Crosswinds Marsh Wetland Interpretive Preserve

The Landmark Award

The Landmark Award

Sumpter Township, MI, USA
Client: Wayne County Parks and Recreation

"Born of necessity 20 years ago to meet regulatory mandates caused by the expansion of the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Crosswinds Marsh is a thousand-acre wetland that has become a national benchmark for ecological restoration and environmental design. Ambitious and daring from the beginning, it is one of the largest self-sustaining wetland mitigation projects in the country. It is treasured by the community as a site for nature education, bird watching, fishing, hiking, and quiet contemplation, and is populated by hundreds of wildlife species that have made their home in this tranquil, life-affirming miracle of sustainability and restoration."

- 2019 Awards Jury

Project Credits

  • SmithGroup (Lead Designer)
  • SmithGroup (Landscape Architect)
  • Lincoln A. Poley, AIA (Screenhouse Architect)
  • Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull Inc. (Civil Engineering Support)
  • Sverdrup Corporation (Airport Planners)

Project Statement

Originally created as recompense for wetland impacts during the expansion of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Crosswinds Marsh has transformed into a treasure valued by both human and natural communities. Celebrating its 20th anniversary as one of the largest self-sustaining wetland mitigation projects in the country, Crosswinds Marsh has become a national benchmark for ecological restoration and environmental design. Most notably, the project recreated ecosystems for hundreds of native flora and fauna species by restoring over 1,000 acres of historical wetland ecosystems from former agricultural and residential uses.

The technical design considered the pump-free hydrologic functions of the site to provide essential habitats that attract hundreds of animal species. While intentionally limiting direct human access, the site still serves as an invaluable educational and community resource with expansive permitted opportunities to observe critical habitat. The strategic site design also facilitated low-impact recreation like hiking, horseback riding, paddling, fishing and birding, leaving an indelible legacy that continues to offer numerous environmental learning opportunities for thousands of annual visitors to this day.

Project Narrative

Currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, Crosswinds Marsh was a project few thought would succeed. Created for the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) to meet regulatory requirements for expansion, it was an ambitious concept from the start—recreate hundreds of acres of wetland preserve for wildlife habitat, as well as develop a public resource that would benefit the residents of Wayne County. It has since become one the largest self-sustaining wetland mitigation projects in the nation, surpassing expectations for positive contributions to both civilized and wild communities alike.

In the early 1990s, DTW embarked on a large capital improvement program that included the construction of a new crosswind runway. Mitigation plans called for the phase 1 restoration or creation of 467 acres of wetlands lost to the expansion. By mitigating all of the wetlands at a single off-site location, the County met regulatory requirements, reduced maintenance costs, and created a new recreational and educational destination for the public.

While many mitigation projects are remote, often forgotten sites little known to the general public, Crosswinds Marsh is quite the opposite. It has grown to become one of the region's most treasured resources, where residents can enjoy hiking, fishing, bird watching, horseback riding, paddling, naturalist programs and quiet reflection from the peaceful natural surroundings. It has vastly exceeded all expectations in terms of its environmental integrity, economic sustainability and social value.

The project achieved national recognition, receiving an American Society of Landscape Architects Centennial Honor Award in 2000. A case study on the site has also been published as part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation's Landscape Performance Series. Most recently, the design received a Legacy Honor Award from the Michigan Chapter of ASLA in 2015.

Design and Planning

A majority of the site selected for Crosswinds Marsh had historically encompassed an expansive wetland complex of wet prairie and mixed hardwood forest that covered most of southeast Michigan. Much of this wetland complex was drained for agricultural use more than a century ago. To develop the most practical and cost-effective solutions for habitat restoration and recreation enhancements, an interdisciplinary team of professionals collaborated on the design. Led by landscape architects, the team also included civil engineers, wetland scientists, aquatic and fisheries biologists, botanists and recreation planners.

The preferred solutions resulted in a diverse wetland and upland ecosystem including open water, deep and shallow water submergent and emergent wetlands, forested wetlands, wet meadows and native uplands, which was accomplished without the use of pumps. The design team utilized computer modeling for calculating wetland hydrology, sculpted the land based on habitat types, and specified an aggressive seeding and planting program. Extensive agricultural drainage systems were removed, and a low head earthen dam and berms with a concrete spillway were constructed to contain the water within the site. The design also ameliorated previous problems with upstream and downstream flooding.

