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Integrate land preservation into strategic growth efforts

Integrate land preservation into strategic growth efforts

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.[1] 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.[2] 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,[3] 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.[4] 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.

Protect and steward high-priority natural areas

To plan for and protect high-priority natural areas, such as high quality resources, rare landscapes, and key restoration areas, it is first necessary to define where they exist and how they connect to the regional green infrastructure network. IDNR, county forest preserve and conservation districts, advocacy organizations, local governments, and other regional partners produce strategic plans identifying high-priority natural assets for conservation. GO TO 2040 used the Green Infrastructure Vision (GIV) as a framework for identifying the most important core lands and corridors of our regional green infrastructure network. These plans continue to provide useful planning guidance for the region. Since GO TO 2040's adoption, CMAP has produced a new dataset to help communicate the importance of natural resources and prioritize land acquisition. The Conservation Areas local strategy map is a new aggregation of data that follows the spirit and intent of the original GIV. This local strategy map, which is informed by county green infrastructure plans and other regional data, provides a starting point for regional and local conservation partners to identify areas for land acquisition as well as inform land use plans and development decisions.


Strategic frameworks like the Conservation Areas local strategy map can help maximize the benefits of land protection by coordinating efforts across jurisdictional boundaries to preserve large complexes of natural resources and connect them along greenways and waterways. Given the decrease in state and federal funding in recent years, local funding initiatives --for example, local and county open space referenda -- will likely continue to be the backbone of natural land protection and stewardship funding. Yet additional funding will be needed to achieve natural resources goals, and innovative financing strategies offer further opportunities to fund open space while addressing other regional goals. For example, water quality trading programs can provide cost-effective solutions for achieving water quality goals while protecting land in high priority areas. The region should also explore a regional conservation open space fund, which could focus investments using a performance-based approach to most effectively and efficiently target conservation efforts to address local and regional priorities.


Counties, forest preserve and conservation districts, and municipalities should prepare and update green infrastructure plans to inform local priorities and provide inputs to the Conservation Areas local strategy map, which can inform the next iteration of the GIV.

CMAP, Chicago Wilderness, and other conservation partners should define priority natural resource restoration areas within and between areas identified in the Conservation Areas local strategy map.

Forest preserve and conservation districts, municipalities, and counties should continue to raise essential funding through open space referenda.

The State and federal governments, as well as philanthropic organizations, should continue to fund IDNR and land managers via OSLAD, NAAF, the Coastal Management Program, and other programs to acquire and maintain high-priority lands.

CMAP and partners should explore how innovative financing mechanisms, such as public-private partnerships, transfer of development rights programs, water quality and stormwater volume control trading, GHG credit markets, and expanding the use of the Illinois Clean Water Initiative programs could support open space protection and enhancement efforts.

CMAP, forest preserve and conservation districts, and other conservation partners should explore creating a regional fund for conservation open space.

Forest preserve and conservation districts, counties, and conservation organizations should work with landowners, land managers, to establish and connect large reserves that consist of mosaics of land uses oriented toward conservation, such as the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, Liberty Prairie Reserve, and Prairie Parklands

The State, forest preserve and conservation districts, and private philanthropy should work with land trusts to engage and educate private landowners, accept conservation easements of priority natural lands, and continue stewardship efforts.

Identify and maintain key agricultural lands

Understanding where our most important agricultural assets are located will help facilitate their viability and guide local and regional investment decisions. Key agricultural lands should be identified using a methodology that reflects local conditions and goals within a regional context. This assessment could include criteria related to the soil as well as the markets, facilities, and infrastructure conditions. ON TO 2050 supports GO TO 2040 recommendations that emphasized the need to expand county agricultural conservation easement and protection programs, coordinate with conservation open space preservation efforts, and permit counties to use referenda to raise revenue for agricultural preservation. A farmland protection program with corresponding funding at the state level could provide needed resources to support local and county agriculture goals, especially for key agricultural areas. Innovative strategies -- such as transfer of development rights programs -- offer promise to advance farmland preservation while also addressing other regional goals. Encouraging sustainable land management strategies, either through education efforts or incentivized through innovative trading programs, could help maintain and enhance soil and water resources, see the Protect and enhance the integrity of aquatic systems recommendation.


Locally, diversification of our agricultural systems, including the production of a greater variety of products including food, could help the region’s farms adapt to changing climate conditions, and make the region more resilient to disruptions in food production systems nationally. This was strongly emphasized as an important regional goal in GO TO 2040. Diversification efforts can also help keep farms economically viable and retain lands in agricultural production, see the Diversify agricultural systems to promote resilience strategy.


CMAP and partners such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), local soil and water conservation districts, counties, the Illinois Farm Bureau, Farm Illinois, and Openlands should work together to identify key agricultural lands and build consensus around those areas as regional priorities for preservation.

