Abundant natural areas make our seven-county region a more desirable place to live and work. Yet less than half of our region's residents currently live in places with adequate access to nearby parks or open space. In addition, much of the remaining natural heritage of the region remains unprotected and unmanaged.
Parks and open space were central to the 1909 Plan of Chicago. Daniel Burnham's vision helped to preserve open corridors of land—our parks, forest preserves, and the lakefront; contributing immeasurably to the welfare of our residents. Today, the region has about 50,000 acres of recreational open space or parks and about 250,000 acres of conservation open space. Yet Burnham's network of open space remains a work in progress.
Our region has expanded over the last 100 years, however, the corridors of open space Burnham envisioned have not kept pace. The GO TO 2040 plan recommends that the region make significant, criteria-based investments in parks and open space—providing more parks in developed areas, preserving the region's most important natural areas, and providing functional connections between parks and preserves by using the green infrastructure network as a design concept.
The GO TO 2040 plan recommends the following steps to strengthen our green infrastructure network:
Preserve the Most Important Natural Areas
Over the next 30 years, an additional 150,000 acres of land across the seven counties should be preserved through a collaborative, multi-organizational, public-private approach. Most of this should conserve a network of land and water that follows waterway corridors, expands existing preserves, and creates new preserves in the region. Forest preserve and conservation districts, the state, private funders, and others should all prioritize land preservation within the green infrastructure network.
Provide More Parks
The region needs additional parks to provide recreation and open space to as many residents as possible. Establishing parks in already developed places – where it is needed most – can be challenging; local governments should collaborate to provide additional parks in the areas least served by them, and look on redevelopment as an opportunity to provide additional park space.
Provide Green Connections
Greenway trails help establish connections between parks and preserves. The region has been very successful in developing off-street trails; GO TO 2040 envisions organizations continuing to establish connections between preserves and parks, as well as to support walking and bicycling alternatives. The region's objective should be to double existing greenway trail mileage by 2040.
More about Open Space
Parks and preserves contribute to our quality of life. The region's residents regularly visit open spaces and consider these top amenities in quality-of-life surveys. If the opportunity exists, people prefer to live near parks and natural areas, which translates into increase in property value near these amenities. We also know that parks are associated with improved public health; the amount of nearby park space is a significant predictor of increased physical activity levels in children as well as adults. Parks help build community and foster social connections, either through hosting organized recreational activities or simply providing a public space for neighbors to gather.
In addition to recreational opportunities, we now recognize that our open spaces are performing valuable ecosystem services, such as water purification, flood protection, and potentially even adaptation to climate change. Natural areas help ensure the replenishment of aquifers with uncontaminated water, which benefits communities depending on groundwater for their drinking water. Floodplains and wetlands play a significant role in flood reduction by providing space to store rising waters, which may prove essential if climate change results in larger storm events. Climate change may also change the migratory patterns of species and having connected areas of protected open space can help them move between large blocks of habitat.
Despite well-documented recreational benefits and ecosystem services, much of our region's natural open space remains unprotected. The region's network of parks and open space is our "green" infrastructure—no less essential to prosperity and livability than any other infrastructure. Similar to transportation and water treatment systems, our green infrastructure must be managed, restored, and expanded. Through coordinated investments, we should preserve a network of land and water corridors by expanding current preserves, creating new ones, and providing functional connections between them.