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Prairie Flower
An ecologically conscious housing development begins to mature west of Chicago.
By Rene C. Kane

On a sunny day in May, a 70-year-old Osage orange hedgerow hums with bees, and a broad swath of native grasses and meadow plants emerges in the bright green of spring. Across a narrow road, behind a row of single-family houses, songbirds chirp and flit through an expanse of prairie grasses. Over meadows and wetlands, along winding trails, and across a village green, the residents of Prairie Crossing look out on restored and working farm landscapes. They live in houses that would appear comfortable on any heartland farm, but instead of peppering an agricultural landscape or blanketing land with cul-de-sacs, the houses of Prairie Crossing rise in clusters. Of the 677 acres of this new community northwest of Chicago, only about one-fifth of the land, a total of 132 acres, is developed.

Copyright Willard Clay Photography, Inc.

The architecture of Prairie Crossing is traditional Midwestern; its planning might be called New Urbanist. Its workings—the mechanisms used to bring it about—include farmland preservation, prairie and wetland restoration, an organic farm, on-site stormwater treatment, and a plan for mixed-use, transit-oriented development. Its residents tend to be conservation minded. They participate in prairie burns and construct rain gardens in their side yards to decrease runoff into the stormwater treatment system. They are keen about the compost containers integrated into their kitchens. In summer, they stop by the nearby farm market to pick up fresh vegetables for dinner. And they like the fact that a windmill generates electric power for the irrigation pumps, lights, and computers of the organic farm.

Prairie Crossing lies at the western edge of Liberty Prairie Reserve, a 3,200-acre patchwork of farms, forests, and riparian corridors and home to 13 threatened and endangered species and natural landforms that reveal the unaltered effects of ice age glaciation on the northern Illinois landscape. Much of the reserve’s land is in public ownership, and the remaining private land is protected by conservation easements and voluntary development restrictions. Both Liberty Prairie Reserve and Prairie Crossing were founded in an area of rapid suburbanization to conserve and protect a natural landscape.

Launched 10 years ago, Prairie Crossing is situated in the rapidly suburbanizing former farmlands northwest of Chicago, near the suburban “village” of Grayslake. Named for its proximity to two commuter railroads, Prairie Crossing is just 35 minutes to O’Hare, America’s busiest airport, on one line and will be just an hour away from Chicago’s Loop when a new station is completed on the other line.

In 1986 Prairie Crossing’s land was being cultivated in a rotation of corn and soybeans and was slated to become part of a sprawling suburb. There were to be 2,400 houses on one-acre lots, with two-car garages, driveways to wide streets, and curbs and gutters to handle stormwater quickly and efficiently. But Gaylord Donnelley, a conservationist and chairman of RR Donnelley, a large Chicago-based printing company founded by his grandfather, had a different idea. He and other area property owners successfully opposed the plan and, as Prairie Holdings Corporation, purchased a 677-acre parcel.

They perceived that typical suburban developments sever connection to the landscape. By building Prairie Crossing in an agricultural setting and providing opportunities for residents to care for the landscape, they hoped to reestablish the connection. By making the development both aesthetically pleasing and functional, they planned to re-create a ferme ornée of sorts, but one informed by concern for environmental impacts and a belief in far-reaching benefits of a responsible land ethic. When Donnelley died in April 1992, his nephew, George Ranney Jr., an attorney and Chicago civic leader, and Ranney’s wife, Victoria Post (“Vicky”) Ranney, the author of Olmsted in Chicago and an editor of the Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, carried out Donnelley’s vision.

Of course Gaylord Donnelley, the Ranneys, and the others who envisioned Prairie Crossing weren’t the first to propose the integration of agricultural and residential landscapes. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 proposal for Broadacre City, an anti-urban place that would have been very accommodating to the automobile, each household was to have a car and an acre on which to grow its own food. Farms—large and small—vineyards, and orchards would have been interspersed among the housing parcels. Forty years later, Michael and Judy Corbett successfully paired agriculture and residential development in Northern California’s Central Valley. Completed in 1982, the Corbetts’ Village Homes rises amid fruit trees and gardens and has its own almond orchard and vineyard.

