Cook County Forest Preserves: interpretive trails

Studio Blue

This project was commissioned by the Cook County Forest Preserves — an ecologically diverse group of open spaces in one of the most densely populated counties in the United States — 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 Preserves’ 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, bent metal signs announce each interpretive node, bridges span swamps, and stone benches and disks provide 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 the improved quality of water and other natural resources.

Creative director, Studio Blue
Cheryl Towler Weese
Senior designer, Studio Blue
J. Brad Sturm
Senior designer, Studio Blue
Hillary Geller
Designer, Studio Blue
Tuan Pham
Photography credits, Studio Blue
Tom Rossiter
Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects
Dan Wheeler
Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects
Mark Weber
Project architect, Wheeler Kearns Architects
Thomas Boyster
Project architect, Wheeler Kearns Architects
Noah Luken
Principal, Naturalia, Inc.
Lisa Roberts
President and CEO, Openlands
Gerald Adelmann
Executive vice president, Openlands
Robert Megquier
Restoration specialist, Openlands
Linda Masters
Chief landscape architect, Forest Preserves of Cook County
David Kircher
Chief construction engineer, Forest Preserves of Cook County
Adnan Nammari
Project manager, R.M. Chin Associates
Paul Sefcovic
Site development practice leader, WBK Engineering
Chris Lindley
Chicago Commercial Construction (GC)
Stone carving
Walter S. Arnold
Gary Galassi Stone and Steel
DeSign Group Signage