Green infrastructure

From Changing Landscapes in the Chicago Wilderness Region: A Climate Change Update to the Biodiversity Recovery Plan
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Our landscapes have dramatically changed over the last century, particularly in urban regions like Chicago Wilderness. As a result of increasing development the region’s natural communities, once entwined as part of a larger connected ecosystem, have been severed from one another and carved into miniature altered versions of their historic expansive landscapes. The resulting fragmentation and overall habitat loss has hindered nature’s ability to respond to climatic changes. For example, viability of wildlife populations is decreasing due to reduced genetic diversity and limited wildlife movement. Though climate change will further compound the current threats of habitat fragmentation and degradation to remaining communities, it has not been addressed in many existing natural resource plans (Hannah et al., 2002). This section will discuss Green Infrastructure, both as a concept and a process, and how it plays a key role in the implementation of strategies and actions aimed at adapting biodiversity to climate change in the Chicago Wilderness region.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has integrated the Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure Vision into their GO TO 2040 plan, which proposes a green infrastructure network that follows waterway corridors, expands existing preserves, and creates new preserves in the region. Photo courtesy of Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning
At the regional scale, the concept of green infrastructure refers to an interconnected green space network created by conserving or reestablishing linkages between natural communities and other undeveloped land (Other scales below the region at which green infrastructure can be considered are described below). The “green space” may include natural areas, public and private conservation lands, working lands with conservation values and other protected areas. This mapped network is intended to guide decisions about the creation of open space and links that support conservation and associated outdoor recreational activities (Benedict and McMahon, 2006). As a process, the green infrastructure approach enables diverse interests to collaboratively identify priority lands for protection. The overarching purpose is to provide a framework that can be used to guide future land development and land conservation decisions that accommodate population growth while still preserving community assets and natural resources (Benedict and McMahon, 2006). Previously Chicago Wilderness has defined green infrastructure in line with the consortium’s central purpose, conserving biodiversity, treating green infrastructure as “the interconnected network of land and water that supports biodiversity and provides habitat for diverse communities of native flora and fauna at the regional scale. It includes large complexes of remnant woodlands, savannas, prairies, wetlands, lakes, stream corridors and other natural communities that have been identified in the Biodiversity Recovery Plan. Green infrastructure may also include areas adjacent to and connecting these remnant natural communities that provide both buffers and opportunities for ecosystem restoration.”

Developing new and linking existing green infrastructure can reduce many of the impacts expected from climate change. It can mitigate climate change as well as help biodiversity adapt to the changes that are already happening. For example, green space networks can aid in moderating urban temperature extremes to ensure that towns and cities continue to be attractive and comfortable places to live, work, visit and invest (Benedict and McMahon, 2006). Having more green space can also reduce flood risk and manage surface water; instead of stormwater entering our streams and lakes as polluted surface run-off, it can infiltrate back into the soil and recharge our groundwater. Furthermore, functional landscape connections may allow species to move into new 'climate spaces' (Hough et al., 2010). As natural communities face further loss and fragmentation due to climate change, and the need increases for temperature-sensitive species to have migratory pathways to disperse and migrate, it will be essential to develop green infrastructure in a “climate-smart” way to help ensure long-term viability for the ecosystems of the Chicago Wilderness region.

