Haskell’s Planning & Design Collaborative guided Okefenokee Swamp Park stakeholders through a visioning process that produced a transformational Natural History and Ecology Interpretive Center. Pictured is Tree of Life Plaza looking towards Nature Center.

February 21, 2024

Planning Envisions Ambitious Revival of Okefenokee Swamp Park

Discover how Park leaders are shaping a sustainable, educational future while aspiring to the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.


With a goal no less ambitious than becoming the United States’ 26th United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)  World Heritage Site, the leadership of Okefenokee Swamp Park (OSP) recently partnered with Haskell’s Planning & Design Collective (P&DC) to reimagine.

Launched in the Summer 2023 with a dynamic timeline that would produce a finished, but living, document by the year’s end, the Okefenokee Swamp Park Natural History and Ecology Interpretive Center project was a collaborative effort led by Haskell’s P&DC team and Atlanta-based Breedlove Land Planning that produced a narrative of strategic planning and execution that promises to revitalize the Okefenokee experience.

“We did a lot of collaboration and community engagement with the stakeholders, including an overnight stay at the swamp,” Haskell Senior Planner Van Christiansen said. “We went through a number of planning exercises with them. We did some really wonderful blue-sky exercises when we had board members, staff and others giving us those really grand ideas for what they think the future would be for Okefenokee Swamp Park.”

The resulting interpretive plan lays the groundwork for a paradigm shift from the park’s traditional mission of edutainment to a resolute commitment to conservation.

Located in Southeast Georgia, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge is the largest in the Eastern U.S. and includes more than 350,000 acres of designated wilderness. As a steward of one of the nation’s natural wonders, OSP is envisioned as a place where the pristine wilderness of the Okefenokee is preserved and where human activity integrates seamlessly with the natural world. The OSP Plan and Natural History and Ecology Interpretive Center is a commitment to restoring and augmenting the managed pinelands, revitalizing the swamp and creating a sustainable future in which the built environment weaves into the natural world.

A Sustainably Managed Balance

A fundamental part of the transformation is the habitat delineation between the pine uplands area and the wetlands. The managed pinelands, once fragmented and diminished, are being carefully restored to a sustainably managed balance. The delineation between these two habitats ensures the integrity of each ecosystem, allowing each to thrive independently while complementing the other.

“We led them through charettes online and in person where we did a lot of soul searching about how to change the park,” said Larry Levis, Design Principal. “The Planning & Design Collective is an amalgam of landscape architecture, urban planning, architecture and pure design, and transportation planning. We brought that combined skill set to bear and helped them find what that puzzle was going to be.”

The re-imagined park site plan calls for motorists to exit their vehicles for an immersive five-minute walk through a cathedral-like clearing in the forests to the front door of the new 8,000-square-foot Nature Center, built to Firewise USA® program standards to ensure safety and sustainability.

Conceived as a public-private partnership, the Nature Center will combine and refine animal habitats and other displays currently spread in numerous locations. Moving forward, it will act as a catalyst for subsequent phased implementation of the interpretive plan featuring boardwalks, train loop upgrades, infrastructure improvements, additional interpretive exhibits, a new Vertical Learning Tower, and a new amphitheater.

Overall, the 15-year timeline weaves a narrative of strategic planning and execution, promising a revitalized Okefenokee experience for generations to come.

Engaged and Excited

"The collaborative work accomplished with the Haskell team was transformational in shaping the Okefenokee Experience vision and priorities, specifically for the Okefenokee Swamp Park's Waycross campus,” said Kim Bednarek, Okefenokee Swamp Park Executive Director. “As a result of Haskell's thoughtful and reflective planning process, our stakeholder engagement is at an all-time high, and our project's momentum has accelerated. The economic impact that completion of the Okefenokee Experience projects will have on our region will simultaneously protect the Swamp, open it up to new visitors and audiences, and create more jobs and tax revenues for our region. We are excited about the future!”

The Park and Refuge are currently working to prepare their draft nomination for presentation by the U.S. Department of Interior for the World Heritage Site designation. The Okefenokee was originally identified as a potential UNESCO location in 1982, and earning the distinction is a highly competitive process at the national and international levels. The United States has 25 World Heritage Sites – 12 natural sites, 10 cultural and one mixed. Each is a place of importance in the country’s history and representative of its diversity. 

The Okefenokee Swamp Park Planning and Nature Center is a collaborative and far-reaching document that buttresses the application with a functional plan for transformational revitalization.

“It wasn't specifically in the scope to help them go through that soul-searching exercise, but I think it was well appreciated,” Levis said. “I think the leadership at the swamp enjoyed being stretched. They enjoyed that we challenged them to work together and that we gave them homework and then actually listened. When they gave us their feedback, that informed the way we developed the plan. That’s the way we work, which is to build consensus-based plans and designs for our clients.”

From cities and campuses to transportation networks and the natural environment, our Planning + Design Collaborative plans, designs and implements people-focused solutions. Contact the team to discuss your hopes and needs.

Haskell delivers $2± billion annually in Architecture, Engineering, Construction (AEC) and Consulting solutions to assure certainty of outcome for complex capital projects worldwide. Haskell is a global, fully integrated, single-source design-build and EPC firm with over 2,200 highly specialized, in-house design, construction and administrative professionals across industrial and commercial markets. With 20+ office locations around the globe, Haskell is a trusted partner for global and emerging clients.

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