(Willow Springs) Greenery and Public Space Revitalize Suburb
Can smart growth help a community get in touch with its inner self? In
the mid-1990s, Willow Springs, a suburb near Chicago, fell into a sprawl-induced identity
crisis. Looking increasingly like its neighbors and choking in traffic, the town embarked
on an innovative smart-growth development to build a downtown that makes transit more
accessible, creates spaces for residents to gather, and provides a blend of shops, housing
Begun as a purely residential community, Willow Springs lacked a central space.
Developers and town planners engaged the community to seek out ideas, and then pledged to
take the history of the area and the context of the site into account. The developer,
Heritage Renaissance Partners, and the architects, Yas/Fischel Partnership, built in a
historically appropriate style, and took advantage of the town's location on the
Illinois-Lake Michigan Canal. They used traditional touches, like placing parking behind
residences, to make the area walkable.
The other critical decision was moving the town's rail stop to the new downtown and
integrating it with a new village hall. The developers were able to move the rail station
and add key extras to the civic spaces in part because they had access to up-to-date
public/private financing tools.
The new downtown is a functional place to shop, work and live. But it is also a
beautiful place where greenery and public space lead residents and visitors to the center
of town. What Willow Springs discovered is the essence of smart growth: A town with a
center is a place with context, community and economic vibrancy.
Sub-Area Development Plan (New Lenox) New Development on the Fringe of the Fringe
A decade ago, New Lenox was barely a speck on the map. Now this
burgeoning bedroom community, 40 miles southwest of Chicago, is well on the road to
sprawl. New Lenox has an aggressive plan to create 1,000 acres of residential development,
1,000 acres of industrial space and 360 acres of office space.
The problem is that this development will be built on the edge of a community that is
itself on the sprawling fringe. Will County, where New Lenox is located, could be called a
sprawl disaster area: It's chock-full of poorly planned development and has little public
The New Lenox plan will repeat the same cookie-cutter patterns of classic suburban
sprawl: Throwing up strip malls, office parks and subdivisions that are not pedestrian-
friendly while offering little or no public transportation. Not surprisingly, this project
is expected to add tens of thousands of car trips per day to the area -- adding more
traffic to stressed roads and more pollution to dirty skies.
Of the roughly 3,000 acres of mostly agricultural land that will be developed, only 400
acres will be kept as open space. The bulk of this undeveloped space, adjacent to a creek
that serves as a water source for Joliet, will be used for sports facilities, doubtlessly
adding to the project's harmful impacts on the local watershed.