Cook County Forest Preserves Interpretive Trails

Merit Award 2020

This project was commissioned by the Cook County Forest Preserves in Cook County, Illinois for Killdeer Wetlands Forest Preserve and Deer Grove East Forest Preserve—an ecologically diverse group of open spaces in one of the most densely populated counties in the United States—aiming to commemorate the preserves’ centennial and help the region envision alternative possibilities for the future. To develop the project, the design team worked with a team of architects, naturalists, curators, and engineers to develop new models for preserve interpretation that go beyond conventional “show and tell” signage.

The project’s objectives include: commemorating the Forest Preserve’s centennial year by collaborating on the design of interpretive elements that position the Forest Preserve as forward-thinking and visionary; developing systems that can be repurposed, by creating formats for interpretive tools with a shared vocabulary that can be replicated or adapted at other preserves;  demonstrating the Forest Preserve’s commitment to environmental stewardship by working toward reduction of the human presence; developing elements that keep the site as undeveloped and remote in feeling as possible; and connecting people to place—inspiring and engaging visitors by leading with the middle tenet of the Forest Preserve’s mission of education, pleasure, and recreation.

To accomplish these goals, the design team installed interpretive elements, including serial metal signs, stone benches and tables, metal bridge railings, and stone disks at multiple locations within each forest preserve. These elements draw visitors’ attention to natural themes of land, sky, and water, while serving as experiments in interpreting these special sites’ unique topography. Large stone tables contain topographic and trail maps, and bent metal signs announce each interpretive node; bridges span swamps as stone benches and disks—all providing information about the surrounding ecosystem. By design, the materials and forms are experiential and secondary to nature—prompting both curiosity and reflection.

The interpretive trails combine social innovation, typographic craft, and material experimentation to support local ecologies and economies and improve the human experience. The restoration of the Deer Grove Preserve (of which the interpretive trail is a part) has not only contributed to the local economy in the short term but is also expected to yield long term economic gains from increased visitation, outdoor recreation, and ecosystem services.

In the short-term, the local economy has gained $10.6 million from the restoration, which is twice the associated cost of $5.3 million. Long-term returns of six-to-one are projected over the next 20 years due to better recreational experiences and the improved quality of water and other natural resources. Together, these improvements will convey long-term benefits of $33.5 million.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Jury Comments: 

“Sparks curiosity and intrigue that leaves a lasting impression. Seamless and effortless approach. Poetic use of form, typography, and materials.”

“Very successful in catching the eye while also being functional, the concrete centerpiece is a beacon in such a sparse natural setting—without clashing with it.”

Design Firms: 

Studio Blue, Wheeler Kearns Architects, Naturalia, Inc


Forest Preserves of Cook County

Open Date: 

September 2018

Photo Credits: 

Studio Blue, Tom Rossiter

Design Team: 

Studio Blue: Cheryl Towler Weese (creative director); J. Brad Sturm, Hillary Geller (senior designers); Tuan Pham (designer) 

Wheeler Kearns Architects: Dan Wheeler, Mark Weber (principals); Thomas Boyster, Noah Luken (project architects)

Naturalia, Inc.: Lisa Roberts (principal)


Openlands: Gerald Adelmann (president and CEO), Robert Megquier (executive vice president), Linda Masters (restoration specialist)

Forest Preserves of Cook County: David Kircher (chief landscape architect), Adnan Nammari (chief construction engineer)

R.M Chin Associates: Paul Sefcovic (project manager)

WBK Engineering: Chris Lindley (site development practice leader)


Chicago Commercial Construction (GC), Walter S. Arnold (stone carving), Gary Galassi Stone and Steel (masonry), DeSign Group Signage (signage)

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