Key Lessons from the Developers
Prairie Crossing celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first home in 2015. Since the beginning of the planning stage in in late 80’s, developers have looked to Prairie Crossing as a model of sustainable development. Prairie Crossing has inspired and influenced similar conservation communities all over the U.S. Its developers, Vicky and George Ranney, are frequently asked to summarize the key lessons they’d like to share with others contemplating a similar project, and have shared their thoughts here.
Create an analytical framework for making decisions. Defining the result we were trying to achieve led us to focus on the term “Conservation Community,” which we had not heard before. As a guide to action, we defined the ten guiding principles. This approach served us well as we moved in territory previously unexplored by developers. We returned repeatedly to the ten principles in making decisions, working with all of them in combinations. We hoped a conservation community would protect the environment through common action of the people living there, so for a year before they took ownership, training for homeowners in managing the community through these principles was provided. The homeowners association has been responsible and effective over the years.
Plan for the landscape first. Inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s great landscape architect and planner, we assembled the best professionals we could find, first in landscape architecture, and then land planning, ecology, and environmental team leadership. These professionals taught us how to respect our site: to preserve the long and middle-distance views, to plant deep-rooted native prairie plants that purify storm water and enhance habitat for birds, fish, animals and people. Around the house sites they laid out trails for people to exercise and enjoy the open land, designed a lake for swimming, boating, fishing and storm water detention, and reserved a hundred acres for organic farming.
Design buildings that relate to the site and environment. When we turned to architecture, we looked for architects who would understand historic Midwestern building styles and modern energy efficiency. To create an authentic sense of place, we aske them to study the early Lake County houses an barns. Where we could re-use historic buildings like Byron Colby’s barn, a farmhouse, and a local one-room schoolhouse, we did so. We asked the architects to employ the latest energy-efficient techniques and to keep the houses modest in size. For the new homes, we offered a diverse palette of prairie colors that fit with each other as they do in the prairie itself.
Keep public purposes in mind. Assembling the right mix of organizations was critical. Committed homeowners started the Prairie Crossing Charter School, which serves two public school districts and integrates the environment into its curriculum. The Lake Forest Montessori School adolescent program moved to the farm, where it allows students to learn together in a way that Maria Montessori thought was highly effective. Northwestern Hospital purchased their land from us as an extension of the guiding principle of a healthy lifestyle. Where two rail lines cross next to our site (hence the name Prairie Crossing), we helped Metra secure land for two new stations that provide rail service to Chicago and O’Hare airport.
To provide ongoing support for civic leadership, we established the Liberty Prairie Foundation, which has helped protect and expand the 5,800 acre Liberty Prairie Reserve in which Prairie Crossing is located. By maintaining and managing the Farm, the Foundation provides a source of healthy organic food, while its farm incubator and summer youth farming programs make it a leader in the national sustainable farming movement.
Research has shown that people living at Prairie Crossing are three times as active in the civic and political realms as in suburbs elsewhere. They have helped conserve the very land that the neighbors from a prior generation wanted to protect. We believe that much of the community’s success stems from the design of Prairie Crossing, the creativity and hard work of its designers, and the quality and commitment of the homeowners it has attracted.