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American Society of Landscape Architects


November 2006 Issue

Nearby Nature
The new Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo introduces native species to (sub)urban kids.

By Samuel F. Dennis Jr., ASLA

Nearby Nature Samuel F. Dennis, Jr., ASLA

It is a bright and chilly Sunday in early June and I am sitting comfortably on a rock, watching my three children experience the new Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo at Lincoln Park in Chicago. My older kids, Isaac (9) and Zoe (6), are scanning the wolf habitat for signs of “real, live wolves” while my youngest, Stella Rae (2), is nearby calling nonsense into speaker tubes attached to the brightly colored metal silhouettes of an interactive wolf pack exhibit. “Sha-SHA-sha,” she singsongs into a green speaker flange, then holds her ear close to listen. “Sha-SHA-sha,” replies a young boy we do not know. Beaming now, she runs from wolf to wolf, calling out “la-LA-la” and “cha-CHA-cha” while her new playmate tries to find the corresponding wolf in order to answer back. As if to end the game, she cups her hands over a speaker and whispers, “I love you.” The boy shouts back “I love you!” and runs off to his caregiver.

Meanwhile, Isaac and Zoe return to report on their wolf-sighting expedition. “We think we saw ears poking out of the grass,” they tell me. Indeed the vegetation in the wolf habitat is so lush, the native grasses and perennials alone could hide a wolf pack a mere 10 feet from our searching eyes. Suddenly an impossibly long cry rises from the grass and we turn to see a wolf, snout pointing skyward, mouth wide, howling. The wolf pauses to listen, tilting its head slightly, before issuing another long multi-note cry. After the third, we too finally hear the siren from a fire engine or an ambulance way off in the distance. It is a startling reminder that the dense woods of the zoo are in the heart of the city.

This scene illustrates many of the ideals embodied in the Children’s Zoo landscape. The design team—Mark Robertson, ASLA, of MESA Landscape Architecture, Marc L’Italien of EHDD Architects, and Peter Exley of architectureisfun (AIF)—sought to create an immersive woodland experience:

*to blur the boundaries between animal habitat and visitor space

*to provide a variety of settings and a richness of plants to make the best possible homes for the animals

*to provide opportunities for learning through play while appealing to multi-sensory learning styles

*to layer the experiences in order to encourage and reward repeat visits

While visitors may quibble with the execution of some of the elements, the overall result is powerfully effective. Although the Children’s Zoo at Lincoln Park lacks the programming budget of the Hammill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo or the space of the Children’s Garden at the Morton Arboretum, it earns a place among the best family destinations in Chicago. Moreover, its central-city location and free admission make it one of Chicago’s most accessible children’s spaces.

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