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Young architects want to help connect people to nature when redesigning the I-80 bridge

The Landscape Architecture Foundation and the Bison Bridge Foundation are hosting 2022 Xtreme LA, a three-day design charrette, to come up with ideas for the bridge.

LE CLAIRE, Iowa — A group of university students and landscape architecture professionals are participating in a three-day design charrette with the Bison Bridge Foundation to come up with design ideas for the I-80 bridge.

In the spring of 2021, the foundation was created by local environmental activist Chad Pregracke. As the Illinois Department of Transportation looks to build a new bridge, the group is proposing repurposing the current I-80 bridge and turning it into the world's longest wildlife crossing. One half would be dedicated to bison, and the other to pedestrians. Pregracke says it would be built and maintained at no cost to taxpayers.

Design professionals from around the country and landscape architecture students from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Iowa State University are participating in the Xtreme LA challenge this week.

The group toured the west side of the river and I-80 bridge from a boat before taking a bus tour up to the Mississippi Rapids Rest Stop near Rapids City to overlook it.

"It's not some crazy idea, it can be a reality," Pregracke said. "We've done our due diligence, we've brought a lot of people on board, a lot of professionals, and so in my head, it's moving forward and we'll continue to work really hard as a team to make that happen."

Alexis Banks is a landscape architecture student at Iowa State University. She also attended the Bison Bridge Foundation's first workshop in June.

"I really want to promote people being outside and being active and also being educational and all that," Banks said.

During the tour on Tuesday, she said she learned a lot about the Mississippi River and its ecosystems. All that will help inspire her designs.

"The biggest thing I thought about is the wildlife that flies by, like I didn't know about all the birds, and one of my classmates mentioned the monarchs going through," she said. "And then just different experiences along the bridge like the lookout points and different landings for people to learn more about what Chad does with the Living Lands and Water and the ecosystems."

Barbara Deutsch is the CEO of Landscape Architecture Foundation in Washington DC. She'll be helping oversee the students as they work on their designs.

"This is of a scale and concept like no other that I've seen," Deutsch said. "They will focus on the recreation and also focus on the ecology and the habitat for not just the bison, but I think there'll be all kinds of species that come and enjoy the bridge that we won't even be able to imagine right now... The Mississippi River is extraordinarily special and so I think that's what's unique and innovative about this project."

Pregracke previously worked with a local firm to come up with design renderings of the Bison Bridge that were previously released. He said he's still working with that group, but is looking forward to what the students come up with.

"Those were just kind of what's in my head, but this is more like, let's see what young, raw, fresh talent can come up with," he said. "I worked with some of them before and it was just amazing. To see the students mix with all the professionals from around the country and local talent, certainly, I'm anxious for the outcome."

The group will present its final ideas on Thursday at 11 a.m. to local officials and the public at the Figge Art Museum's John Deere Auditorium.

IDOT will hold a third online public meeting on Thursday, Oct. 27 to present additional study findings, review potential improvement alternatives and receive public comment as part of its I-80 bridge study. That meeting with be held from 4-5:30 p.m. and participants can register by clicking/tapping here.

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