Designing the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Children’s Campus
by Jennifer Schwarz Ballard

Opened to the public in 1972, the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois houses a living collection of more than two million plants from over 9,300 taxa in 24 exhibition gardens and four natural areas—woodlands, wetlands, prairie, and river—on 385 acres. A unique public-private partnership between the Chicago Horticultural Society and the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the garden is free to the public, open 365 days a year, and hosts over 900,000 visitors annually. The garden’s mission is to promote the enjoyment, understanding, and conservation of plants and the natural world. As a recognized leader in environmental education, the Chicago Botanic Garden has the imperative to support this mission through exceptional programming along with innovative, ecologically sound, and vibrant building and landscape design.

Booth Hanson Architects

As environmental issues became a central public concern, the garden’s children’s programming expanded, necessitating the construction of a temporary “H” shaped education building (three connected double-wide trailers) in 2006. From 2007 to 2009, the garden’s staff and board developed a new 10-year strategic plan called “Keep Growing,” including a new master site plan to guide the direction of future capital projects. The planning process identified important development features including four “campuses”—Science Campus, Entry Campus, Children’s Campus, and West Collections Campus. The location, size, and details of each were determined by considering their program requirements, the relationships between their functions, the aesthetic appeal of their siting, and most of all, how they would comfortably serve garden visitors (customers). Creating the overall master plan was an essential step in the development process because it ensures a unified whole as each campus is developed.

Booth Hanson Architects

During this time, the Chicago Botanic Garden benefitted from a seamless leadership transition. While the process was initially led by garden’s CEO Barbara Carr, newly named CEO Sophia Siskel, worked directly with Carr on the campus design, first as Vice President of Visitor Programs and Operations, and then as Carr’s successor. The garden’s leaders were determined to create a site that was conducive to educational programming, but did not take on a “playground” or stereotypical “child-like” design vernacular. The Children’s Campus will support the Garden’s larger site and mission, introducing children to the environment and encouraging them to explore the whole institution so they come to know the entire garden as their own. All design elements will reflect the strategic plan, incorporate visibly “sustainable” features, and demonstrate a commitment to the principles of universal design, as determined by world-renowned Chicago Botanic Garden horticultural therapy expert Gene Rothert (Rothert 1994).

Booth Hanson Architects

Five elements of the Children’s Campus were identified: an entry drive, a growing garden, an aquatics discovery cove, an education building, and a sensory garden. The first components designed, and first realized, are the entry drive and growing garden (Scott Byron and Associates; funded, opening 2011 and 2012). The Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden will be an interactive, enclosed space that provides a safe environment for young children to explore nature. Design elements include pathways and water references that are reminiscent of the garden’s Skokie River and both prairie and agricultural plantings. The entry drive provides a safe and direct drop-off point with handicapped parking to accommodate increased numbers of special needs children. The campus plan also includes the Kleinman Family Discovery Cove (funded, opening 2012), which will provide opportunities to study aquatic plants and learn about the critical role that fresh water and its conservation plays in all our lives. Due to its physical separation from the main body of the campus and proximity to the West Collections Campus, designed by Oehme, van Sweden, the garden chose OVS as the Kleinman Discovery Cove designer.

The new Children’s Center (Booth Hansen; pending funding) will be situated at the turn-around of the entry drive.  Responding to the curvilinear form of the growing garden and entry drive, the 22,000-square foot education building will be a beautifully arched structure that fits seamlessly into the architectural vernacular of the Chicago Botanic Garden. The 6-month design process began with workshops facilitated by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) of Boulder, Colorado, a world renowned sustainability design-consulting firm. The completed design is a child-friendly space that allows simultaneous access for public access and private education programming, and also meets the criteria for LEED platinum certification. The building will use natural ventilation, solar panels, radiant geothermal heating and cooling, and rainwater barrels to leverage and conserve natural resources. The saw-tooth roof allows natural light to permeate the building.

All aspects of the Children’s Campus have been designed to meet the high aesthetic standards of the garden while maintaining the functional capacity of an exemplary teaching space. The campus illustrates sustainability practices through real-world example, while complementing, not competing with, the main public acres of the garden.

Jennifer Schwarz Ballard, Ph.D. is Director of Education Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois. She can be reached at

Source: Rothert, Gene. 1994. The Enabling Garden: Creating Barrier-Free Gardens. Taylor Publishing Co., 1550 W. Mockingbird Ln., Dallas, TX.


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