The Agritopia Project (www.agritopia.com) in Gilbert, Arizona, and Tryon Farm (www.tryonfarm.com) near Michigan City, Indiana, are current examples. Agritopia combines commercial, agricultural, and residential uses on a 170-acre farmstead. Its agro-commercial features include a restaurant, a produce market, and a retail nursery. Tryon Farm is in the process of integrating seven residential settlements into an existing 170-acre agricultural landscape. The surrounding fields have been farmed continuously by three generations of the same family. Tryon Farm’s developer, Edward Noonan & Associates Ltd., has preserved a cluster of historic farmstead structures and restored wetlands, meadows, and ponds.

To plan the land for Prairie Crossing, Donnelley and the Ranneys began by interviewing landscape architects from around the country. When they met Bill Johnson, FASLA, of Berkeley, California, who had spent his childhood summers in nearby Long Lake, Illinois, they knew that they had found someone who understood their piece of Midwestern land. Stilled unnamed, the project in 1987 was “just an idea of a community based on preserving land, a small, compact village character,” Johnson recalls.

Where would the village be built? How would cars figure in? What would the traffic circulation pattern be? What form would landscape preservation take? The answers to such questions were informed by a set of 10 guiding principles that evolved during the initial conversations about what Prairie Crossing would be. The principles became more specific and defined as Johnson worked for a week at a time and then presented his ideas to the officers of Prairie Holdings. “Early in the game, the sense of challenge broadened to a larger preservation effort,” he says. “Prairie Crossing would be the center of a several-thousand-acre preserve—an open-space system from the Des Plaines River to the Fox River.” The first broad vision was of a “farm village”—a compact development surrounded by agriculture. Giving form to that vision involved preserving the rural character of the land, creating a place that integrated an environmental ethic in its design and function. But it also had to succeed financially. If not, other developers would not embrace the underlying conservation principles.

As Prairie Crossing began to take form, other landscape architects were brought in, including Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA, of Chicago. From 1994 through 1999, Schaudt was involved in “connecting all the parts,” he says, of the development’s first phase. Seeing himself as “the vehicle between Bill Johnson’s vision and the Ranneys’ plan,” he worked out the designs for the village green and the farm market and was responsible for construction documentation, planting design, and design details for the plazas and other common areas, including the paths and trails.

Meanwhile George Ranney obtained support for a second rail station near Prairie Crossing, the first station having opened in 1996. Currently under construction, the station will provide more-direct access to downtown Chicago. Along with the new train station comes the addition of 103 new houses in a section called Station Village. (The net increase in houses for all of Prairie Crossing will be just 45 since several of the original housing clusters were eliminated from the earlier master plan.) Berkeley-based Calthorpe Associates, a firm specializing in transportation-oriented community design, was commissioned in 1996 to develop a conceptual design for Station Village. This housing cluster on Prairie Crossing’s southern edge features smaller lots, common green courts, mid-block gardens, and alley access to garages. Located adjacent to the train stations, its smaller houses and overall compact character are attracting retirees, empty nesters, and small families.

Calthorpe Associates also helped conceptualize Station Square, which will be the last constructed piece of Prairie Crossing. Plans for the 100,000-square-foot, mixed-use development of condominiums, offices, and retail space—revised and finalized by the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)—were approved in April by the Grayslake Village Board. Station Square will be within walking distance of the two commuter stations and will have easy access to the trails and amenities of Liberty Prairie Reserve. SOM design partner Philip Enquist describes Station Village as a “public front door” for the larger development, with a strong orientation to the main local highway, a common green, and a “very civic entry.”

Station Village and Station Square increase the total number of housing units to 362, up from the original 317. With the completion of Station Square in approximately 18 months, Prairie Crossing will be fully built.

