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Green Infrastructure: the Living Backbone of our Communities

Published on
05 May 2012

prairie ridge_2_385x291The word infrastructure brings to mind roads, power lines, sewers and other built systems that support the human population. But there is also a natural, living infrastructure that is often overlooked: “green infrastructure.” 

One definition of green infrastructure is “strategically planned and managed networks of natural lands, working landscapes and other open spaces that conserve ecosystem values and functions and provide associated benefits to human populations.” (The Conservation Fund, www.greeninfrastructure.net).

While a growing number of city planners view the trees, prairies, forests, rivers, creeks and wetlands as vital parts of a community’s infrastructure, there is still some discrimination in our society when it comes to infrastructure. Specifically, those things that cost a lot to build and maintain (e.g. roads, sewers, electric grids) are often given preference over the living systems that have been here for centuries.

How often have I heard someone say: “If we want reliable electricity, then the power company needs to cut the trees”? Or how about this one: “That tree creates a hazard for drivers on the road, so needs to be removed”? Why does the conversation always seem to pit the built systems against the living ones? It’s concrete versus trees, and tile lines versus wetlands.

Fortunately, financial realities of these times are causing communities to give the living parts of infrastructure greater consideration. The City of Crystal Lake has a green infrastructure plan, the City of Woodstock is developing a plan and the McHenry County Board will soon consider a countywide vision of green infrastructure.

One reason for the growing interest in green infrastructure is that a healthy natural system makes important contributions to society while requiring minimal maintenance. Rake up some leaves, keep pollution out of the creeks, allow sufficient buffers around wetlands, and generally the living infrastructure will work just fine. And, the living infrastructure provides a multitude of services to people for generations without having to be torn up and replaced like a road.

Consider that in the course of each day, a tree helps reduce the rate of storm water run-off, cleans the air by filtering particulate matter, provides shade, adds market value to our homes, provides habitat for many birds, insects and mammals, absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen.

Won’t it be wonderful one day when all infrastructure is treated equally?

There are several efforts nearing completion to define Green Infrastructure in McHenry County as well as the region.

The McHenry County Department of Planning is creating a Green Infrastructure Plan for the County. The plan’s main goal is to describe a desired network of interconnected natural lands along with appropriate buffers to help reduce future land use conflicts between people and the essential natural connections. The plan also will offer policy recommendations to support the network. After several months of working with many conservation professionals, municipal park managers, and trail planners from throughout the area, the plan is nearing completion. Please check the Department’s website for the latest information. http://www.co.mchenry.il.us/departments/planninganddevelopment/Pages/GreenInfrastructure.aspx

Chicago Wilderness is set to release a Green Infrastructure Vision for northeastern Illinois as a guide to “creating a region where healthy ecosystems contribute to economic vitality and a high quality of life for all residents” (www.chicagowilderness.org). Additionally, the vision will provide a blueprint for preservation of the region’s biodiversity by focusing conservation efforts on preservation and restoration of the lands and waters necessary for the full diversity of native plants and animals found in the region to thrive.

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