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Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois.

Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as PlacesAnnouncing Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places, by Simmons B. Buntin with Ken Pirie
Planetizen Press
The Prairie Crossing case study on this page is out of date. A completely revised case study is included in the new book, which is available in full-color print and electronic versions, with an introduction by Galina Tachieva, author of Spawl Repair Manual.
Learn more and order you copy!

By Simmons B. Buntin

Prairie Crossing is a "conservation community" located 40 miles northwest of Chicago, and an hour south of Milwaukee, in the town of Grayslake, Illinois. Based on a set of ten guiding principles (click to read), the community strikes a balance between preserving the natural landscape, providing energy efficient homes of Midwestern vernacular, and presenting a variety of opportunities for resident involvement. While most development to date has concentrated on relatively low-density housing, higher-density homes are being built near the Metra train station, and plans are in the works for a mixed-use "Main Street." Additionally, an onsite regional branch of Lake Forest Hospital is under construction.

Wetlands, prairie, farmland.
All homes at Prairie Crossing have a view of wetlands, prairie, or farmland.
Photo courtesy National Association of Home Builders.


Nestled in the heart of Illinois's Lake County, Prairie Crossings has grown from a commitment of concerned investors to create a community where nature is the backyard and fresh vegetables are grown just down the lane, yet close enough to Chicago and Milwaukee to allow train or other commuting. In 1987, after a 15-year battle over its development—the former farm was slated to be developed as a typical subdivision with up to 1,600 units as late as 1986—the property was acquired by printing mogul and conservationist Gaylord Donnelley, who owned a farm in the adjacent 2,500-acre Liberty Prairie Reserve. With seven other neighboring families, Donnelley formed Prairie Holdings Corporation, Prairie Crossing's developer.

With the death of Donnelley in 1992, George Ranney Jr., Donnelley's nephew and former president of Inland Steel Industries, became Prairie Holding's president.

Ranney grew up just a half mile from the site. Donnelley and Ranney family members remain among the largest investors in the development, and George Ranney's wife Victoria Post Ranney now serves as Prairie Holdings vice president. The investors agreed from the beginning that a set of principles, based first and foremost on "lifelong learning," were necessary to ensure successful development.

"I'm surprised and delighted to see that if you lay out guiding principles, the debate tends to be whether you're meeting them," she said in July 1999. "People are taking up the cause of Prairie Crossing in ways I would never have guessed five years ago."

But Prairie Crossing is also about economic vitality. "This is not a philanthropic project. It's a business venture," said George Ranney four years earlier. He also noted that Prairie Crossing will "have social outcomes we hope will be noteworthy and affect public policy and business practice. We hope other builders will say, 'Someone else has done it, let's get into the market.'"

Sound partnerships, a willingness to incorporate state-of-the-art construction and energy-saving approaches, and Craftsman-style architecture have drawn other builders' interest, and the interests of others, as well.

Photo courtesy Sturbridge Construction.


The first twelve models of homes at Prairie Crossing represent the first community-scale demonstration project for the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America program. With whole-house comfort and efficiency as its baseline, these homes-averaging 2,700 square feet-use nearly half the energy of similarly sized homes of typical frame construction in the Chicago area.

According to the Building America program, "The systems engineering approaches used to develop the Prairie Crossing designs make maximum use of the interaction between the building envelope and its heating and cooling system." The homes demonstrate new framing, insulation, ducting, and thermal barrier methods, including:

  • Framing with 2" x 6" studs spaced 24" on center, providing more space in the wall cavity for extra insulation (R-26 walls, R-43 ceilings, and R-19 foundation), up to 30 percent less construction waste, yet no decrease in structural safety.
  • Extensive sealing and caulking of interior and exterior spaces to prevent air leakage.
  • Placement of ductwork on the building's interior to prevent leakage of heated and cooled air.
  • Double-glazed, argon-filled, low-e windows.
  • Ventilation fan controllable by occupants for fresh air exchange.
  • Direct-vent, sealed-combustion 90-percent-efficiency furnace and high-efficiency water heater.
  • Double air-barrier system that includes gluing and clipping drywall to studs, providing a second airtight wall; and gluing rigid foam sheathing to the outside of the framing to seal the first wall, eliminating the need for polyethylene vapor barriers and housewrap.
  • Use of recycled wood products and nontoxic glues.
  • High-tech wiring.

Photo courtesy Prairie Holdings Corp.A 1998 Rocky Mountain Institute study, combined with estimates from Building America, shows that by limiting environmental impacts during construction, Prairie Holdings saved about $4,400 per lot, for a total of $1.4 million.

The designs at Prairie Crossing are so efficient that Christine Ervin, recent deputy secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, boasted, "I think you'll serve as a beacon to many communities across the country." And builder Shaw Homes president Franklin A. Martin expects Building America's voluntary energy codes to be standard procedure for many developers in just a few years.