The soil of Prairie Crossing was farmed for more than 100 years, the crops treated with conventional fertilizers and pesticides. A network of drain tiles diverted excess rainwater, letting the soil dry out for easier cultivation. The deep silt and rich, clay loam are typical of the region. A small wetland and scattered patches of prairie—remnants of the native biological communities—survived until Prairie Holdings purchased the land. Once the drainage tiles were removed, water responded more naturally to the site’s topography, settling in depressions and once again finding its historical flow.

Today a system of vegetated swales collects and conveys stormwater from roads and rooftops. The water is then directed over prairies where sediments, nutrients, and contaminants settle out or are removed biologically. About 65 percent of the water remains in the prairie and slowly flows into the adjoining wetlands. The water that reaches the wetlands through surface flow is significantly cleansed when it flows into the 22-acre man-made Lake Aldo Leopold and two adjoining ponds, which serve as stormwater basins. This so-called treatment train results in a 60 percent decrease in stormwater conveyed off site compared to the predevelopment agricultural landscape.

Prairie Crossing encourages homeowners to plant prairie and wetland natives in place of sod and reduce or eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The homeowners’ association web site lists native and invasive nonnative species, seasonal garden activities, and links to additional information about native plants. In the beginning, four homeowners allowed their land to serve as demonstrations of alternative residential landscapes. The owners attended a daylong workshop to learn why the Prairie Crossing site looks and functions as it does and why planting native species is desirable. Schaudt, Carl Korfmacher, ASLA, Frank Haas, ASLA, and landscape designer Kerry Leigh were each assigned a house and proposed a design for it. Some homeowners chose a modified native landscape that included plantings of natives amid swaths of lawn; others went for a meadow concept, replacing the entire yard with prairie species.

Michael Sands, Prairie Crossing’s environmental manager, recently enlisted residents to share the cost of constructing rain gardens, which involve redirecting roof downspouts to a slight depression excavated between houses (see Landscape Architecture, July 2000). The depressions range from 200 to 500 square feet in area, depending on the site. Most are surfaced with native clay to retain water, but others are lined with pea gravel to allow water to infiltrate the soil. After construction, the rain gardens are planted with a variety of moisture-loving native species—another opportunity for stewardship and hands-on participation in Prairie Crossing’s ecology. About 30 gardens are in place.

Prairie Crossing is also involved in the protection and restoration of threatened or endangered native species. Lake Aldo Leopold serves as a refuge for four fish species (blackchin and blacknose shiners, the Iowa darter, and the banded killifish) that are on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources list of “at risk” native species. The department, which uses the lake as a research site, stocked the water with the largest population of these species in the Des Plaines watershed.

As for the controlled burning of the native prairie, the periodic burn-offs remove accumulated organic matter that suppresses growth of many prairie species. Mimicking the natural fires also returns vital nutrients to prairie soils and inhibits the growth of woody species. About 150 Prairie Crossing residents burn their own yards in what has become a regular activity. “What could be more fun than playing with fire?” observes Vicky Ranney. But controlled burning requires a bit of expertise, and so the Liberty Prairie Conservancy trains volunteers in safety measures. Composting on a large scale, including truckloads of leaves from the surrounding communities and horse manure from nearby stables, is another conservation measure.

An easement permanently protects 150 acres of the original farm, a small portion of which is employed for individual community garden plots (25 this year) available to Prairie Crossing homeowners and other nearby residents. Participants can purchase subscriptions for a share of the produce grown at the farm, or they can shop at the market for Prairie Crossing vegetables and fruits as well as honey, eggs, organically raised meat, and other products from area farms. A Chicago regional market study finds considerable public support for local growers of organic produce, and Prairie Crossing is poised to help meet that need.

Planted fields and areas set aside for community gardens abound, but agriculture on a smaller scale has a place here too. In one common area, edible trees and shrubs such as pawpaw and persimmon that were historically grown in the Midwest are planted near a “council ring” of native boulders, gently recalling Jens Jensen’s role in interpreting the Midwest landscape. “It’s one of the most successful social spots—at zero cost,” Sands says.

