Reconnecting a City to its Cherokee Culture Through Planning

Daryl Johnson adheres to a straightforward policy — listen, then draw.

Johnson — president, principal architect, and director of design at Johnson Architecture — put that ethos to practice when his firm was tasked with creating a master plan to try and revitalize the cultural corridor of Cherokee, North Carolina.

The result was a process that not only aided in setting realistic development goals but also in reconnecting the residents with their community.

Located along the Qualla Boundary in the western part of the state, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) — one of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes in the U.S. — is a community that encompasses approximately 57,000 acres near the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

"It's such a vibrant community and culture," Johnson said. "There is such a significant heritage there that, honestly, a lot of folks I don't think know [about]. I don't think they get that such a gem of a community exists as close as it does to us here in western North Carolina [and] East Tennessee."

Challenges in Tribal Project Planning

Johnson Architecture was hired to provide planning expertise and oversight to various tribal projects that would then be put into a format that could be sent out for requests for proposals from other architects.

Early on, his team identified challenges. For example, while Harrah's Cherokee Hotel and Casino Resort — which opened in the mid-2000s — contributes significantly to the tribal budget annually, Johnson said it also likely kept people from visiting the cultural corridor area.

"We remember [Cherokee] being kind of a special place; we remember there being that opportunity to understand more about the culture," Johnson said. "But what was happening was the culture [and heritage] was being gobbled up by the casino."

Johnson also heard a familiar refrain during early conversations with Cherokee residents.

"One of the tribal council members said, 'We come down here to go to work — [but] we leave Cherokee to go to lunch... or to go buy our groceries because Cherokee doesn't have a reason for us to want to stay here,'" he said.

With that in mind, Johnson and his team focused on two areas: how could they create an environment that enticed people to visit Cherokee to learn more about the people, culture, and city; and how could they give residents a place where they felt a sense of belonging and added to their daily needs.

Johnson Architecture came up with several versions of a downtown master plan for Cherokee, North Carolina, during a three-day charette with stakeholders. Photo courtesy of Johnson Architecture.

Johnson Architecture came up with several versions of a downtown master plan for Cherokee, North Carolina, during a three-day charette with stakeholders. Photo courtesy of Johnson Architecture.

Working with the Community

Over three days, Johnson's team met with members of the community, tribal council members, and representatives of the chief's office to develop the master plan.

That first day, Johnson said his team mostly listened — and there was pushback early.

"It started with a lot of folks saying, 'Well, you can't do that' [or] 'we can't do that,'" he said.

But later — in smaller, breakaway sessions — Johnson said residents seemed more inclined to provide constructive thoughts and were more open to change.

On the second day, the team presented three options that they felt were representative of what they had heard the day prior. That opened the floodgate, and after some "engaging and collaborative" sessions, the team generated a fourth plan that was more reflective of the community comments.

Part of the plan centered on reconfiguring the area where the ceremonial grounds were situated by removing the fencing around it and tearing down an old, dangerous amphitheater structure. This was proposed so it could become "the hub — really, the heartbeat of Cherokee's cultural corridor," Johnson said.

The team presented the new master plan to the public on the third day. In the days that followed, they also took it on the road to various clubs across different Cherokee communities.

"We got a lot of great questions," he said. "Those clubs were a lot more intimate — with attendees that were not a part of the [initial] process in most cases. We got some great [feedback], and a lot of folks said this needed to happen."

Ultimately, by making sure everyone was heard, Johnson and his team were able to develop the Cherokee Cultural Corridor Master Plan with great buy-in from the community. To date, the improvements to the ceremonial grounds are underway — with the dangerous structure already removed.

For Johnson, communication was one of the major successes of the project.

"It felt like they had never been listened to [prior]," he said. "It felt like there was a contingency there that was just needing to be heard and [have] someone listen to them [about] the elements that they wanted to incorporate into this plan that were important to their culture."

Top image: Johnson Architecture worked with the community of Cherokee, North Carolina — the capital of the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) — to develop a downtown master plan that aimed to reconnect the city with its culture. iStock / Getty Images Plus – Ultima_Gaina

Jonathan DePaolis is APA's senior communications editor.

January 17, 2024

By Jon DePaolis