While energy efficiency is key, what initially attracts homebuyers is the style of houses and the nearly pastoral setting, all with views of the lake, wetlands, prairie, or onsite organic farm. Prairie Crossings currently offers two home series: Homestead and Settler. The seven styles of the Homestead series range from 2,500 to 3,500 square feet, and $365,000 to $427,000. They feature wraparound porches, nine-foot ceilings, and hand-crafted details. The nine styles of the Settler series range from 1,600 to 2,500 square feet, and $250,000 to $340,000, including a "traditional" foursquare. The average price of all homes is $330,000, about 20 to 30 percent higher than comparably sized houses in the area. The housing variety showcases "gabled roofs, jaunty pediments, deep porches, clapboard siding, sash windows, and white trim against a palette of rustic colors" and "exude so much Americana they almost bring an Aaron Copland melody to mind," according to the New York Times. A series of more urban homes—with lots as small as 5,000 square feet—has been approved for a new town center area called Station Village, based around the Metra train station, in a lower price range ($180,000 to $220,000). The town center may also feature living space above office and retail, while some current houses offer living or studio space above garages. All homes feature full, native landscaping, and only indigenous plants are allowed in yards. The homes have the garage either in front, facing the street, or in the rear, on an alley, and are clustered to preserve open space.

Photo courtesy Prairie Holdings Corp.Train Stations and Town Center

Prairie Crossing lies adjacent to two Metra Metropolitan Rail lines with two stations roughly a tenth of a mile apart. The Prairie Crossing-Libertyville station serves the North Central Line, running between Antioch, Ill. and Chicago, and was completed in 1996. Growth along that line has been "phenomenal," according to Metra officials. The new station, not yet complete, is north of the existing station, and will serve the Milwaukee District North Line. Prairie Crossing developers are planning a "Main Street" with office and retail at street level and office and housing above between the two stations, serving as the entry to the Station Village. Metra predicts the two stations may become a regional mass transit hub, since it is a natural transfer point between the lines.

With the addition of higher density housing in Station Village, a greater mix of residents is likely. Indeed, that is what the developers would like to see. "We have done much better than anyone else around here," George Ranney said, "but our hope was that we would have a minority population somewhat larger than we do."

The Ranneys additional 113 homes surrounding the town center in a transit-oriented development plan designed by the New Urbanist and regional design firm Calthorpe Associates. Additionally, 76 previously permitted homes will be moved within easy walking distance of the train station, allowing residents to use their cars less frequently.

"There's certainly an appeal to the kind of development they're proposing," Grayslake mayor Pat Carey said. "If a good deal of people walk across the street to take the train, that balances against the increase in density, in my mind."

And while there was some opposition to a town center from Prairie Crossing residents originally—the Ranneys initially proposed the town center be located closer to the actual Prairie Crossing center—Victoria Ranney noted, "The neighbors like the idea of a town center now, adjacent to the train station, with a general store and café." She also noted that the commercial buildings of the town center will be just as "green" as the houses-emphasizing energy efficiency, alternative building materials, and reduced construction waste. Completion of the town center is anticipated around 2005.

Central square with snow.
 Prairie Crossing's village green-turned-winter-white.
 Photo by Wendell Cox.

The Prairie Crossing campus of the Lake Forest Hospital will be completed much sooner, though on the northeast quadrant of the site, rather than adjacent to the train stations. The $30 million comprehensive health and wellness campus on 44 acres will "be physically inviting with a sense of healing and promoting a healthy lifestyle," according to Lake Forest Hospital Board chairman Harold S. Jensen. Victoria Ranney agrees. "We're delighted with the interest of Lake Forest Hospital in serving this area," she said, "as well as the hospital's desire to develop plans that are compatible with the guiding principles of Prairie Crossing, especially those relating to environmental protection, aesthetic design, high-quality construction, and promotion of healthy lifestyles." The campus will include an urgent care center, medical offices, laboratories, and other specialty offices. A broad array of community education programs will also be offered at an onsite conference center.


Prairie Crossing's public charter school, like the community itself, has the goal of "lifelong learning." The school, currently in the original Wright Schoolhouse and another building, groups up to twenty students per class in grades K-4, and is popular enough to warrant admission by lottery. With an emphasis on "good citizenship and conservation," students participate in hands-on learning, comprehensive multi-grade-level themes, reading and creative writing, multicultural arts, math oriented toward problem-solving, Spanish, and much more. In addition to teachers, parents play an integral role in the education and development of students. Construction on a permanent school building, or set of buildings, in the northeast quadrant of Prairie Crossing may be complete as soon as 2002.

