Our rare and diverse natural areas and ecosystems are some of the most valuable and irreplaceable assets in metropolitan Chicago. ON TO 2050 strongly affirms that these natural resources are critical for protecting the quality of our air, land, and water, providing ecosystem services, wildlife habitats, and recreational spaces, contributing to a high quality of life, and supporting a vibrant regional economy. Our abundant water supply has been crucial to attracting people and investment. In addition, the region’s extensive green infrastructure network provides invaluable habitat and species diversity, protects environmental quality, aids in flood mitigation, and is an important line of defense against the impacts of climate change. The unique and exceptional landscapes and waterways of greater Chicago, from Lake Michigan and the Chicago River to its oak savannas and prairies, form a key element of our natural and cultural history and are foundational to the region’s future. Many regional actors have recently invested millions to expand the region’s natural heritage. The return on these investments is significant: It is estimated that our natural assets provide over $6 billion every year in economic value to the region as “ecosystem services.”
At the same time, our natural resources face many ongoing challenges and new threats. While the region permanently preserved 61,500 acres of natural and agricultural lands from 2001 to 2015, an additional 140,000 acres of such lands were developed -- an area roughly equivalent to the land area of the City of Chicago. Despite increased awareness about the importance of environmental assets, constrained funding at all government levels and competing priorities hinder our ability to adequately protect and enhance them. Climate change, manifesting in our region as more frequent and severe storms, extreme temperatures, and drought, is already significantly affecting our economy, ecosystems, built environment, and people. In particular, the region faces substantial flooding issues, which the intense storms brought by climate change and increased impervious coverage from development will continue to exacerbate. Flooding can cause extensive property damage and reduced water quality.
Many diverse factors influence the extent and form of development, from market forces to tax policy to infrastructure investment. Development at the region’s edge necessitates increased water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. It can push demand for groundwater beyond sustainable levels, and affects communities and the resources themselves. The short and long term costs associated with providing infrastructure and services in these locations can be substantial. The impacts of these trends do not affect all residents equally. Vulnerable populations in particular may experience heightened risks, costs, and liabilities, including repetitive flooding, high water rates in low income communities, and compromised infrastructure in areas that are otherwise overlooked by private investment.
ON TO 2050 proposes a comprehensive suite of actions by a range of stakeholders to address these and other environmental issues. It envisions a future where development practices and infrastructure embrace natural landscapes and contribute to healthy ecosystems. In concert with other plan strategies, the environmental recommendations will lead to a region that is more resilient to the anticipated impacts of climate change, particularly flooding, and contributes to worldwide efforts to stabilize our changing climate; has sustainable and clean water resources; preserves high priority agricultural and natural lands while accommodating strategic growth and infill; and helps protect the residents of the region who are most vulnerable to environmental impacts.
The three principles of ON TO 2050 are embedded throughout the Environment chapter, which includes strategic recommendations to:
- Promote inclusive growth by growing the ability of vulnerable populations to respond to environmental challenges and improving environmental conditions and access to nature for those populations.
- Improve resilience by planning for anticipated future impacts, protecting residents from risk, and promoting grey and green infrastructure that provides essential services and can adapt to changes in climate and technology.
- Prioritize investing limited financial resources in a strategic and efficient way, maintaining existing infrastructure, and securing new revenues for needed enhancements.