James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center

White Lake Township, Michigan, U.S.A.
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    Southeast Michigan is home to a diverse array of prairie, forest, and aquatic ecosystems. Years of farming, fertilization, and pesticide use have all but annihilated many native plant and animal species that once thrived in this area. The 70-acre James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center arose out of a vision for restoring the natural biodiversity of the land and creating a living laboratory for environmental education.

    ASLA Honor Award Recipient, James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center by MSI Design
    (Photo: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography)

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    To design a master plan, a multi-disciplinary team of designers, scientists, engineers, and educators focused on leveraging this region’s diverse native species to design an educational platform. The landscape architect took advantage of the site’s 40-foot grade changes to create fourteen distinct woodland, prairie, and aquatic ecosystems.

    ASLA Honor Award Recipient, James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center by MSI Design
    (Photo: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography)

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    Before construction of the site began, a controlled fire cleared the land of dormant weeds and invasive plants. The prepared soil allowed for the reintroduction of 170 native plant species. The newly planted native prairie grasses and trees restored the natural habitat for endangered birds, insects, and amphibians.

    ASLA Honor Award Recipient, James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center by MSI Design
    (Photo: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography)

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    The design team collaborated with the educational committee to create the Environmental Education Center. The center is artistically integrated into the landscape, appearing as a continuation of a natural ridgeline. Glass walls open the structure to Kettle Pond and meadows beyond, creating a strong visual connection between building and landscape.

    ASLA Honor Award Recipient, James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center by MSI Design
    (Photo: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography)

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    Extensive programming ensures that the Environmental Education Center fits the needs of actual school programs. The center's classroom activities, educational tours, teacher development workshops, and museum exhibits are designed for all ages.

    ASLA Honor Award Recipient, James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center by MSI Design
    (Photo: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography)

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    Descending down the trail toward the building, the hydrology of the site dictates clear transitions in the landscape, which moves from prairie to forest to wetland. These ecosystems establish an ecological vocabulary, revealing the drivers and processes that shape the Midwestern landscape.

    ASLA Honor Award Recipient, James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center by MSI Design
    (Photo: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography)

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    Wetland boardwalks (seen here) and round terraces with benches delineate the boundaries of neighboring ecosystems while serving as outdoor living laboratories. Here, students can collect samples of plants and water and then study the organisms with microscopes in the outdoor laboratory located near the Muck Pond.

    ASLA Honor Award Recipient, James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center by MSI Design
    (Photo: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography)

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    The design incorporates low impact strategies to ensure that built systems have minimal environmental impact. Grass swales collect runoff water from the parking lot, helping to filter and absorb harmful pollutants. The swale drains into Kettle Pond, helping to maintain its water level.

    Photo: ASLA Honor Award Recipient, James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center by MSI Design
    (Photo: MSI, Ellen Puckett Photography, Justin Maconochie Photography)

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Project Facts

  • Located 30 miles from Detroit, Michigan in Indian Springs Metropark, the 70-acre James Clarkson Environmental Discovery Center provides individuals of all ages a place for learning, exploration, and relaxation. 
  • Landscape architects re-established 14 distinct ecosystems, including marshes, open water, prairie, and woodland. 
  • A submerged plexiglass classroom provides visitors a rare opportunity to explore an aquatic ecosystem. 
  • Reintroduction of over 200 native plant species creates habitat for several endangered species including Eastern Massasauge Rattlesnake, Blanding’s Turtle, Henslow’s Sparrow and Harnar Blue Butterfly.