Organically grown produce. Photo courtesy Prairie Holdings Corp.Farm

Prairie Crossing's agricultural heritage is strong, anchored by its 10-acre certified organic farm. The farm is surrounded by another 100 acres of farmland that are currently not certified organic. The organic farm has been in production for over seven years, selling into local and north suburban Chicago markets with a revenue of over $90,000 per year. The farm grows a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers, as well as produces free-range eggs. Through celebrations and workshops, the farm encourages community participation, including opportunities for residents to help with the daily work of the farm. Additionally, residents can maintain a community garden plot or "subscribe" to receive a weekly basket of vegetables.

The organic farm emphasizes sustainable agriculture techniques. It composts animal manure and vegetable waste to enrich the soils, maintains a wild prairie around the farm fields to help control insect pests (by fostering an active ecological balance), does not use pesticides or herbicides, rotates crops, covers crops, and sells produce and flowers from its own farm stand and at several local farmer's markets from mid-May through November.

Recreation and Community Involvement

Just inside the entrance to Prairie Crossing, the Byron Colby Barn serves as the "centerpiece" of Market Square and provides the community's gathering place as well as a symbol, perhaps, of Prairie Crossing

The Byron Colby Barn.
The Byron Colby Barn.
Photo courtesy Prairie Holdings Corporation.

altogether: "The past suggests what is possible for the future," says Prairie Crossing's literature. "In its proportions, its history, and the common activities it will make possible, this barn is truly part of Prairie Crossing's design." In 1992 the barn was scheduled for demolition to make room for new development on Liberty Prairie Reserve's periphery. Instead, Prairie Holdings Corporation talked the owner into donating the barn to Prairie Crossing. It was disassembled timber by timber, moved to Prairie Crossings, and reassembled with mortise and tenon joints just as it was more than a hundred years ago.

With a 24-hour fitness facility on its lower level, a large and open room on its main level, a loft, and a gourmet kitchen, the barn is used for a variety of social events, from community meetings to wedding receptions.

Prairie Crossing also hosts a stable—the Prairie Crossing Stable Cooperative—with thirteen stalls, tack room, outdoor arena, paddocks, and pastures. The stable is home for horses as well as other farm animals owned by Prairie Crossing residents.

Neighbors working on playground structure.
Community members pitch in to build a playground.
Photo courtesy Prairie Holdings Corporation.

Other amenities include a nine-acre Village Green with gazebo, neighborhood playgrounds, tennis courts, ice skating and cross-country skiing. A fishing and boating dock is in the works.

The residents of Prairie Crossing celebrate their community and its pastoral heritage through seasonal celebrations, such as the Spring Equinox Bonfire, Summer Solstice Gathering, Autumnal Equinox Gathering and Harvest Festival, Prairie Crossing Zucchini Festival, Thanksgiving Harvest, and weekly farmer's market. Other events pepper the warmer months, such as animal demonstrations, featured crop day, hay bale playground, hikes, and small concerts.


Much of Prairie Crossing's notoriety comes from its "conservation community" design, which is manifested through its commitment to preserving the environment. The land was purchased primarily to safeguard its open spaces. 150 acres of the site's farmland, for example, have been placed into permanent easement through the Washington, D.C.-based Conservation Fund. Greenways have been constructed and houses placed to protect native vegetation and wildlife corridors, and the land has been contoured to properly manage stormwater without the use of concrete culverts and other manmade stormwater discharge systems. Many community activities center on protecting and managing the land, and environmental and ecological issues are featured in fact sheets distributed throughout Prairie Crossing.

At the center of Prairie Crossing is the 22-acre Lake Mascouten and a series of adjoining wetlands. Prairie Crossing residents and officials make a concerted effort to monitor and uphold the quality of the lake, since "it is young, and natural and unnatural forces are interfering with the normal process of succession," according to the July 1998 "State of the Lake" EcoNotes fact sheet. Exotics—namely the Eurasian water milfoil and green sunfish (a regional native, but not to this lake)—have hindered the propagation of indigenous species. Educational and scientific efforts that involve, or at least inform, residents ensure that the community respects the value of the lake and therefore works to protect it. One example is the Homeowner Lake Team, which plans lake preservation activities.

Girl at pond's edge.There are a number of Prairie Crossing environmental design standards, including narrow streets, the replacement of concrete sidewalks with ten miles of crushed-limestone trails, and vegetated swales and detention basins to allow stormwater to drain slowly rather than being whisked away through a pipe.

Prairie Crossing's development team, community leaders, and the Conservation Fund formed a partnership to establish the Liberty Prairie Conservancy, a community stewardship organization that manages the 2,500-acre Liberty Prairie Reserve and coordinates volunteer habitat restoration and environmental education programs for residents and visitors. The Conservancy is financially supported through membership dues, program grants, and operating support from the Liberty Prairie Foundation. The Foundation, which was organized as a separate entity by the partnership, receives funds generated by a transfer fee at the initial sale and resale of every house at Prairie Crossing, provided through deed restrictions; as well as from tipping fees on an adjacent landfill that generates $300,000 per year.