An emphasis on lifelong learning at Prairie Crossing has been formalized through the creation of the Prairie Crossing Institute. Its director, Linda Wiens, assists the Prairie Crossing Charter School in developing its environmentally based curriculum.

Another recent change at Prairie Crossing was a change in responsibility for landscape management. The Prairie Crossing Homeowners Association (PCHA), an elected board of five Prairie Crossing homeowners, recently took over management of the everyday functions of the community, including the completed common areas. Last December, Victoria Ranney presented the PCHA with a symbol of their new charge: a propane torch used for prairie burns.

For all its ecologically responsive planning, Prairie Crossing has not completely escaped criticism. Some say it is not as dense as it should be for efficient use of the land. Desirability keeps house prices high, and that challenges the development’s original guiding principles of economic and racial diversity. Starting at $279,900 for a three-bedroom model with 1,519 square feet of space, houses typically sell at prices 20 to 30 percent higher than comparable ones in surrounding areas. In many growing communities such as Grayslake, however, sentiment toward live–work housing and accessory units, such as granny flats over garages, is changing. Future housing developments in Prairie Crossing’s vicinity may have higher density levels and include more affordable units.

Not all of the landscape in and around Prairie Crossing is pond, prairie, farm, or meadow. Early articles about Prairie Crossing frequently mentioned the 200-acre neighboring landfill as either a significant drawback to the community or as a success story of cooperation. In the 1980s, the owners of the countryside landfill, Waste Management Services, Inc., hired Bill Johnson to design a rolling landscape to replace the traditionally flat landform. The landfill will reach its capacity within 15 years, at which point it will be capped and planted with native vegetation. Its ownership will be conveyed to the regional Forest Preserve’s jurisdiction. An agreement between Waste Management Services and Prairie Crossing’s developers calls for a guaranteed buyback for homeowners and speedy response to complaints. The buyback agreement stipulates that if homeowners can’t sell their home for any reason, the landfill will buy them.

Victoria Ranney considers the design of Prairie Crossing an echo of Olmsted’s concept of a landscape layering of uses, meanings, and views. In this case, those layers of meaning—the land’s history, nature, and stewardship—allow residents to grow into a community, to become attached to the land that surrounds them, and to have the landscape shape them as well. Their appreciation of this landscape can expand and deepen when they learn how it functions. And so when Prairie Crossing residents look out onto a flowering prairie at dusk on a soft June evening, they can’t help but admire the beauty. But they can also reflect upon the fact that the prairie is cleansing the water that they’ll swim in the next morning.

Rene C. Kane is the managing editor of the Journal of Planning Education and Research, published quarterly by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning.

Project Credits
Landscape architects/land planning (in reverse chronological order): Philip Enquist, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, Chicago; Peter Calthorpe and Matt Taecker, Calthorpe Associates, Berkeley, CA; Peter L. Schaudt, ASLA, Peter Lindsay Schaudt Landscape Architecture, Inc., Chicago; Jim Brown, LANDECON, Libertyville, IL; William Johnson, FASLA, principal, Peter Walker, William Johnson and Partners, Berkeley, CA; J. Christopher Lannert, ASLA, the Lannert Group, St. Charles, IL.
Environmental consulting/resource management: Steven L. Apfelbaum, Applied Ecological Services, Brodhead, WI.
Wetlands consultants: Steven L. Apfelbaum, Applied Ecological Services, Brodhead, WI; Don Hey, Hey & Associates, Chicago.
Engineers: John Ezzi, P & D Technologies, Oak Brook, IL.
Farm general manager: Dave Konrad.
Farm consultants: Richard de Wilde, Viroqua, WI; John Callawaert, Chicago.
Environmental team leader: Michael Sands.
Development manager: Prairie Holdings Corporation, Chicago.
Client: Prairie Holdings Corporation, Chicago.


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