Cook County, Illinois is a unique place. With over 5.2 million people and 130 separate municipalities, including the city of Chicago, Cook County is the second most populous county in the U.S. It’s also home to the Forest Preserves of Cook County, which is one of the oldest and largest metropolitan open space agencies in the country. Currently, the Forest Preserves system includes over 70,000 acres, 300 miles of trails, 250 picnic groves and rich ecological biodiversity.


The Forest Preserves system is not equally distributed across Cook County. Recognizing the potential to address this inequity and acquire remaining undeveloped lands, the Forest Preserves retained The Conservation Fund for strategic land acquisition planning. The effort had a particular focus on Southeast Cook County because of its high opportunity and high need.

To create the plan, we led a team that included Metropolitan Planning Council, Antero Group and Rudd Resources. Together, we evaluated the region’s natural resources and engaged the public to develop a Plan that incorporates a Health Impact Review and reflects suitability and feasibility assessments under five weighted scenarios:

  • Ecological Value
  • Flood Mitigation
  • Inholdings/Adjacency
  • Connectivity
  • Equity/Social Vulnerability


The Plan identifies over 5,000 acres within Southeast Cook County that are considered suitable to achieve all five scenarios and makes recommendations for new partnerships and strategies towards implementation


Southeast Cook County is experiencing severe economic challenges and higher health risks than Cook County as a whole. The goal of the Strategic Land Acquisition Plan for Southeast Cook County was to develop a model that integrates land conservation and economic development, recognizing the critical important of both in community resilience. The resulting Plan identifies areas where new protected lands can deliver on the Forest Preserves’ natural lands mission, while generating multiple benefits to residents.

The Plan also presents a framework for how land conservation planners in other major urban areas can use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index to identify areas of high need and vulnerability, and focus investments, environmental improvements, economic progress and social justice to meet those needs.

The Plan received a Green Ribbon Award 2020 from Friends of the Chicago River, and was awarded the 2020 Health and Active Community Award from the American Planning Association, Illinois Chapter.  Work to implement the Plan is ongoing.


  • Click here to read the full text of the Southeast Cook County Land Acquisition Plan
  • A forest for the trees,” a blog written by Metropolitan Planning Council’s Manager of Health Equity and Planning, Chloe Gurin-Sands, and Associate, Justin Keller (September, 2020