Figure 1.1
Chicago Wilderness has been a leader in recognizing the importance of green infrastructure. The Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission completed the Green Infrastructure Vision for the consortium in 2004, and refining and implementing the Green Infrastructure Vision is now one of the four key initiatives of Chicago Wilderness. The Green Infrastructure Vision has been referred to as a “blueprint” for creating healthy ecosystems that contribute to economic vitality and a high quality of life for all residents. The Green Infrastructure Vision represents a major component of the implementation strategy for the Biodiversity Recovery Plan, and will support the other three initiatives of Chicago Wilderness: Leave No Child Inside, Management and Restoration, and Climate Change. Figure 1.1, right, depicts a graphic representation of the Green Infrastructure Vision; the pink areas illustrate the 360,000 acres of existing protected areas (as they existed in 2004-2004) nested within the green Resource Protection Areas—prospective areas for protection, restoration, and compatible conservation development practices. The Green Infrastructure Vision has both a mapping and a policy component, the latter stipulating the kinds of resource protection activities needed within the Resource Protection Areas and elsewhere in the region. Beginning in 2009 Chicago Wilderness members began a coordinated effort to implement the Green Infrastructure Vision at four scales:
  • Regional, by working with regional planning agencies to redefine how we think about sustainability and community health by incorporating conservation development principles and natural resource preservation into land use and transportation plans.
  • Community, by incorporating principles of biodiversity conservation, sustainability, and people-friendly design into land use plans and ordinances.
  • Neighborhood, by promoting the preservation of natural spaces, conservation design and access to nature into developing communities, and
  • Site, by promoting native landscaping, the use of rain gardens and rain barrels, and through the greening of schoolyards and other community open spaces.

It is necessary to incorporate climate change information at each of these scales in order to have successful implementation of the biodiversity adaptation strategies and actions presented in this document for the Chicago Wilderness region. Many of the tools needed to aid ecological adaptation to climate change have already been developed and are part of current restoration ecology practices; however, land managers will likely need to apply these tools in novel and innovative ways to meet the unprecedented challenges posed by climate change (Mawdsley et al., 2009). This applies directly to the Green Infrastructure Vision in that land managers and planners need to consider creating and connecting our green space in a way that will sustain the functionality of natural communities, now and in the future. The following are several climate change adaptation strategies that apply to wildlife management and biodiversity conservation and that represent the types of actions needed to advance the Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure Vision in a climate-smart way (Mawdsley et al., 2009):

Possible Green Infrastructure Adaptation Strategies:

  • Improve the ability of species to move across the landscape from a climate change perspective. There are two main aspects of this strategy that vary in scale and in the benefit they provide to organisms. The first aspect is to identify and improve major corridors that can facilitate larger-scale movement patterns to allow latitudinal movement of organisms as they try to maintain their position within the appropriate climatic envelope. An example of this would be connections along river corridors ensuring the potential for movement through the entire Chicago Wilderness area. The second aspect of this strategy is improving connectivity among habitat patches at a local scale, allowing organisms to find favorable microclimates or specialized habitats that are declining with climate change. This involves identifying 1) species with high vulnerability to climate change (e.g., low tolerance to changes in temperature or precipitation), 2) natural areas with these species of concern and 3) movement corridors within and between reserves based on the expected changes in landscape due to climate change impacts (e.g., increased habitat loss for shallow streams, vernal ponds, fen communities and fine-textured wetter-soil prairies). An example would be routes for herp species and other animals to cross roads that go through forest preserves, similar to the road grid that breaks up Palos. These sites should be priority areas for resource management and restoration actions.
  • Develop guidelines for resource managers planning large restoration actions to determine if impacts of climate change, e.g. natural resource vulnerabilities, will adversely impact primary purpose or cost/benefit analysis of restoration actions.
  • Each land management agency should review current land and resource management goals, objectives, and practices relative to providing resiliency on landscape reserves and other major holdings. The Chicago Wilderness Climate Action Plan for Nature plans to develop climate clinics aimed at helping land managers create adaptation plans that optimize resiliency and management objectives.


The intention of this first iteration of the Biodiversity Recovery Plan climate change review is to provide Chicago Wilderness members with the necessary background to understand the threats our natural communities may face from climate change, to recognize the need to review our biodiversity recovery and conservation strategies through a climate change lens, and to present initial suggestions to help our communities adapt. In the end, our ability to be successful in the approaches we take to adapt our biodiversity will largely depend on our openness to try new strategies and our readiness to share the outcomes with one another, in terms of what is working and what is not. This is a living document, meant to promote dialogue between Chicago Wilderness members on all facets of biodiversity adaptation in our region, from research and planning to implementation and outcomes. We envision this document as an on-line resource for two reasons. The first is to enable land managers and others who are implementing these strategies to give their feedback and, secondly, to allow the document to be kept up to date as new information becomes available.