Normal, Illinois, a historic mid-sized town in Illinois, home to Illinois State University, had a downtown core that wasn’t anything to write home about. An abandoned railway bifurcated the center of town impeding retail traffic, while an awkward five-way intersection proved confusing for drivers, and dangerous for pedestrians.
But the town had ambition, and in 2001, Normal adopted a renewal plan for the Central Business District, boldly using sustainability as a catalyst for its rejuvenation. The revolutionary plan included the first ordinance in the country at the time to enforce minimum LEED requirements for new buildings, centrally located multimodal links to regional and local transit, and restructured and densified parking. However, the real focal point of the redevelopment plan was the town green, a central park area affording residents the opportunity to gather, congregate, and play, all while imparting a strong sense of place where that had previously been little. Before the Circle, there was no central place to commune in the downtown area, save for the slender sidewalks that lined the few existing commercial buildings. There was nowhere to converge -- no nucleus around which to orbit.
“Make it a place, not a thing. A verb, not a noun,” Peter Schaudt said, and the Circle has become just that: a hub of dynamic social activity, where children play, festivals occur, the university band performs, people wait for trains. Furthermore, the robust plantings throughout the circle attract people to the Uptown Normal retail corridor, which has blossomed since the project; as of 2015, retail sales had risen 46 percent.
The project is also a remarkable and replicable illustration of the role that sustainability can play in the creation of public spaces. Through its stormwater cleansing system, The Circle captures 1.4 million gallons of stormwater from a 58,800 square-foot area for reuse in its water feature and for irrigation. An additional 1.4 million gallons of stormwater are prevented from entering the municipal storm sewer by facilitating inflow from adjacent sidewalks and buildings into tree wells and planter areas augmented by underground structural cells. The structural cells provide generous space for root growth, increasing tree lifespans, absorbing and filtering runoff from downtown sidewalks, and eventually recharging groundwater supplies. The 104 new trees that were planted sequester at least 10,790 pounds of carbon annually.
The above-ground fountain system is gravity-fed, reducing the need to use energy to pump water through the park. The adaptive reuse of an underground storm main into a 75,000-gallon cistern, an innovative use of existing resources, eliminated the need to build new infrastructure for water collection. Additionally, the site furniture chosen for The Circle is constructed of sustainably-harvested ipe wood.
The Circle promotes community heath in a variety of ways. It completes a key link in the Constitution Trail, Normal’s multi-use exercise trail, and provides cycling infrastructure throughout the district. Furthermore, a robust infusion of nature into what was a bleak and unremarkable downtown provides significant biophilic values to the community – including stress reduction – creating outdoor gathering space for social interaction and encouraging physical activity. The Circle serves as both a connecting element that encourages walking, running, gathering, communing – as well as a symbolic one, reflective of newfound community values, priorities, and a new Normal that’s here to stay.
ULI Open Space Awards Finalist 2020
CNU Illinois Neighborhood District & Corridor Award 2015
US FTA / FHA Transportation Planning Excellence Award 20212
US EPA National Award for Smart Growth Achievement 2011
ASLA Illinois Presidential Award 2010
ASLA Illinois Merit Award 2008
Illinois Association of Planning, Planning Award 2004