Documentary of pioneering landscape designer Jens Jensen at Cary Institute

Jens Jensen

Jens Jensen

After immigrating to Chicago in 1884, Danish-born Jens Jensen was taken by the immensity of the Great Plains, calling it “America’s greatest strength.” As the prairie began disappearing, plowed under by rapid urban growth, Jensen brought the prairie to the city, designing parks that celebrated the open character, horizontal expanse and native vegetation of the natural Midwestern landscape. Jensen said that his mission was to inspire working people desensitized by urban sprawl.

His designs in what became known as the “Prairie Style” made great use of the interaction between sky and landscape. Horizontally branched native trees and shrubs repeated around the edges of outdoor “rooms,” and water features that emulated the natural streams, lakes and wetlands of the Midwest evoked the unique character of the region. The effect was completed by layered limestone imitating natural rock outcroppings and the native glacial ridges of the region.

The Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook will screen a PBS documentary about pioneering landscape designer and environmental champion Jens Jensen on Friday, July 8 at 7 p.m. Narrated by his great-granddaughter Jensen Wheeler Wolfe, The Living Green follows the Danish immigrant’s rise from streetsweeper in the 1880s to the “dean of American landscape architects,” as he was called by The New York Times upon his death in 1951. Admission to the award-winning film is free, with seats available on a first-come, first-served basis. Carey Lundin, director and co-producer of The Living Green, will lead a question-and-answer session following the film. The event is co-sponsored by the Cary Institute, Innisfree Garden and the Garden Conservancy. The doors open at 6:30 p.m.


The film includes an actual interview with Jensen done fewer than ten years before his death. Although the scratchy old acetate recordings were in terrible condition, modern technology brought them back to life. There were also many photographs available, with Jensen having been in the public eye a great deal. Tall and handsome, Jensen was the “picture of European elegance dressed in perfect suits,” according to director Lundin.

Jensen was also a leader in efforts to conserve threatened areas. An avid conservationist, he organized movements leading to the creation of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the Illinois State Park system and the Indiana Dunes State Park and National Lakeshore. His pioneering work in Chicago’s West Parks was informed by his philosophical belief in the humanizing power of parks. Many of his ideas are incorporated in what we think of today as sustainable landscape.

Preview The Living Green at and on the Cary Institute website.


The Living Green screening, Friday, July 8, 7 p.m., free, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, 2801 Sharon Turnpike, Millbrook; (845) 677-7600, extension 121,