October 24, 2016|By Will Allen

Our early strategic conservation projects at the Fund often focused on identifying priorities for protecting ecological greenways and biodiversity hotspots, usually well outside of populated areas. This began to change in 2001 when we were asked by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to rapidly assess the City of Atlanta’s green space deficit. Since then, our portfolio of urban projects has steadily grown and diversified, ranging from solutions to identifying urban agriculture opportunities in San Diego to creating metropolitan greenspace visions for three of the largest regions in the country (Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston).

WA3 houston park river skyline david grant flickrHouston Wilderness, modeled after Chicago Wilderness, is the coalition organization focused on conservation and restoration activities in the Houston-Galveston megaregion. Photo by David Grant/Flickr.

Chicago Wilderness was founded 20 years ago as an urgent response to protecting and restoring natural systems in a region where almost the entire native prairie ecosystem had been converted to cornfields, pasture, or developed land uses. Establishment of the first national Tallgrass Prairie at a former munitions plant near Joliet, now the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, helped catalyze the coalition’s strategic conservation priorities over the next 20 years. Helping establish the Prairie and supporting USDA Forest Service’s first land and resource management plan for the property was one of the first major strategic conservation projects at the Fund in the 1990s. 

The Chicago Wilderness coalition is now a vastly diverse network with a core competency as a facilitator and convener to “harness adaptive and innovative thinking, apply solid science, and connect diverse constituencies” that support conservation action at a regional scale. It facilitates partner interaction and collaboration through focus areas and member committees. The Fund has been involved extensively with the regional Green Infrastructure Vision as well as with partners such as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Council, and the Lake County Forest Preserve District to help implement the Vision.

WA3 IMG 1145 editedChicago has an abundance of opportunities for protecting land through conservation and green infrastructure. Photo by Kristin Shaw.

According to the America 2050 project, large, interconnected networks of metropolitan centers like Chicago—sometimes referred to as Megaregions—will increasingly serve as the focus of American economic activity. They have interlocking economic systems, shared natural resources and ecosystems, and regional transportation systems linking population centers together (see graphic below).  Megaregions currently account for about 25% of the nation’s land area, but include 80% of the population.

I think of Megaregions as areas that not only encompass a human footprint but also much of the ecological footprint required to maintain the existence of these dense human settlements. While the global marketplace provides many desired goods not readily available in most cities (e.g. tropical produce from South America, coffee from Ethiopia), many resources needed, and treasured, by communities come from nearby farmland, forestland, and natural areas. And increasingly, a small part of these needs are being met right next door to where you live (e.g. community gardens, urban forests, pocket parks).

WA3 2050 Map Megaregions2008The megaregions of the United States are defined by layers of relationships that together define a common interest; this common interest, in turn, forms the basis for policy decisions. Graphic by America 2050.

People need resources—like clean water to drink, food from working farms, and fiber from working forests—from surrounding landscapes that remain free from intense urbanization and lie outside incorporated municipal boundaries. People also need (and want) nature (and agriculture) inside cities, and many new creative ‘local footprint’ solutions are being implemented. Cities across the country are envisioning a world where humans, wildlife, and natural systems coexist in healthy, vibrant, resilient, urban communities. With this vast increase in interest in urban conservation in recent years, new information sharing initiatives have been established (see, for instance, The Nature of Cities, Biophilic Cities, Ecological Places in Cities).

Collaborative regional initiatives also have emerged in response to the need to focus on the complex challenge of improving quality of life in metropolitan regions with ecologically, culturally, and economically diverse communities spanning multiple political jurisdictions. Built around a collective action framework, these coalition groups are facilitating collaboration among hundreds of organizations, building a common agenda for nature and people, and promoting shared learning of best practices.

WA3 Cumberland River Matt HicksCollaborative regional initiatives in Nashville ensure the preservation of the Cumberland River, rolling hills, and serene forests that are essential to the character of Nashville and help foster the creativity found in the region. Photo by Matt Hicks.

These “coalitions of coalitions” are actively involved in providing a platform to showcase the multiple benefits of incorporating green infrastructure into the urban fabric and connecting communities to their surrounding natural and working landscapes. While Chicago was the pioneer metropolitan region, additional coalitions now operate in Portland, Oregon, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Houston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Nashville, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Baltimore. Additional coalitions in Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, and elsewhere are now in the start-up phase, and they are receiving support from the cities listed above as well as from their “trade association” the Metropolitan Greenspaces Alliance (MGA).

More and more we will see large metropolitan areas trying to solve complex conservation problems through collaborative planning and green infrastructure visions, and the Fund will continue to be a trusted partner in those efforts.