PROJECT STATEMENT: The James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center is dedicated to the exploration and celebration of the natural environment, educating users on the importance of biodiversity, native habitats, and environmental protection. Restored ecosystems and their associated wildlife inhabitants are within an arm’s length, optimizing interaction with the natural world, while preserving and protecting its sensitive ecological areas and endangered species. Interpretation of the area’s hydrology is articulated through the rehabilitation and creation of wetland, prairie, and forest ecosystems. And kids think it’s really cool, too.
The James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center is envisioned as a place of learning, play, and gathering that seeks to open a window on the beauty and diversity of the natural world that exists in Southeast Michigan. The 70-acre center, located within Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority’s (HCMA) 2,215 acre Indian Springs Metropark is dedicated to the exploration and celebration of the natural environment. Situated at the headwaters to the Huron River, the interpretation of the area’s hydrology is articulated through the rehabilitation and creation of wetland, prairie, and forest ecosystems. These ecosystems establish an ecological vocabulary, revealing the influences and processes that shaped the Midwestern landscape. The center’s infrastructure elements are sited to optimize the visitor’s interaction with the natural world, while preserving and protecting its sensitive ecological areas and endangered species.
The landscape architect led a multi-disciplinary team of designers, scientists, engineers, educators, and architects in the creation of the James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center. The focus from the outset was to take advantage of the diversity of ecosystems present within the park, and to make it a unique and extraordinary educational platform. At the outset, the project team collaborated with an educational committee, HCMA and research scientists in designing a master plan to be used by the park system to achieve educational goals set for the site. Rather than take a passive role in education efforts, the committee served to establish criteria and “fit” the restoration into actual school programs. The master plan includes teacher-training sessions, research, activities and exhibits for the Environmental Education Center and activities for groups of elementary through college age students. The plan also addresses methods to generate community involvement and interest, both in the general public and the educational community. The goal is to use the site to teach about ecosystems and to give visitors an appreciation of the complexity of natural systems and the interrelationships between all aspects of nature, including the role of human beings.
Based on the master plan, the bio-diversity of the site was celebrated and augmented through the restorations of the following ecosystems: prairie barrens, shortgrass prairie, tallgrass prairie, and a sedge-fen-lake complex. This large-scale ecosystem restoration required the landscape architect to coordinate the expertise of the entire team, understanding complex issues related to site hydrology, native plant species, and stormwater control, and endangered species preservation. The landscape architect utilized the site’s natural 40 feet of grade change in order to help reestablish the various eco-systems that would naturally assimilate to the different micro-climatic conditions. This allowed the reestablishment of more than 170 plant species. Using the high watertable as a result of the headwaters, a sedge fen lake was dug to create additional educational opportunities and study of open water systems.
Preservation of endangered species (Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, Blanding’s Turtle, Henslow’s Sparrow) was carefully considered along with efforts to enhance habitats for additional species. Through the development of the prairie complex and, in particular, the prairie barrens’ lupine ecosystem, ideal conditions were created including larval food and nectar in efforts to reintroduce the endangered Karnar Blue Butterfly to the Metropark. Sand Hill Cranes have already returned to the project site as a result of ecosystem restoration.
The interaction of the site and the Environmental Education Center is the key to the success of the project ecologically, and educationally. The building is designed as an extension of the site with the landscape architect locating the building as a continuation of a ridgeline. The copper roof engages the ground on the front of the structure while the glass façade opens across the kettle lake to the restored prairies and meadows behind. The location of the building is also strategic in visually separating the parking area from the restored ecosystems. The architect engaged the progression of the natural environment within the structure by entering at a floor above the water level, proceeding down a level to the first floor at water level and completing the journey on the lower floor, located under the water level. Students can submerge themselves in the middle of the kettle pond, because the classroom itself is a plexiglass room extending to the middle of the pond, an idea originated in the master plan by the landscape architect.
The James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center also includes a working outdoor laboratory. The Muck Pond adjacent to the Environmental Education Center is a few short steps away from the microscopes of the wet lab. Boardwalks allow students to collect samples and study the microorganisms found in the wetlands.
Additional features of the site design include the Council Rings which are a series of precast stone rings based upon the Jens Jenson model and repeated throughout the Environmental Discovery Center. Each is located in a unique ecosystem setting to allow the educators and park environmentalists a teaching platform for the various school groups. As another marriage of educational and aesthetic considerations, a Demonstration Garden has been created to introduce the public to the native plant species found throughout the Metropark.
Sustainable practices were utilized throughout the site and building development efforts. In particular, a geothermal system is used to heat and cool the building, and during summer months this geothermally heated water is piped and used at an adjacent Metropark “spray zone.” The spray zone water is then collected and used for irrigation in at the Indian Springs Golf Course. In addition, bioswales are utilized within the parking area to collect and clean the stormwater runoff prior to releasing it into the site’s various wetland systems.
Construction of the project was phased over several years. The initial phase graded and reestablished the natural contours and established the prairie seeding. Years of farming and fertilization required extensive remedial work to eliminate the dormant weed and invasive seed bank through the use of fire and herbicides. A comprehensive implementation and management program began with an early spring prescribed burn and was followed by a series of herbicide treatments extending into late fall. This preparation period was critical to the successful establishment of the prairie complex. Once the site had been thoroughly prepared and conditions were conducive for planting, the seed mixes were integrated in to the top ¼” of soil. The prairie began to take form with the arrival of spring. The increasing temperatures warmed the soil, ending the months of dormancy for the seed. The result was germination, growth and a prairie restored.
The James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center is a celebration of nature and a gateway to understanding through education. The ecosystems and gardens are celebrated as places of gathering and knowledge, which open a window on the diversity and beauty of the native world. It is a center of learning and discovery where appreciation for the interdependency of living organisms is renewed with each visit. The unique educational outreach opportunities contemplated in the master plan continue as the influence of the center on the environment and on its visitors continues to grow.
Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority
Gary Bartsch, Mike Arens, Sue Nyquist, Paul Muelle,
Dan Duncan, David Moilanen, Kim Jarvis, Steve Horn,
Nolan Clark, Jim Soraghan, Laura Martin
Tim Schmalenberger, ASLA, Partner-in-Charge
Richard Espe, ASLA, LEED AP, Design Partner/Project Manager
Brad Kissling, ASLA, Project Landscape Architect
Environtech Consultants, Inc.
John Kiertscher, Karl Curry, Carla Stimmel, Harold Gilbert, Vicki Derr
Paul Urbanek, John Richards, Lokman Abbas, Brian Ingham,
Jill Stewart, David Kistler, Bruce Comstock
Eco-Design & Engineering
Scott Sonnenburg, P.E, ASLA
Johnson & Anderson, Inc.
John Emig, Greg Gucwa, Jim Dietrick
Salley DeRoo and
Wildlife Habitat Consultant:
Dr. Bruce Kingsbury
CTI and Associates, Inc.
General Contractor Building:
JM Olson Corporation
General Contractor Site: