Crystal Lake IL

By Mary Rasic
(December 2013)

The City of Crystal Lake is 50 miles west of Chicago and 34 miles from O’Hare airport. According to the 2010 Census, Crystal Lake has a population of 40,743 and that figure is rising.  There is still a great deal of undeveloped land and the area is becoming more desirable.  According to the Crystal Lake community profile, the population is 84% Caucasian, 12% Hispanic, 3% Asian and 1% African American.  There are primarily owner-occupied single-family homes.

Rasic image - CL bike planCrystal Lake offers many amenities, such as senior living and child care facilities; two fantastic school districts; a fire department, police precinct, several churches, hospitals and healthcare practices, and a plethora of malls, shops and services.  Recreation and social venues are abundant, especially near the Three Oaks Recreation Area and along the Fox River.  It is a bicycle friendly community and provides a safe environment for families to engage in healthy, ecofriendly activities.

Unfortunately, the leapfrog development patterns that characterize the growth of this community inhibit walkability and, due to the lack of public transportation, residents of Crystal Lake are forced to drive to most destinations.  It would benefit many people to establish a “Crystal Lake Transit Authority”.  In comparison to the City of Chicago, Crystal Lake’s use of public transportation is shameful.

The greening of urban landscapes is a common theme throughout our assigned readings in The Sustainable Urban Development Reader this semester.  According to Wheeler & Beatley (2009),  “Mayor Richard Daley has declared that he intends Chicago to be the greenest city in the world.  Sustainable ideas have already benefitted Chicago and its surrounding suburbs by taking on several green programs” (p. 442 – 443).  We are beginning to see some of these initiatives extend to Crystal Lake, some of which are outlined in the following McHenry County Green Infrastructure Plan.

The McHenry County Green Infrastructure Plan primarily focuses on biodiverse landscape infrastructures and nature-based alternatives to gray infrastructure. On a regional level, the green infrastructure network facilitates acquisition of public agencies; conserves private land; conserves development of greenway connections, trails, and landscapes; facilitates planning and zoning by retrofitting previously developed land; ecologically restores degraded landscapes; and increases farmland protection.

Aerial view of Crystal Lake

Aerial view of Crystal Lake

Crystal Lake enforces strict land development within The Crystal Lake Watershed, as a means to protect the integrity of the water that reaches the lake.  Wetland Buffer Provisions are also enforced, which help maintain the quality of water, natural resources and a diversity of native plant and animal species.

By working with local-level officials and landowners, the county could incorporate new technologies, such as permeable paving instead of conventional asphalt or concrete.  They could also implement green roofs, rain barrels, bioswales and rain gardens in lieu of costly storm sewers, utilize native landscaping instead of conventional turf grass, require naturalized detention basins designed to resemble wetlands and natural lakes.

These entities form a network that provide us with stormwater management, filtration of drinking water, and a habitat for other living organisms. Natural processes are interconnected and enhancement of one area ultimately benefits many more. By identifying and mapping a network, we reveal areas of value and an opportunity to connect their local actions to the regional benefit.  These links provide migratory routes for wildlife and recreational trails (Dreher, et al., 2012, p. 7).  If there are areas that are naturally unsupportive or have been degraded over time, we can introduce technology to mimic natural processes and reinforce otherwise useless space into useful resources.

The Chicago Wilderness Sustainable Watershed Action Team (SWAT) provided project coordination and technical policy guidance to take an inventory of the natural resources of Crystal Lake, create a green infrastructure map, and develop policies to see the plan through. Dennis Dreher was the SWAT consulting expert for this project. He believes that “no single government or agency can form this green infrastructure alone and the more people, agencies and governments adopt the principals of this plan, the greater likelihood of its success (Dreher, et al., 2012, p.9).”

The ripple effect of green infrastructure development involves collaboration and agreement from many agencies, governments, and people, in order to establish progressive actions. It takes a comprehensive approach and tries to compromise keeping the best interest of the county, municipalities, park districts, property owners and businesses in mind.  However, each entity adheres to different regulatory factors and is unique in its natural capacity, so it is wise to consider these variances carefully during the planning process.

In the past, it has proven to be efficient to cluster homes into more functional communities.  It not only preserves the ecological aspects of the system but also reduces the need for residents to drive and encourages healthier land use like gardens in lieu of golf courses or oversized yards.

Furthermore, the implementation of mixed land uses and compact building design would help preserve natural beauty and environmental areas. The implementation of green infrastructure makes it necessary to increase housing density, by developing more compact homes, apartments and structures that conserve land space and allow more opportunity for natural areas to flourish in their holistic form.

The township should work proactively with municipals and governments to map plans that are consistent with the green infrastructure, as well as prioritize developments and policies in respect to natural resources.  If homes were clustered together near community focal points (i.e. stores, schools, government offices, medical facilities, etc.) there would be less reason to drive to our destinations.  With easy access and pedestrian friendly regulations, the public would be in a better position and could safely take advantage of connecting towns’ amenities and design a shared resource plan.  There would be more opportunity and incentive to maintain the integrity of the land use.

Examination of the large-scale view of infrastructure and land use is compulsory in determining where improvements should be made and at what priority level. It is equally important to consider what will be practical for residents’ lifestyles and socio-economic status.  I think that the plan will be met with better cooperation if it allows citizens to be involved in the planning process.

Lack of public and corporate support could be detrimental as it is one of the most important components of fundraising.  It is unhealthy for a community to develop or populate too quickly. Without proper forethought developments could be wasteful on many levels.  Officials and developers must consider populations and income levels when making changes that will affect residents’ taxes; if residents can’t afford the improvements embedded in their taxes, they will be forced out of the community and the economy could suffer as a result.

The lack of public relations and subsidy in Crystal Lake presents another obstacle in that its absence hinders progress of sustainable improvements.  Local organizations could contribute to the advancement of sustainable technologies and practices by involving the public and investing more into public relations and fundraising programs.

Overall, as long as Crystal Lake continues to generate public awareness and acquire corporate interest and altruism, the main goals to make it and McHenry County more sustainable are definitely feasible.  In order for this plan to come to fruition, however, there will need to be a clear and preconceived plan for sponsorships and financial contributions.  Monetary support in conjunction with the aforementioned parameters and innovative solutions would guarantee this plan’s success.


Dennis Dreher and Darrell Moore. (July 2012). McHenry County Green Infrastructure Plan.

Banner image: Raue Center for the Arts, downtown Crystal Lake (source: Raue Center)