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First Ward Park
Downtown Charlotte, North Carolina

Landscape Architecture and Park Design by Shadley Associates


Completed in the spring of 2016, First Ward Park, in Charlotte, N.C. is bookended by two major public fountains. A large open central lawn accommodates a summer concert series typically attended by approximately 4,000. UNCC's new City Center Building is a contemporary backdrop for the contemplative setting of the North Fountain.


As a counterpoint to the surrounding urban grid, the Park has gently flowing forms and the materials and features make it a decidedly contemporary place. The park is encircled by nearly a quarter mile of walking paths that wind through a variety of park spaces. 8th Street was narrowed, its asphalt replaced with pavers and its new alignment forming a curved path that is integrated with the park's naturalistic forms.

Shadley Associates won an invited national competition to design this entirely new 5-acre park located in downtown Charlotte. Well connected with Center City, the First Ward Neighborhood and the University of North Carolina Charlotte, the park attracts visitors from greater Charlotte and beyond. One of four major park spaces in the City, First Ward Park benefits from an existing on-site light rail station, adjacent restaurants and offices, the First Ward Elementary School, the University of North Carolina Charlotte Center City and ImagineON, a children's library and performing arts center which attracts over 500,000 visitors annually.

The park design uses seat walls of native Carolina granite and native trees and shrubs to frame an open central lawn. The granite walls embody the famous geology of the region and give definition to the park's many garden sub-spaces. There are numerous entrances into the park, a garden walking circuit around the perimeter and many paths through it. Park features include two large fountains, an arbor, public art and areas for diverse programs.


First Ward Park replaced five acres of surface parking with a new public park. By replacing surface parking with an attractive, cool and green new park, First Ward Park creates newfound economic and cultural energy.


The South Fountain is framed by an "outcrop" of Carolina granite, providing a place to climb and sit while enjoying the water spray and central lawn. Cut granite seat walls are a signature park feature. The park also has over 60 benches, scattered throughout, that can offer respite.

The largest and most central feature in the park is an open, gently sloping lawn that acts as an amphitheater for staged performances all year-round. Approximately a quarter mile of walking paths encircle the lawn, winding through thousands of native and ornamental trees, shrubs, and flowers. Other significant project elements include the University of North Carolina's Charlotte City Center Building (UNCC) with its associated cafe and plaza, a new park building with a community meeting room and public washrooms, extensive stone walls, public art, and the two fountains which are the focus of this article.

The fountains bring people to the park. They animate it and provide its identity. They also fulfill one of the primary objectives for the project: they diminish the presence of a street, which bisects the park. To make the entire park space read, feel and work as one larger and uninterrupted whole, the design called for all of the park's major elements and connections to extend across the street, visually connecting the park's two halves.

Anchoring this design strategy, the two fountains were placed as distant landmarks at the opposite ends of the park's long central axis. This placement draws the park user's attention to the furthest points possible, so the fountains emphasize the far edges of the park rather than the roadway at the center. This creates the impression that the park is much larger than it would otherwise feel had its design been fragmented within the two smaller parcels that it occupies.


More than a dozen interactive spray jets that provide continually changing and surprising patterns were installed at the South Fountain. A source of surprise and wonder, the South Fountain has become a destination for all ages. It is located across the street from a children's museum that has an annual attendance of over 500,000.


The oval shape of the fountain's water surface is integrated with the forms of the arbor, walls and planting that surround it. Students and park goers can sit and read while enjoying treats from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte's coffee and pastry shop.

The entire park features native Carolina granite seat walls throughout, and while the design of both fountains is fully integrated with the stonewalls, each fountain has a unique form and function, to support a wide variety of park uses and experiences.

The south fountain is a children's sprayground. It is located across the street from a light rail train stop, a market and from ImaginOn, a children's museum, library and performance space that receives more than 500,000 visitors annually. This fountain has more than a dozen interactive water play features that captivate children and inspire them to bound about, seeking the source of the next spout of water. Timed lights make the water effects even more playful at night, and a 150' long "granite outcrop" at the edge of the water provides a place for parents to rest while keeping a watchful eye. With Charlotte's sweltering summers, this fountain was immediately and heartily welcomed by residents of the community and beyond. It's become a day-trip destination that's very popular with families and children of all ages.


The angles of the water jets are part of the fountain experience, framed by the arbor's slanted columns and sloped joists and focused on the city skyline. Creative lighting at both fountains extends enjoyment of the park into the evening and provides rich, diverse experiences.


A sculpture by renowned Spanish sculptor Jaume Plansa titled, "Ainsa III," was installed between the North Fountain and the UNCC's Center City building. "Ainsa III" is constructed from die-cast, fabricated stainless steel letterforms. The subject of the statue is a women and she sits atop a stone base that was quarried in Ainsa, a town in northeastern Spain.

The north fountain is completely different in form and intended use. It is located in a plaza adjacent to the landmark UNC Charlotte City Center Building, which houses the school's College of Arts + Architecture, among other programs, and which was developed in conjunction with the park for the purpose of "bringing the University's considerable intellectual resources to the heart of Charlotte." As a complement to the children's sprayground, the purpose of the north fountain is to create a relaxing setting. It is meant to visually engage, to prioritize the enjoyment of the sculptural elements and provide a restful experience within the greater setting.

A noteworthy piece of public art installed near the north fountain furthers these aesthetic goals. Ainsa III, by celebrated artist Jaume Plenza, is a 12' tall-seated human figure composed of metal letters from nine different alphabets and representing an ephemeral humanity of cultures from across the globe. From this globally focused sculpture in the plaza, the arbor surrounding the north fountain opens to frame views of the city beyond the park, welcoming the world to downtown Charlotte.

Team List:
MASTER DEVELOPER: Levine Properties
PARK CONTRACTORS: Rodgers Builders

As seen in LASN magazine, July 2018.

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April 22, 2019, 4:02 am PDT

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