Habitat Restoration

To establish self-sustaining wetlands and create a variety of habitats for native flora and fauna, workers planted more than 300,000 native aquatic plants, 10,000 seedlings and 300 acres of wetland seed, yielding a myriad of built habitat structures and nesting platforms. After three rare plant species were identified and mapped at the airport site, the plants were relocated to Crosswind Marsh in a 20-acre parcel set aside for their propagation and reestablishment.

Almost immediately, the animals returned. Herons, ducks, owls and pelicans flew in. Swallows built nests around the pavilion and under the boardwalk, while wood ducks and mallards took to the nesting boxes. A nesting pair of bald eagles set up home within the first five years and are still rearing young on an annual basis. To date, monitoring data has documented 244 bird species, a number that continues to grow each year. Prominent organizations like now list Crosswinds Marsh as a national birding hotspot.

Mammals, large and small, have also found homes in Crosswinds Marsh including deer, muskrat and even beavers—a keystone species not seen in Wayne County since the 1930s. Other species have arrived, too: the current tally is 30 mammal species, 20 fish species, 21 reptile and amphibian species, and 70 species of butterflies and dragonflies. "When I first came to Crosswinds 20 years ago, there was nothing there," remarks Park Naturalist Darrin Bauer. "One of the biggest questions I always get from people is, 'How did you bring all these animals in here?' They all came on their own. It's really amazing."

Crosswinds Marsh as a Community Asset

From the beginning, Crosswinds Marsh was designed to replace lost wetland habitat and meet the recreational needs of area residents. Public involvement during the planning process was considered a key barometer of its acceptance and ultimate success.

Today, Crosswinds Marsh provides recreational, educational and interpretive opportunities for nearly 50,000 visitors annually. Now folded into the Wayne County park system, it offers an array of low-impact recreation including hiking on more than five miles of trails, canoeing, bird watching and horseback riding. Maintaining a sustainable fishery, it is one of the most popular fishing sites in the Detroit metropolitan area.

The park also offers numerous events and festivals to introduce the site to new visitors, hosting annual Arbor Day activities, a Nature Fest and fishing contests. Various community groups make ample use of the park, including hikers, horseback riders, birdwatchers, photographers and others who coordinate their own activities through clubs and social media sites like

As a rich, living outdoor classroom, Crosswinds Marsh serves as an invaluable educational resource for the general public, school groups, scout troops and civic organizations. Two full-time naturalists lead 15 interpretive programs for 6,000 participants throughout the year. The Screenhouse, a pavilion accessed by a boardwalk and surrounded by water, provides an appealing, interactive venue for class studies and programs. Researchers, professors and students from several Michigan-based universities regularly visit Crosswinds Marsh for field work and other studies. It also serves as an ongoing research facility for scientists to monitor and collect data, which will be used to guide future wetland restoration projects.

Celebrating with the Community

To mark the site's 20th anniversary milestone, our firm teamed up with the park management to engage visitors through a photography contest that garnered nearly 200 entries to celebrate the positive impact of the park. Through press, social media and a curated exhibit at the DTW McNamara Terminal, visitors shared the beauty, environmental integrity and social value that the park brings to the region.

The Park's Evolution

Crosswinds Marsh is only improving with age. Native plants continue to mature and spread, and animal populations are thriving. Careful monitoring and tenacious management keep invasive species in check. Even the Michigan Chapter of the Nature Conservancy has partnered up to assist with invasive species management of this successfully restored ecosystem. Human-built boardwalks and other hardscape materials are weathering and blending with their natural surroundings. Sustainably designed restroom facilities are being built to meet increasing visitor demand.

Through thoughtful and collaborative design, Crosswinds Marsh has succeeded in providing an important public asset while maintaining the integrity of its natural sustainable systems. Most visitor amenities are contained within the most accessible areas of the park, while the majority of the acreage is preserved for wildlife habitat. The design strategically limits access to critical habitat areas where rare plants can propagate and animals can breed and raise their young.

As testament to its success, Crosswinds Marsh hardly looks like a "project" at all—it seems like it has been there forever. It has matured into a rich, vibrant wetland that benefits the natural world, as well as the community living with and learning from it.


Product Sources: FURNITURE

  • NA – contractor supplied timber benches built on-site

Product Sources: FENCE/GATES

  • Custom steel gates and timber signage

Product Sources: LUMBER/DECKING

  • Custom steel gates and timber signage

Product Sources: STRUCTURES

  • Custom built