The State should establish a comprehensive, statewide farmland protection policy, which could include an agricultural conservation easement program, and provide counties with the authority to fund farmland protection programs through local referenda.

Counties should develop farmland preservation plans and raise funding for agricultural easements.

CMAP and partners should explore how innovative financing mechanisms, such as water resource trading, Illinois Clean Water Initiative programs, and transfer of development rights programs, could support agricultural protection and enhancement efforts.

CMAP and partners such as Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), local soil and water conservation districts, counties, the Illinois Farm Bureau and local chapters, Farm Illinois, and Openlands should promote agricultural practices that protect and enhance land and water resources, as well as the production of a greater diversity of crops, products, and food.

Protect agricultural and natural land through local planning processes

As the region’s population grows, valuable agricultural and natural resources will continue to face development pressure, particularly in locations within or adjacent to municipal boundaries, as highlighted in the Coordinated Growth local strategy map. Identifying agricultural and natural lands in local, county, and regional planning and development efforts signals their importance and helps communities recognize the contributions of such lands to local and regional economies, ecosystems, and character. For example, Kane and McHenry counties identify agricultural and natural lands in their future land use maps. While their plans acknowledge that anticipated population growth could result in the conversion of undeveloped land, much of the existing agricultural and natural land cover is anticipated to remain in its current use. These plans also direct new development toward locations with or adjacent to existing infrastructure.


Municipalities and counties can also leverage their regulatory processes to improve the relationship between development and agricultural and natural resources. For example, updating development ordinances can support preservation of valuable natural assets and the corridors between them, and minimize the impact of new development on agricultural and natural resources. Local governments can use a number of different strategies, including agricultural and natural resource zoning districts, modernized definitions and standards relating to agriculture and natural resources, updated protection measures within subdivision ordinances, and provisions for long-term stewardship of protected open space. Conservation-oriented development and clustering can help preserve natural resources while accommodating broader community goals for development. Even without clustering, development can be designed to protect the existing natural resources and use them as inherent assets of the site.


Local governments should use the Conservation Areas local strategy map and the Key Agricultural Lands local strategy map, when available, to inform local planning and development efforts.

CMAP and partners should quantify the agricultural system’s contribution to the regional and local economies to better inform local economic development strategies, land use planning, and transportation investments.

CMAP should refer to the Conservation Areas local strategy map to inform long-range transportation planning and programming.

Local governments should adopt conservation-oriented development standards and avoid development on key natural areas.

Local governments should conduct detailed development site inventories of natural resources and first attempt to avoid, reduce, and then mitigate the natural resource impacts of development through actions such as protecting existing assets and conservation areas.

CMAP should investigate conservation design practices that work best with agricultural activities.

Evaluate future infrastructure costs when considering development expansion

In an era of limited resources, growing communities should carefully weigh the long-term costs of maintaining and replacing infrastructure against the fiscal benefits of new development. A lack of full-cost pricing and declining federal and state support have left many communities struggling to maintain infrastructure already in place. Some municipal costs, including roads, water and wastewater, stormwater, and fire protection, are more dependent on the location and density of development than others. For example, lot size, minimum block length, and street design standards influence the length and width of streets and the corresponding density of development that provides financial support for the eventual maintenance and replacement of those streets. While future land use plans and zoning and subdivision ordinances dictate the development pattern, the planning process rarely factors in the long-term financial impacts of those requirements or considers the costs of that additional infrastructure within the context of the municipality’s existing liabilities. Avoiding unnecessary future infrastructure and maintenance costs will enable communities to prioritize investment toward other community objectives. Regarding long-term financial health, communities can minimize their infrastructure maintenance costs by limiting expansion and building more compactly when they do extend roads and sewers to new locations.


Local governments should consider existing road, water, and wastewater infrastructure capacity in decisions about the intensity and extent of new development.

Local governments should review and revise development standards with attention to long-term maintenance costs associated with different development patterns.

Local governments should collect adequate taxes and fees per the findings of fiscal impact analyses to cover the cost of infrastructure and services over the lifespan of new development.

CMAP should explore ways to encourage development standards that minimize long-term maintenance costs and consider incentives for such practices through existing transportation and infrastructure funding programs.


[1] Will Allen, Ted Weber, Jazmin Varela, CMAP Technical Committee, 2014, “Green Infrastructure Vision 2.3: Ecosystem Service Valuation,”

[2] The Trust for Public Land, 2015, “Conservation Almanac,”, The expenditure of $1.15 billion for the protection of open space occurred from 2001 to 2013.

[3] Chicago Wilderness, CMAP, and The Conservation Fund, 2012 “Green Infrastructure Vision 2.2 Refinement,”

[4] CMAP, 2016, “ON TO 2050 “Integrating Green Infrastructure strategy paper,”

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