Urban Prairie

The goal of the Urban Prairie Project is to create small pockets of native prairie plants throughout the City of Des Moines that serve as both educational resources and spaces for recreation. These spaces will be located in city parks, schools, and other institutions.

The goals of the project are as follows:

Urban Prairie Under Construction sign

- To educate the general public about the ecological importance and historical presence of prairie in Iowa’s landscape

- To restore some of the biodiversity that is part of a prairie ecosystem

- To educate the general public about water quality issues in Iowa and present creative ways to improve the water quality through rain gardens and native plantings

- To improve water quality in Iowa by installing rain gardens in city parks, schools, and other institutions

- To bring experiential, hands-on environmental education activities into school classrooms

- To provide a unique educational and experiential opportunity to diverse and currently under-served populations including citizens with low incomes, minorities, the homeless, and at-risk youth

- To provide practical and accessible lab activities to Environmental Science students at Drake University

- To create an ongoing partnership between the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, the Polk County Conservation Board, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the City of Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department, the Des Moines school system, Drake University, and other participating institutions


What is a prairie?

- A diverse system of made mostly of grasses and flowering plants with deep roots

- Because prairie plants have such deep roots, most of the living mass is below ground.

- Prairie is a place of complex interactions and is home to many plants, animals, and fungi.

- Tallgrass prairie originally covered around 85% of Iowa’s landscape.

- Iowa had the largest concentration of tallgrass prairie in the entire United States.

- The tallgrass prairie ecosystem is Iowa’s natural heritage and created the rich farmland that Iowa is now famous for. Because prairie land is such good farmland, Iowa became an ideal place for settlers to homestead, and the prairie disappeared.

- Now, 99.9% of Iowa’s prairie is gone. However, many people are making an effort to bring prairie back to Iowa to ensure that this amazing ecosystem does not disappear forever.


Why is prairie important?

- The complex prairie ecosystem harbors knowledge yet untold. It gives us clues and insight into how our soils, landscape, and even the lives native peoples, pioneers, and all Iowans have shaped this land we call home.

- The prairie is also a source of unrivaled beauty with the blooms of its flowers and grasses changing with each passing season and feeding the senses with a calming presence.

- Additionally, the genetic and biological diversity found in the prairie’s plants and animals is disappearing from the earth. The prairie is the most diverse and complex ecosystem in Iowa, and even the small remnants harbor more diversity than most of the rest of the state.


Why plant urban prairie?

In schools, these pockets of prairie will serve as outdoor classrooms for children and allow for field trip opportunities right in the schoolyard. In parks, these plantings will reduce erosion, decrease the run-off of chemicals into our waters, and create habitats for animals. Throughout the city, these prairie plants will provide a picture of Iowa’s past, an opportunity to learn about a fascinating and rapidly disappearing ecosystem, and a uniquely beautiful landscape that will return a small measure of Iowa’s wildness to the city.


To learn more about prairie ecosystems:

Visit the Prairie Learning Center at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa

Contact the Polk County Conservation Board and ask about educational opportunities

Visit other Urban Prairie sites