Bridging natural and built assets


Thriving natural habitats, sustained ecosystem services, and resilient communities and infrastructure are vital to a livable and prosperous region.

Environment cover image.

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. Low income and communities of color, children, seniors, and people with disabilities  in particular may experience heightened risks, costs, and liabilities, including repetitive flooding, high water rates, 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:

  1. Promote inclusive growth by growing the ability of vulnerable populations to respond to environmental challenges and improving their environmental conditions and access to nature.
  2. Improve resilience by planning for anticipated future impacts, protecting residents from risk, and promoting gray and green infrastructure that provides essential services and can adapt to changes in climate and technology.
  3. Prioritize investing limited financial resources in a strategic and efficient way, maintaining existing infrastructure, and securing new revenues for needed enhancements.

A region prepared for climate change

The effects of climate change will have significant implications for the built environment, economy, ecosystems, and people of this region. We must intensify mitigation efforts while at the same time prepare for and be equipped to recover from the acute shocks and chronic stresses posed by climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will require continued compact infill development, improved pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and increased investments in public transit as well as aggressive expansion in renewable energy systems, energy efficiency and retrofits, and electrification of our transportation system. Sound planning and decision-making can maximize the crucial role that the region’s natural landscapes, including trees and parks within our developed landscapes, play in promoting resilience. Trees, for example, store millions of tons of carbon, and provide shade which cools our communities and reduces energy consumption. The region’s land and water resources provide ecosystem services that enhance communities’ ability to withstand climate-related stresses, and also offer models for expanded green infrastructure inside and outside of our communities that grows our ability to adapt. Planning for climate resilience entails a wide variety of strategies for managing risk, strengthening our built and natural environment, and improving our operational response to specific events. Regional stakeholders, from local elected officials to business leaders, need access to up-to-date data on climate science to make informed decisions. At the same time, many resilience strategies require coordinated subarea, regional, or statewide action.

Integrated approach to water resources

Abundant and high quality water resources play an essential role in sustaining economic prosperity, environmental and public health, and quality of life. Aquatic systems support an array of ecosystem services, a rich composition of native flora and fauna, recreation, and water purification. Water supplies from Lake Michigan, the Fox and Kankakee Rivers, and shallow and deep bedrock aquifers support the region’s industry, households, and energy generation needs. Lake Michigan and the region’s waterways also provide one of the great recreational systems in the country, while simultaneously transporting goods, both nationally and globally. Yet despite our status as a water‐rich region, we often fail to recognize the real and inherent value of this globally scarce resource. As a result, the region continues to suffer major flood damage on an annual basis, degraded aquatic systems across the majority of the region, and water shortages in areas that are growing the fastest.

A regional goal is to recognize, value, and manage water as a singular resource that could be almost infinitely reusable if managed properly. This applies to our natural aquatic systems, our built water management infrastructure, and our water supplies, both on the surface and underground. This approach seeks to integrate planning and management of water supply, wastewater, and stormwater in a way that considers the water cycle as a single system in which all water inputs and flows are recognized as potential resources, where efforts are made to enhance these systems rather than simply minimize or avoid impact on the environment, and maximizes the contribution to social economic vitality.

Development practices that protect natural resources

To preserve the region’s highest-priority natural and agricultural areas, stakeholders must pursue conservation strategies and also promote reinvestment in existing communities. While preservation decisions are often driven by opportunity, strategic frameworks like the ON TO 2050 Conservation Areas local strategy map and the Green Infrastructure Vision can help maximize the benefits of land protection by assisting the coordination of different actors and funding streams, particularly at the region's developing edge. In addition, sensitive development techniques such as conservation design in these locations can help ensure preservation of high quality natural assets as well as continuity and connectivity of natural areas via open space corridors, which is critical to protecting native species and systems.

Reinvestment efforts, which focus growth in areas with existing infrastructure, housing stock, transportation access, and services, can help reduce development pressures on natural and agricultural lands and revitalize disinvested areas as well as remediate brownfields and other barriers to infill development. In fact, redevelopment can significantly improve the environmental performance of communities and reap co-benefits. Integrating green infrastructure into the redevelopment process can result in additional parks and open spaces, tree-lined streets, and stormwater management. Combined, these investments provide places for recreation, habitats for native flora and fauna, air pollutant filtration, flood reduction, urban heat island mitigation, and groundwater recharge, while at the same time creating more desirable, healthy, and resilient communities.