The Chicago region maintains many high quality natural areas and has an incredibly high level of biodiversity. Over 800,000 acres of land make up the region’s green infrastructure network and provide an array of ecosystem services, including flood control and carbon sequestration. A recent study estimated that a subset of these services provides approximately $6.4 billion annually in services that would be either very expensive or impossible to replicate. However, because these natural areas are often isolated from one another by agriculture, roads, and development, they face challenges associated with fragmentation, pollution, invasive species, and climate change.
[GRAPHIC TO COME: An illustrated diagram defining green infrastructure at different scales and highlighting the importance of ecological connectivity via cores, hubs, and corridors.]
ON TO 2050 reaffirms GO TO 2040’s recommendation to preserve priority natural areas in the region, and adds the goal of capitalizing on the development process to help retain and enhance critical open space. Our progress over the course of this century has been mixed. Natural areas are not widely targeted for protection in local land use plans, and development review processes vary greatly in how they identify and protect natural resources. From a land preservation perspective, 61,500 acres of land were protected between 2000 and 2015, marking a 22 percent increase and progress toward GO TO 2040 targets. Of the approximately $1.15 billion used to protect natural lands within this time period, nearly 80 percent of funding came from open space referenda put forth by the region’s forest preserve and conservation districts -- a testament to how valuable conservation efforts are to local voters. However, funding for open space protection has dropped dramatically since the 2008 recession, and state funding programs have been delayed or suspended. Funding for land protection and stewardship needs to increase significantly to reach regional goals.
[GRAPHIC TO COME: Photo essay that highlights the agricultural and natural resources in the region, how some of these areas are being developed, and best practices to retain these areas in the future.]
For ON TO 2050, CMAP created the Conservation Areas Local Strategy Map, which presents local and regional conservation priorities and reflects current data on the region’s natural assets. The Conservation Areas map builds on and refines the first-of-its-kind Green Infrastructure Vision, which continues to serve as a guide for the Chicago region and beyond to pursue an integrated network of natural resources and open spaces.
Agricultural lands do not provide all of the same ecosystem functions as natural areas and can negatively affect water quality and other natural resources when appropriate land management activities are not followed. Yet farmland contributes to the rural character and economies of the region’s collar counties and could be a critical regional resource with respect to feeding the region and enhancing land and water resources in the future. Nearly 900,000 acres, or 35 percent of the region’s land area, are in agricultural production. Our state's diverse agriculture sector, including all elements of production, processing, and distribution, contributes significant economic strength and employment. As crop production patterns shift nationally, our region’s agricultural lands may increase in value and importance. However, despite its economic and cultural contributions, farmland is often perceived as awaiting future development, and few local economic assessments consider the role that agricultural production plays in local economies.
Between 2000 and 2015, the region developed 40,000 acres of natural areas and 100,000 acres of farmland. That represents a 12 percent addition to the region’s overall development footprint during a time when employment remained flat, population increased by only 4.6 percent, and many opportunities for infill development remained untapped. While development can add economic benefits to the region’s communities, it can also diminish natural resources through habitat fragmentation, reduced core habitat size, and indirectly causing the spread of invasive plant and animal species. New development also creates recurring expenses -- for streets, drinking water and wastewater services, and other necessities -- that can cause or exacerbate community struggles to maintain essential infrastructure and services. And despite the unknown economic impact of 100,000 fewer acres of agricultural land in the region, agricultural production can only remain viable if the region has a critical mass of farms and corresponding distribution and processing centers.
While agricultural and natural lands will likely continue to face challenges from national and global forces such as climate change and market trends, development pressure is a significant factor that municipalities and counties have considerable ability to influence. As the region is projected to add more than 1.9 million residents and 700,000 jobs by 2050, ON TO 2050 identifies communities with significant agricultural and natural assets in the Coordinated Growth local strategy map. ON TO 2050 identifies strategies to minimize the potential environmental and fiscal impacts of new development with a goal of maintaining and enhancing the region’s agricultural systems and natural resources. Infill and reinvestment strategies in existing neighborhoods and downtowns can help diminish the pressure for new development of agricultural and natural lands. If such development does occur, it should be located and designed in such a way to avoid impacts, maintain and enhance ecosystem functions and the local agricultural economy, build municipal financial health, and address other community goals.
The following subsection describes strategies and actions to implement this recommendation.