Can urban renewal start with a traffic circle? Normal, Illinois, is banking on it. Home to about 50,000 people as well as Illinois State University, the city has christened a new roundabout, at the center of which stands a park that is both a welcome public gathering place and a showpiece for the city’s surprisingly ambitious green initiatives.
In spite of a student population, downtown Normal had been in decline since the 1950s, when malls pulled businesses from its main streets. Worse yet, five roads converged at the core of the city in an inelegant solution to downtown traffic. So in the late 1990s, city planners hired Chicago-based Farr Associates, known for promoting sustainable urbanism. Farr helped them adopt the Uptown Renewal Project, a multi-phase redevelopment of the area formerly known as downtown.
The city then hired Chicago-based Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects to design a centerpiece for the plan in 2002—a traffic roundabout with an outdoor room ringed by LEED-certified buildings. Last month, the circle opened, and is already crowded with children from the first completed building, the Children’s Discovery Museum. But perhaps the park’s most significant feature is below ground, where designers placed an extensive rainwater collection system.
“I wanted a modern, innovative statement of where Normal was headed,” said firm principal Peter Schaudt. To that end, he worked with a team of consultants to integrate stormwater into the site’s irrigation and its aesthetics. The process begins in an abandoned underground storm sewer, repurposed as a 76,000- gallon holding tank.
After passing through a filter and ultraviolet sanitizer, the water is pumped into a filtration bog before gravity pulls it through four pools and into a fountain. The landscape is both welcoming and durable, with a 56-foot sloped lawn and 12 London Plane trees surrounded by concrete elements able to accommodate foot traffic and the occasional bump from a beer truck on its way to campus.
The project is an urban planning model in more ways than one. For Schaudt, it anticipates a future where cities have stricter environmental laws. “The future of landscape, in our lifetime, is that municipal governments won’t allow potable water to water landscapes,” he said. The surrounding LEED-certified buildings will also fall under Uptown District requirements that any new construction over 7,500 square feet adopt minimum LEED standards—the first ordinance of its kind in the country.
According to town planner Mercy Davidson, Normal has received inquiries about its plan from around the nation. Earlier this year, the city gained attention when it unveiled a $47 million multimodal transit center, designed by Indianapolis-based Ratio Architects and funded in part by a $22 million Department of Transportation TIGER Grant.
As the central stop between Chicago and St. Louis, the existing Amtrak station is the second busiest in Illinois, and though the poor economy has stalled three privately owned building sites surrounding the circle, the town is confident they will find solid ground soon.