Feature Article - November 2009
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Parks Are People & Place

The Intersection of Culture & Ecology in Landscape Design

By Emily Tipping

People Meet Nature

James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center
White Lake Township, Mich.

Designed by Columbus-based MSI Design for the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, which operates 13 Metroparks covering almost 24,000 acres along the Huron and Clinton rivers, providing a greenbelt around the Detroit metropolitan area for about 9 million visitors annually, the ASLA-award-winning James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center, is located at the Indian Springs Metropark, a 2,215-acre park featuring bike trails, a golf course, hiking, picnicking, a sprayground and more.

The 70-acre James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center is "dedicated to the exploration and celebration of the natural environment," MSI Design stated in a press release. "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."

The site features some outstanding elements for connecting people to nature, including a center with an underwater classroom and an outdoor laboratory.

The project team collaborated with an educational committee and research scientists to design a master plan that could be used to ensure educational goals for the site were meeting the needs of the community. The committee established criteria to "fit" the restoration into school programs, and the master plan included teacher-training sessions, research, activities and exhibits for the center and activities designed for groups from elementary students through college-age students.

The project involved restoration of ecosystems, including prairie barrens, shortgrass prairie, tallgrass prairie and a sedge-fen-lake complex. The site's natural grade change helped reestablish the ecosystems that would naturally occur in specific microclimates. More than 170 plant species were reestablished, and existing endangered species on the site were protected, including the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, Blanding's Turtle and Henslow's Sparrow. The team also has made an effort to reintroduce the Karnar Blue Butterfly. And, Sand Hill Cranes have returned to the site as a result of the restoration.

Site elements encourage interaction between people and their environment. The Muck Pond functions as a working outdoor laboratory near the indoor wet lab. Boardwalks allow students to get closer to the water. Council Rings are featured in the different ecosystems, offering a spot for educators and environmentalists a spot to share information about the specific aspects of the site. A demonstration garden introduces the public to the native plant species found in the area.

Like many landscape projects, the James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center also aims at conservation. A geothermal system is used for heating and cooling in the building. In the summer, the geothermally heated water is piped and used at a nearby sprayground in the larger park. That water is again reused for irrigation at the Indian Springs Golf Course.