A regional trail winds through Prairie Crossing's prairies and hedgerows, connecting Grayslake and Prairie Crossing with the Liberty Prairie Reserve. Ultimately, the trail at Prairie Crossing will span the Reserve, linking Prairie Crossing with the Des Plaines River Trail.

Liberty Prairie Reserve.
The adjacent 2,500-acre Liberty Prairie Reserve.
Photo by Terry Evans, courtesy Liberty Prairie Reserve.


The conservation community of Prairie Crossing ranges far and wide from typical suburban development, capturing sense of place by remember place, honoring it, and then using technology such as advanced construction methods to live amiably with the earthy origins of place. Prairie Crossing can be measured a success not only because of the new approaches it has taken or the media exposure it has received, but also because neighbors are now willingly adopting the concepts tried at Prairie Crossings. For example, Grayslake has allowed a residential developer to rezone from the minimum one-house-per-acre standard to permit lots as small the developer cares to build, as long as 50 percent or more of the property is set aside as contiguous open space and there is no increase in the overall number of houses.

As one of the first residents—the new pioneers—put it after moving to Prairie Crossings: "It's a whole different concept here. You're not just buying a home, you're not a homeowner, you're part of the future. You just kind of get into the spirit of it."

For more information, visit the Prairie Crossing website at www.PrairieCrossing.com.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Just the Facts.

Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, Illinois

  • 677 acres
  • 70 percent open space, including wetlands, lake, and organic farm
  • Adjacent to Liberty Prairie Reserve
  • 216 of 362 energy efficient, single-family homes completed; 113 additional town center homes just approved
  • Onsite public charter school
  • Transit orientation: Metra Prairie Crossing-Libertyville Station, with second station planned
  • Lake Forest Hospital Prairie Crossing campus under construction onsite
  • Planned mixed-use "Main Street" and Village Station between Metra stations, including retail, restaurant, and office space
  • New Village Station plan designed by Calthorpe Associates
  • Developed by Prairie Holdings Corporation


Applied Ecological Services Restores Wetlands Prior to Construction

To emulate functions and aesthetics of Prairie Crossing's historic landscape, Applied Ecological Services restored hundreds of acres of the prairie and wetland communities that occupied the site prior to human settlement.

One of the main features of the native landscape at Prairie Crossing is the treatment of stormwater runoff. Applied Ecological Services designed a series of measures to reduce stormwater volumes and associated pollutant loads (nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, road salt, etc.) through an innovative stormwater management concept called "Stormwater Treatment Train." The Stormwater Treatment Train is a system composed of open swale stormwater conveyance, upland prairie biofiltration, wetlands, and a man-made lake. Working in combination, these methods increase opportunities for pollutant removal through biological and mechanical means, and reduce the risk and volume of stormwater runoff.

Additionally, over 1,500 linear feet of eroding Lake Mascouten shoreline were stabilized through the use of wetland geotextiles and plantings, which have created habitat for desirable emergent aquatic vegetation that attenuates wave energy and stabilizes soils.




Abderholden, Frank. April 19, 1996. "Prairie Crossing leads nation into energy-efficient future." The News-Sun. Lake County, Ill.

Buck, Genevieve. "Serene and clean." June 3, 2000. Chicago Tribune.

"Community Garden Case Studies: Prairie Crossing." Undated. Community Stewardship Exchange.

Dunlap, David W. "Developing a Suburb, with Principles." July 11, 1999. The New York Times.

Erb, Madelyn. January 21, 2000. "Prairie Crossing - Grayslake, Illinois." Overview.

Fatsis, Stefan. November 10, 1995. "New Communities Make It Easy Being Green." The Wall Street Journal.

Holt, Nancy D. May 22, 1998. "How 'Green' Is Your Household?" The Wall Street Journal.

"Lake Forest Hospital to Develop Prairie Crossing Campus in Grayslake." October 2000. Lake Forest Hospital Press Release.

Long, John K. April 19, 1996. "No wasted energy in these homes." Chicago Tribune.

"Prairie Crossing Homes: Building America houses that use half as much energy." Undated. Office of Building Technology, State and Community Programs, Energy Efficiency and Renewble Energy, U.S. Department of Energy.

Prairie Crossing Website/Prairie Holdings Corporation. www.prairiecrossing.com

Roszkowski, John. September 14, 2000. "Metra lpans third rail station here." Libertyville Review. Libertyville, Ill



Prairie Crossing

Liberty Prairie Conservancy

Village of Grayslake, Illinois

Lake County, Illinois

Chicago Metropolis 2020



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