees, angelic statuary, and gothic mausoleums, is the crown jewel of Memorial Drive in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s the sort of space that attracts and inspires artists, poets, filmmakers—even hip-hop legends like Arrested Development, who headlined the cemetery’s annual Tunes from the Tombs music festival last year. Oakland is an active cemetery, a public park, and a historic site, creating a multi-dimensional destination for residents and foreign visitors alike.

I lead the team that was selected to help Atlanta update the cemetery’s master plan. I am passionate about preserving our cultural landscape, so this project has special meaning to me. Because I live in the nearby Cabbagetown neighborhood, I’m not just a consultant on this project—I’m also a stakeholder. And like many of my neighbors, I want to see Oakland endure.

The challenge? Our team had to navigate the constraints of a walled-in, 48-acre cemetery and the diverse expectations of a range of stakeholders. We are using a collaborative leadership approach and engaging old and new residents, long-time visitors who see Oakland as their own personal cemetery, the City of Atlanta, and the Historic Oakland Foundation (the cemetery’s non-profit steward). These and other stakeholders often have conflicting views. So how can the city make the best use of this landmark and public park? That’s where my team comes in.

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We must ensure the space is available and marketable while respectfully keeping the heart of Oakland sacred—that’s the definition of successful cultural landscape preservation. Besides recovering foliage (70 percent of Oakland’s tree canopy has been lost in the last 20 years due to climate change and one particularly nasty tornado) and making the space more accessible to various users, we are determining space needs for city and foundation staff as well as for future neighborhood residents. One example is the office space for city and foundation staff. Currently, they work in a beautiful but cramped 1890s Bell Tower; as we plan for future growth, more space is needed for not only staff, but events like weddings. Designing a new visitor facility that could provide space for both was added to our programmatic list.

It was important for us to not only develop a master plan for the cemetery and surrounding area, but figure out how the cemetery would interact with the surrounding community, as it is one of the largest green spaces in Atlanta. Oakland is a showplace of sculpture and architecture, and a botanical preserve with ancient oaks and magnolias, a place of great historical and recreational value that connects visitors to local community.

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Our team also developed a landscape management plan for the cemetery that included a comprehensive approach to applying treatment recommendations to maintain the site. I continue to serve on the Historic Oakland Foundation’s Board of Advisors and work with other board members and staff to assist with master plan implementation, acting as a design liaison.

My involvement throughout the project has proved crucial for the proper implementation of the master plan’s objectives, since they’ve occurred within a series of phases. Sometimes, as cultural landscape professionals, instead of preserving an old story, we make up a new one. So, I always keep in mind the importance of blending modern and historic elements cohesively so that we’re honoring our history while providing additional space the modern community demands. 

Bolstering our heritage spaces keeps them maintained and relevant. While embracing the history of these spaces, our communities secure their future. No other place can replicate the feel of Oakland Cemetery for the people of Atlanta. When we set out to create vibrant and exciting urban places, preserving old stories—and places like Oakland that embody them—for future generations adds inestimable value to the community.

Andrew has over 10 years of experience working on urban design and public infrastructure projects. He is passionate about making communities more walkable and healthier through quality planning and design. 

When we set out to create vibrant and exciting urban places, preserving old stories—and places like Oakland that embody them—for future generations adds inestimable value to the community.

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