Taking Back Nature

By Chris Watson

The Rocky River is an urban waterway that flows 50 miles through Anderson County, S.C. It has a long history of degradation and abuse, including channelization of the river in the 1980s and subsequent degradation of adjacent wetlands. Despite that history, the Rocky River and its associated wetlands are poised for a return to prominence due to substantial community interest and the tireless efforts of both local and regional conservation groups. A keystone for this effort is the creation of a nature park on property owned by Anderson University with other surrounding tracts of land. The general study area is approximately 158 acres, including 120 acres owned by the university. The vision for this property is not only to restore and revive a large, suffering ecosystem but to create a transformative, catalytic draw for this area of Upstate South Carolina. An Urban Waters Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through Upstate Forever, a non-profit partner in this undertaking, is playing a significant role in making this vision a reality.

The Lay Of The Land
In conjunction with the Rocky River, the project area is comprised of several extensive wetland areas and floodways, features that typically would inhibit any other project, but are key components to this plan. These areas provide habitats for local wildlife that are under duress as an ecosystem. The focus area is situated among several neighborhoods and Anderson University’s Sports Complex. Several abandoned railroad beds (future greenways/trails) intersect the property as well. This sets up a perfect opportunity to connect surrounding communities and provide an open space amenity for all to enjoy.


A Forum For Ideas
SeamonWhiteside, as prime consultant, led a design charrette and idea-sharing session for stakeholders within the community. This event provided the design team with gainful insights into the history of the area, and a platform for stakeholders to voice ideas, as well as to express the needs of the community. The charrette/public workshop approach stimulated public awareness, involvement, and support. The design team also utilized preliminary findings of a hydrological study to confirm the feasibility of ideas and sketches that arose from the charrette process. This led to the design phase of the project, where conceptual plans and focus-area studies were further refined and presented to the stakeholders. Following feedback from those meetings, a final master plan was developed, costs were analyzed for implementation, and a plan was created to connect educational opportunities, facilitate public/private partnerships, and support voluntary efforts within the community.

The Master Plan
The proposed Nature Park sensitively responds to the challenges of the contextual site, and provides site access and recreational opportunities, while maintaining the naturalistic character of the landscape. Project goals include the restoration, protection, and revitalization of the Rocky River and associated wetland areas, while design-program drivers include enhanced site and water access, educational and public outreach opportunities, and passive recreation at a sustainable learning landscape that will serve local, county, and state residents.  

Elevated boardwalks will provide views to key wetland areas, enhancing educational and birding opportunities. Future greenway connections are integrated into the nature-park trail system, while a proposed blueway system will link the entire site. An elevated pavilion in the wetland areas will serve as a strategic focal point within the park. An Outdoor Education Outpost and Discovery Center both serve as trailheads and give users additional opportunities to intersect with the ecosystems. The design team provided water access for the key stakeholders and users of the park, and sustainable site elements were included throughout. Trail systems were designed to be ADA-accessible, ensuring that people of all abilities will be able to enjoy the nature park. The team also focused on opportunities for interpretive and wayfinding signage, outdoor classrooms, and an education plan to accompany the master document.

The Rocky River Nature Park master-planning process utilized the creative ability of landscape architecture to connect the entire community to a once-forgotten landscape and educate future generations on the importance of wetland ecosystems in the region.

Chris Watson, PLA, is the Director of Landscape Architecture at SeamonWhiteside in Greenville, S.C. Reach him at cwatson@seamonwhiteside.com.