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Chicago Wilderness Green Vision

Interactive Map of the Green Infrastructure Vision - Courtesy of The Field Museum
View larger map here


In 1994, Chicago Wilderness members worked together to develop the Biodiversity Recovery Plan, a blueprint for protecting and restoring natural communities and improving quality of life in the Chicago region. The plan introduction states:

“Imagine a region filled with life…Where children splash and play in clean creeks…Where people learn to gently and respectfully enter back into a positive relationship with the nature that surrounds them… And where rare plants, animals and natural communities are nurtured back to health and offered a permanent home next to our own – to the benefit of our health and our economy…” 

This plan continues to be a central guide for conservation efforts across our region today. Chicago Wilderness members also recognized the need “to bring the Biodiversity Recovery Plan to life” in a more relevant, visual, and accessible way (Chicago Wilderness GIV Final Report, 2004). To do this, Chicago Wilderness convened workshops with over 100 conservation experts from across the region. Together they developed a spatial representation of the Biodiversity Recovery Plan, a map called the Green Infrastructure Vision (GIV).

The GIV identified priority lands to be preserved, restored, and connected based on recommendations in the Biodiversity Recovery Plan. This vision provides community leaders, conservationists, and other planners with science-based guidance on how to prioritize natural area preservation and restoration efforts. It emphasizes the importance of preserving larger unprotected areas and corridors that connect them including river and stream ecosystems. Together, the Biodiversity Recovery Plan and the GIV envision a Chicago region where nature is accessible to everyone for the benefit of people and nature.

The GIV proposes to reconnect fragmented natural areas through a network of core lands that provide high quality habitat for native plants and animals, hubs that act as habitat buffers, and linking corridors. This concept was originally envisioned by Benedict and McMahon.

Protecting Plant and Animal Diversity
Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. Native plants are becoming increasingly endangered because their specialized habitats, such as tallgrass prairies and fen wetlands, have become fragmented and scarce. In fact, more than 99% of prairies and over 90% of wetlands in Illinois have already been lost. Restoring remaining natural areas to high quality habitat is crucial for native plant and animal biodiversity.

Natural areas in the Chicago region are commonly isolated from each other, limiting the ability of many native species to access food and shelter, reducing their population size and health over time. Networked natural areas help mitigate the effects of habitat fragmentation and allow wildlife to migrate more safely to other natural areas. This will be particularly important as climate change alters wildlife habitats.

Nature’s Benefits to Our Communities

In addition to restoring the natural function of degraded and isolated ecosystems, a regional green network also improves the services that these natural areas provide to our human communities. This natural network reduces the impacts from flood damage by absorbing stormwater. One large tree alone can reduce stormwater runoff by 5,400 gallons per year! Forest soils can absorb 50% more stormwater than urban areas and one acre of wetlands can hold 1 to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater. 

Wetlands and other natural areas remove pollutants from stormwater runoff before they enter rivers and lakes such as Lake Michigan the source of drinking water for millions of people. Natural areas also improve air quality. Trees have been calculated to remove over 18,000 tons of air pollution per year in the 7-county northeastern Illinois region alone. Nature preserves also mitigate the effects of climate change. Additionally, birds and bats that rely on healthy natural areas control populations of mosquitoes and other insects. 

Given all the benefits that natural areas provide for us, their value could be stated as priceless. However, there are ways to estimate their value to our communities. Chicago Wilderness and its partners have calculated that within the 7 county northeastern Illinois region alone, natural areas contribute over 6 billion dollars in flood control, water purification, groundwater recharge, and carbon storage. This does not include other harder-to-measure benefits such as the economic value from recreation and tourism. 

Having access to nature improves quality of life. The GIV includes regional biking and hiking trails, water trails for paddling, and community access to parks and open space. Spending time in nature has been found to improve physical and mental health, lower blood pressure, increase energy levels, and even reduce symptoms of depression.
GIV in Action
To realize this green vision, Chicago Wilderness brought together planners, engineers and other experts to provide guidance to local communities, counties, and others who wish to integrate the GIV framework in their local land use planning efforts while maintaining local priorities. 

Read about green infrastructure plans developed with assistance from Chicago Wilderness. 

The Green Infrastructure Vision continues to guide land use planning across our region today. Land conservation organizations, forest preserves, and park districts use the GIV to help set land acquisition and restoration priorities.

At the regional scale, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission have used the GIV as an important tool in their land use plans. 

In 2012, Chicago Wilderness partners refined the GIV and a geospatial database was created that is now available to community leaders, land use planners, and the public. The data can be used to help quantify the ecosystem services that preserving and restoring natural areas can provide.

The Future Green Vision 
Today, more than 545,000 acres in the Chicago Wilderness region enjoy some form of protection, a great starting point for realizing the vision.

Chicago Wilderness has recently initiated an effort to expand on the work of the GIV with a more comprehensive Green Vision for the region. This broad vision will engage new audiences from urban neighborhoods to farming communities in opportunities to promote resilience and environmental sustainability. The Green Vision will address important issues including nature-based solutions for climate resilience, environmental justice, improved quality of life, and ecological tourism. The Green Vision will include interactive maps and user-friendly tools for community planners and the public.
Questions or comments about the GIV and the new Green Vision are welcome. Submit your comments here. 

What You Can Do
Everyone can play a role in efforts to make our region vibrant and green. Consider landscaping with native plants that support pollinators like bees and monarch butterflies. Install a rain barrel to capture rainwater for garden use. Promote these practices at your local school, work, or place of worship. Have a conversation with your community leaders and neighbors about the benefits to your neighborhood from restoring natural areas and increasing access to green spaces. 
If you wish to get directly involved in restoring natural areas, consider volunteering with one of our member organizations


For more information, explore these resources:

GIV 2.3/2.3 Data Layers

GIV Version 2.3 Ecosystem System Valuation

Refinement of the Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure Vision Final Report, June 2012 (2.0)

Chicago Wilderness Biodiversity Recovery Plan

Chicago Wilderness Oak Ecosystem Recovery Plan

Audubon’s North American Grasslands & Birds Report

Chicago Region Trees Initiative