“The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth's vegetation and its animal life have been molded by the environment. Considering the whole span of earthly time, the opposite effect, in which life actually modifies its surroundings, has been relatively slight. Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.”
-“Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson
Today, as Carson suggests, the effects that the human species have had on this planet are daunting. Though many try to deny it, evidence of human-caused climate change has become certain (1), but we continue undeterred, living in a way that certainly cannot be sustained for more than a few hundred years. Suburbs, chain stores, and parking lots, connected by a complex system of ever-widening highways, surround every modern city, seemingly choking out the forests, prairies, and many other ecosystems that once sustained life in these places. Perhaps most appalling are the expanses of land which humans have totally stripped of all resources, such as the Athabasca oil sands located in Canada. Here 1,300,000 barrels of crude oil are surface mined per day (2) the effects of which have caused the earth in this area to resemble a festering wound.
Human effect on the natural world is nearly everywhere to be seen, even if it is not as obvious as at the Athabasca oil sands. Species are going extinct at a rate 1,000 times faster than that of the natural rate over the previous 65 million years (4) . Since the year 2000, 6 million hectares (an area the size of West Virginia) of primary forest have been lost throughout the world each year (5) . Ice caps are rapidly shrinking, causing sea levels to rise and putting many communities at risk all over the world. Further concerning is that these effects will only increase at their current rate due to the fact that the world’s population is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 (6).
Many people will acknowledge the damaging effects of human activity. Some may even express concern about preserving rainforests. But few care about the plowing of prairie ecosystems to make way for housing stock and industrial farming operations. Tallgrass prairie once covered 170 million acres of North America, but within a generation the vast majority was developed and plowed under. European settlers discovered the rich soils that exist in the prairies about 150 years ago, and they plowed the prairie everywhere they could for the production of wheat, corn, and other domestic crops. Today, the most fertile and well-watered region, the tallgrass prairie, has been reduced to 1% of its original area, the largest remaining area of which is in the rocky and hilly region of Kansas called the Flint Hills (7). The tallgrass prairie is now considered a globally endangered resource (8).
Prairies, the largest vegetative province in North America, are rich and fertile landscapes that have long provided humans with food, fiber, and energy. Prairie grasslands also provide resources such as erosion control, nutrient cycling, water purification and recharge, wildlife habitat, and abundant recreational activities (10) . In fact, grasses provide directly or indirectly the majority of human nourishment. Their nutrient-dense soils have sustained our farming and grazing practices in a way that no other ecosystem could. Prairies are also home to many animals, but sadly fifty-five grassland species in the United States are threatened or endangered, and 728 are candidates (11). Grassland bird species in particular have shown more consistent and steeper, geographically widespread declines than any other North American species (12) . Several species, including the Eskimo curlew and Audubon bighorn sheep, and subspecies, including the plains wolf and plains grizzly bear, no longer exist. Furthermore, the health of planet Earth, in the face of global warming, may depend on prairie grasslands. This is because they are far superior carbon sinks compared to forests with similar environmental characteristics (13) . The large amounts of stored carbon in grassland soils reflect fundamental differences between grasses and trees. Ultimately, the restoration of grasslands may be the only way to significantly reverse effects of human-caused climate change.
Many architects view sustainability as a checklist which, if adhered to, will result in a built project less harmful to the environment than one built in a conventional manner. But good design can do more. “Design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures”(15). Design, as Papanek says, has the potential to respond to the needs of human beings, and we need to conserve the complex prairie ecosystem that is central to the health of the planet. The longevity of the human species is dependent on our ability to reverse the effects of climate change, and restoring prairie lands is a good place to start. It seems logical then, that design be used as a catalyst for conservation in the tallgrass prairie.
Building in one of the last vestiges of tallgrass prairie has given Design+Make studio a unique opportunity to promote the conservation of the natural landscape and even reverse the status quo of environmental degradation. The Preston Outdoor Education Station, though its construction will temporarily damage a small amount of the precious prairie that still remains, will serve as a force for positive change. As children visit the facility, year after year, they will gain a greater understanding of why this place matters. They will come to realize that this place, though it may look barren, is home to many creatures. They will learn about the wind in the prairie and how it has shaped the landscape. They will learn of the limestone, how it was formed and how it has prevented this place from being farmed. They will learn about the grasses and how their incredible hardiness is suited for the harsh climate. Finally, they will learn about the sky and clouds and their role in this landscape. Once they are made aware of the complexity of this ecosystem and that it is a major contributor to the health of our planet, that its restoration may be the only way to reverse climate change, they will be instilled with a desire to protect it. Any environmental harm that resulted from its construction is offset by a potential for conservation.
(1) "Causes of Climate Change." Causes of Climate Change. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 01 Mar. 2016. <>.
(2) "Oil Sands Move from the 'Fringe to Center' of Energy Supply." NEWS | | Rigzone. Rigzone.com, 18 May 2009. Web. 02 Mar. 2016. <>.
(3) Lenz, Garth. Tar Pit #3. 2010. The True Cost of Oil, Alberta Tar Sands. Garth Lenz Photography. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.
(4) "The Extinction Crisis." The Extinction Crisis. Center for Biological Diversity, n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2016. <>.
(5) "World Deforestation Decreases, but Remains Alarming in Many Countries." Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations. United Nations, n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2016. <>.
(6) "World Population Projected to Reach 9.6 Billion by 2050 | UN DESA | United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs." UN News Center. United Nations, 13 May 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2016. <>.
(7) United States. National Park Service. "A Complex Prairie Ecosystem." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 01 Mar. 2016. Web. 03 Mar. 2016. <>.
(8) Rickletts, T. H, Dinerstein, E., Olsen, D. M., Loucks, C. J., Eichbaum, W., DellaSala, D., Kavanagh, K., Hedao, P., Hurley, P. T., Carney, K. M., Abell, R., and Walters, S. (1999). Terrestrial Ecoregions of North America. Island Press, Washington, DC and Covello, CA
(9) Christie, Bryan. Great Plains Prairie. Digital image. Prairie Revival. Natural Resources Defense Council, n.d. Web. 8 Jan. 2016. <>.
(10) Bachand, R. R. (2001). “The American prairie: going, going, gone?” National Wildlife Federation, Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Center, Boulder, CO.
(12) Knopf, F. L. (1994). “Avian assemblages on altered grasslands,” Studies in Avian Biology 15, 247-257.
(14) Rose, Jake. The Konza Prairie. Digital image. 8 Feb 2016.
(15) Papanek, Victor J. Design for the Real World; Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.
Written by Jake Rose