Georgia Institute of Technology Eco-Commons

Atlanta, GA
Designed by NBW the EcoCommons is the largest standalone landscape architecture project ever undertaken by Georgia Tech. The seven-acre EcoCommons has been designed as an ecologically and socially conscious pedagogical site - the landscape presents native regional ecologies while daylighting the difficult and nearly forgotten history of the site. 
The design reintegrates functional topography and water flow to the site to support three living landscape typologies to meet the Georgia Tech’s goals of Learn, Engage and Reflect – a learning deck for classes and research, an area for play and relaxation, and a contemplative grove. The three zones are designed to create opportunities for distinct plantings and different sensory experiences. Primarily a woodland landscape, the plantings reflect the native Georgia Piedmont ecologies, and eventually will provide 75% canopy coverage for the site.
The site supports the research pedagogy of the institution. Environmental monitoring technology provides quantitative insights into the site’s functionality. The site will also include audio recording systems for habitat monitoring, along with sensors for monitoring air quality and temperature, soil percolation, and water quality. This initiative supports Georgia Tech’s commitment to fostering sustainability initiatives into the 21st century and provides research opportunities for students and faculty.
The EcoCommons is also designed to reduce stormwater runoff by capturing or reusing 50% of the rainfall that falls on the site. It accommodates more than 60,000 cubic feet of stormwater infiltration and capture into cisterns - resulting in a reducing the stormwater entering the city’s sewer system by millions of gallons. The site is designed for ongoing water absorption with captured water used to irrigate the site.
In addition to its ecological and scientific purpose, the EcoCommons highlights a significant story of the site. During the research and site investigation phase, the NBW team learned that site had been home to the Pickrick Diner, an important site in civil rights history. On July 3, 1964, one day after the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act, George Willis Jr, Albert Lee Dunn, and Woodrow T. Lewis, three Black students from the Atlanta Interdenominational Theological Seminary, asked to be seated in this all-white establishment in a test of the new civil rights laws. As tensions mounted, the owner of the Diner, Lester Maddox, incited a mob threatening violence against the students, who then departed peaceably. While not unique to the region, the events at the site brought the issues of racism and segregation into clear focus. The event led to the first federal lawsuit, filed by attorney Constance Baker Motley, under the 1964 civil rights law Willis v Pickrick Restaurant and upheld the new civil rights law. Maddox elected to close the establishment rather than integrate it. These events manifest the agency, bravery, and strategic brilliance of Civil Rights activists and their resultant successes.
“We believe that the narratives of ecological health and social justice are deeply intertwined,” explains Thomas Woltz. “And so, we proceeded with the conviction that by manifesting these combined narratives in the EcoCommons we can bring a new level of understanding about how we restore and build a more just society and environment.”
NBW worked closely with Georgia Tech Capital Planning and Space Management as on-campus collaborators. The design team included local landscape architects from Barge Design Solutions and ecologists from Biohabitats. Long Engineering provided civil engineering support; Newcomb & Boyd provided lighting design; and Irrigation Consultant Services developed the irrigation design and Turner Construction was the contractor for the project.
The EcoCommons manifests the aspirations of the Institute and acts as a crucial node for ecological function, education, and community health, both physical and mental. Significantly, the EcoCommons places social justice within this context addressing the difficult racial history of the site and city of Atlanta. This is the largest single landscape project, not associated with a building, that Georgia Tech has ever commissioned.