Illinois ‘Agriburb’ Creates Innovative Model for Sustainable Development
May 21, 2014 | Jenny Smiechowski
Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois proves that the terms “new subdivision” and “sustainable” are not mutually exclusive. With energy efficient houses, a 100-acre organic farm, and a 5,800 acre nature preserve, Prairie Crossing is far from your typical cookie-cutter community.
In the late 1980s, the land that is now Prairie Crossing was slated to be developed into a traditional subdivision with as many as 1,600 units. However, local residents successfully halted the development to preserve the area’s unique natural history and environmental beauty.
Several local families came together to purchase the land and revolutionize the structure of suburbia. They began by planning a community based around ten guiding principles: environmental protection and enhancement, a healthy lifestyle, a sense of place, a sense of community, economic and racial diversity, convenient and efficient transportation, energy conservation, lifelong learning and education, aesthetic design and high-quality construction, and economic viability.
“They assembled a team that was really at the cutting edge of landscape design, new urban design, and environmental thinking, and they developed a community where 70 percent of the land is set aside into lakes, wetlands, prairies, savannahs, and agricultural areas,” says Brad Leibov President and CEO of the Liberty Prairie Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Prairie Crossing community. The Foundation was started in 1993 to ensure that the principles of Prairie Crossing were carried out long after the community was built, focusing primarily on the environment, land conservation, and food systems. It carries out its mission both in Prairie Crossing and in the larger community.
Much of the Liberty Prairie Foundation’s work revolves around the agricultural component of Prairie Crossing: Prairie Crossing Organic Farm. The foundation uses the farm to run an agricultural educational program for local school children, a youth training program for high school and college students called Prairie Farm Corps, and a farmer training program.
Through the farmer training program, the Liberty Prairie Foundation currently leases farmland to five different farming operations. The program is a valuable resource for local farmers who often struggle to find affordable farm land in the area. The goal of the program is to provide experienced farmers with a place to farm for five to seven years while they work to secure a long-term lease of land or purchase a farm.
Leibov believes this program addresses one of the greatest challenges within the local food community in his region: a lack of affordable land. In urban and suburban areas, land is in high demand and is priced for development. Whatever farm land is available is typically being used for monoculture crops like soybeans and corn that will be sold on the international market.
In addition to its involvement in sustainable agriculture, the Prairie Crossing community has many other sustainable design features. Its homes have high energy star ratings, it has native prairie landscaping that filters rain runoff, it is close to two commuter rail lines, and it is located near one of the cleanest lakes in Illinois. It is also adjacent to over 5,000 acres of open space called Liberty Prairie Reserve—a feature which Leibov says is particularly important to Prairie Crossing’s sustainability.
“I think that some of the most significant sustainable planning features really come from the amount of land set aside as open space,” says Leibov. “Prairie Crossing is located in Grayslake which is located within a region in central Lake County that has an amazing natural history and environmental value.”
Looking toward the future, Leibov says the Liberty Prairie Foundation plans to take part in a major land access project in northeast Illinois that will continue to fulfill Prairie Crossing community’s sustainable agriculture goals. The Foundation will partner with the regional land trust Openlands to create better conditions and more opportunities for farmers in northeastern Illinois.
“We want to create the conditions where existing farmers and new farmers have opportunity to either lease or purchase farm land,” says Leibov. “We have a supply problem in our region. We do not have a demand problem—statistics show there is a 10-billion dollar unmet demand for locally grown food in Illinois. The challenge is in locating opportunities for aspiring farmers to be on land long-term.”