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Illinois Beach White Ribbon

PROOF Projects LLC

Zion, Illinois, United States

October 2021


Sean Burkholder (Partner), Theresa Ruswick (Managing Partner)



Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program


Sean Burkholder


The White Ribbon serves as both a conceptual and physical expression of the beach ridge landscape of which it is part. In this way, the project aims to productively work with the natural forms and processes of the environment as opposed to against them. The objective is simply to use what makes the place special to keep it special. This strategy runs counter to traditional forms of coastal design aimed to control natural systems in ways that often celebrate the formal and aesthetic expression of power (and money) they represent. Unlike many other acts of design, the White Ribbon emphasizes effects over form. This shift does not however come at the expense of aesthetics and experience, but instead prioritizes them as paramount concerns. Instead of appreciating a form, designed to do something, visitors appreciate the effects of that form as it blends with the subtility of a flat and slowly creeping landscape that has inspired the likes of Frederick Law Olmsted and Jens Jensen. Visitors of the park benefit from a slowed erosion rate and a building beach all while maintaining the magical unbroken view out over the lake. The White Ribbon acknowledges the impossibility of stopping a geologic process ongoing for centuries, but attempts to slow it down and allow Illinois Beach to remain a special experience for just a while longer.


The White Ribbon is located offshore of Hosah Park, in Zion Illinois. The context of the project is the larger beach ridge plain landscape that characterizes the highly used Illinois Beach State Park and Nature Preserve. The park and its 6-mile coast represent the only remaining beach ridge shoreline in Illinois. The park itself is over 4,000 acres and provides opportunities for swimming, boating, camping, fishing and hiking, all with the incredible experience of the infinite and unbroken horizon of Lake Michigan. The beach ridge system is home to more than 650 species of plants, including the rare prickly pear cactus and perched black oak forests on the sandy ridges. Between these ridges, panne wetlands provide a unique habitat that is continually threatened by the sandy overwash of eroded sediments moved into them by storm events. Beyond the loss of habitat, this erosion, part of the larger progression of sediment movement from north to south at this location of the lake, has also destroyed road infrastructure and degraded public use areas. Put succinctly, the context of the White Ribbon is a geologically and ecologically unique public landscape, made that way by its continual evolution, an evolution that is seen by many as problematic due to its increased rate, powered by changing lake levels and climate.


The White Ribbon was designed to perform a very specific task – to reduce the erosion associated with storm-driven waves while allowing for normal waves to pass over the structure and continue to build the beach as occurs naturally with these smaller daily waves. With its emphasis on effects over form, there is little to appreciate visually by the structure itself – a series of submerged ridges of stone – instead, its value comes with what it provides over/with time. The White Ribbon was designed to work and not been seen, at least not in a glaringly obvious way. Instead, it adds to the special experiential character of the landscape by appearing as a ghostly shadow beneath the water under just the right light, or as a line of breaking waves (hence the name White Ribbon) offshore where they do less damage. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has installed informational signage at the site to describe what is happening offshore since the intervention is essentially invisible. To date, the project has remained stable, even though it was designed to slowly shift like the landscape around it (nothing lasts forever) and has proven to provide valuable fish habitat to an otherwise monotonous sandy substrate ecosystem. In this way, the project, in an attempt to preserve the beach ridge habitat, has created new aquatic habitat – essentially protecting habitat with habitat.

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