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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Suburban Sprawl Solutions

Air Date: Week of

Outside of Chicago, a new development called Prairie Crossing combines new housing and preserved farmland. It is a compromise aimed at saving as much cropland as possible in an area under intense population pressure. Robin Finesmith of Living on Earth’s Midwest bureau reports.


CURWOOD: As more and more people migrate out from the cities into the suburbs, what was once prime farmland becomes subdivision. This is a story that is told in many places around the world, and today we take you to the heartland of the United States, in northern Illinois where one community is trying to find a new way of dealing with suburban sprawl. As part of our month-long series on challenges for the world's food supply, Robin Finesmith of Living on Earth's Midwest Bureau at WCPN recently visited Prairie Crossing. It's a new development that's trying to save some of the Chicago area's vanishing croplands.

(Shop sounds)

FINESMITH: Dawn and Scott Peterson grow corn and soybeans on about 1,000 acres of rented land spread throughout Lake County, Illinois. It's an area 50 miles north of Chicago, closer to Wisconsin than the downtown Loop. But it's still part of what's called "Chicagoland," and new developments are sprouting up all the time, surrounding farmsteads like this one.

(A child speaking, corn spilling)

FINESMITH: It's been too wet to work the fields this week, so Dawn Peterson spends this morning fixing machinery and taking care of 3 beef steer she's helping her daughter to raise. When she is in the fields, Peterson says she feels the city intruding.

D. PETERSON: We have people going out in the fields after we plant them. They ruin the corn, they ruin the beans, they make paths out there with their minibikes. At some point people move into houses that are right next to the farms. They really don't know what to expect from the farms. And there are some times when we can farm all night long. And they don't like that a whole lot because we create dust and we create noise and we get complaints and we've even had people send out the cops on us to stop us from farming.

FINESMITH: The Petersons are among a dwindling number of families still farming in Lake County on what many call some of the most productive land in the country. Piece by piece, crops and tractors are losing ground to shopping malls and new houses. In an effort to try to save some of what's left, the township of Grays Lake and a group of builders have worked out a new approach to development that combines new homes and farm land.

(Construction machinery)

FINESMITH: To the untrained eye, Prairie Crossing looks just like another new subdivision, where the first of 300 new homes in the style of classic Midwest farm houses are being built on what was 600 acres of farm land. But it's actually an unusual arrangement. Instead of being spread out over the entire parcel, all the houses are clustered together, almost like a village, on just 20% of the land. The remaining 80% is being left open, leaving some room for the Petersons and another family to keep farming.

(Saws cutting wood)

FINESMITH: Carol Sonnenschein's new house is almost finished. She and her husband will be moving here from a nearby suburb later this summer.

SONNENSCHEIN: If you want 5 acres, if you want to look at your window and see land that belongs to you, all by yourself, then this is probably not the place. But if you want to look out and see hundreds of acres that belong to you and everybody else, then this is a good place to buy.

FINESMITH: The nearly 500 acres of undeveloped land will be owned in common by Sonnenscheine and other Prairie Crossing homeowners. And 150 acres of it will be rented to the Petersons, who will continue to grow corn and soybeans on it. The idea of linking community-owned open space with a new cluster development makes sense to Carol Sonnenschein, who's a sociologist and a city planner by trade.

SONNENSCHEIN: It's a different way of looking at real estate. Just in terms of a regional, what's good for the region, this kind of development is better, it's more efficient, and it preserves farmland.

FINESMITH: Not all of the project's open space will be farmland. Some will be landscaped as prairie, meadow, or wetlands. Prairie Crossing is meant to attract environmentally conscious buyers. Along with the open space around them, the houses themselves have a number of eco-friendly features, including built-in recycling bins and lots of energy efficient windows. There's also a large community-supported garden on the property. Carol Sonnenschein says the big draw for her was the marsh outside her window. She says she's always wanted to hear frogs at night. But she's also excited about being part of a new model of suburban development.

SONNENSCHEIN: Some people have told me that there's no way to stop this, that market forces are so strong that you cannot preserve farm land in this area. People want to live on 5-acre estates and that's what developers develop. But I say, if you can have a prototype like this development, and you can make a profit, then you can say to municipalities it's possible. But you need a model.

FINESMITH: Sonnenschein's sentiments echo those of a number of planners in the area who've also been searching for ways to accommodate growth while preserving some of the region's once rural character. Phil Peters heads the Northeast Illinois Planning Commission. He says he likes the idea of using open space and active farm land as a marketing tool, but he's also cautious. Projects like Prairie Crossing could backfire by driving up property values and forcing more farmers off the land.

PETERS: I think it really would be a question of where it was located. I mean I would not want to move a development like this well out beyond the boundary of where current urban development occurs, because I think it could trigger other development prematurely in an area like that. In this instance, it's well within the area that's developing, so I don't think it's hastening any conversion from agriculture to urban by any means.

FINESMITH: Those who study farmland loss say there's a lot at stake here. Even though cropland disappears acre by acre on the urban fringe, over time it adds up to a tremendous amount of land permanently taken out of production. And that will affect the nation's food supply, according to Ralph Grossi, President of the American Farm Land Trust.

GROSSI: A very high percentage of our fruits and vegetables, 86%, are grown around metropolitan areas under the influence of urban pressure. So it's in that area that we'll first start to see the impacts of urban
sprawl on supplies, quality, and freshness.

FINESMITH: Farm advocates like Ralph Grossi say what's needed most are stronger Federal laws encouraging farmland preservation and better regional planning. Even so, planners hope projects like Prairie Crossing will encourage people to think about their relationship to the land in new ways. For farmer Dawn Peterson, Prairie Crossing is a mixed blessing. Even though she and her husband have only been renting these 600 acres, they've become deeply attached to the land. This development will allow her family to keep farming some of it, but she's sorry that the only way to save a little was to give up a lot.

D. PETERSON: I think they're doing a great thing. But the whole Prairie Crossing is being built on prime farm ground. And I understand what they're doing and everything, but that was a hard hit on us. It's still
hard to see that all go.

FINESMITH: For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Greyslake, Illinois.



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