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 ON TO 2050 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 ON TO 2050 plan recommends the following steps to strengthen our green infrastructure network:
Increase community greening efforts and expand neighborhood parks
Community greening involves increasing the amount of green coverage, including recreational or passive park space, community gardens, landscaping and tree canopy, and green infrastructure. This can be particularly valuable in walkable downtowns, along major commercial corridors, and in other areas with an extensive impervious surface. Community greening efforts can achieve numerous benefits, including greater climate resilience, stormwater management, habitat, reduced heat island effect, community and economic development, and improved physical and mental health
Protect and steward high-priority natural areas
To plan for and protect high-priority natural areas, including high quality resources, rare landscapes, important habitat, and key restoration areas, it is first necessary to define where they exist and how they connect and contribute 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 (Green Infrastructure Vision). 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.
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.