Landscape Initiatives Protect Vital Open Spaces in the Northeast

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Access to outdoor recreation has never been more difficult - or more needed. According the recent America's Great Outdoors (AGO) report, one out of three acres of urban land in the United States was developed between 1982 and 2007. It's no wonder that the AGO report finds that today's youth spend half as much time as their parents did outdoors. For the residents and visitors to the densely populated northeastern United States, landscape conservation can help secure meaningful outdoor experiences by offering close to home recreation and by protecting distinct landscapes that reflect the nation's natural and cultural heritage.

To help understand how landscape initiatives are addressing open space and recreation issues in the 13 state Northeast Megaregion, Regional Plan Association and America 2050 have gathered information about available open space in the Northeast for inclusion in our Northeast Landscape Initiatives Atlas. This information is being used to understand how landscape conservation initiatives can keep land open for recreation. We have identified over 165 landscape conservation initiatives. More than 110 of these initiatives have identified recreation and tourism as a priority.

Meeting this goal is especially difficult in the urbanized northeast. The following maps show parks and open spaces within 40 miles (about a 60 minute drive) of population centers of 1 million people or more. These protected open spaces can better serve the public by managing these resources at a landscape level. Jointly marketing attractions, creating greenways and other recreational corridors, and coordinating interpretive programs can help to maximize the efforts already underway at many individual sites in a region.

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Open spaces with and without public access within 40 miles of population centers with 1 million or more residents.

Click to see metadata

Here are three examples of landscape initiatives engaging in this type of work:

Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Area

initiative 95 thumb The Blackstone River runs from Worcester, MA to Providence, RI. Two hundred years ago, it was the focal point of America's Industrial Revolution, powering textile mills and creating a bustling economy in the process. By the middle of the 20th century, the textile industry was moving south. When many of the mills closed, the region was sent into an economic depression that lasted through the 1970s and much of the 1980s. The textile industry had moved away, but not before it required a dam on nearly every one of the river's forty miles and it had severely polluted the river's waters.

Congress designated the 500 square miles around the Black Stone River a National Heritage Area in 1986 as a means to protect the region's natural and cultural heritage. Today, the area has been highly successful in its efforts to support environmental clean-up and heritage development based around tourism and historic preservation. The key innovation, though, has been the successful organization of a the two states, 24 communities, and thousands of historic and scenic sites into a National Heritage Area overseen by a corridor commission that can bring together the diverse stakeholders in the region and advocate for improvements that benefit the entire river valley.

The National Park Service's involvement is also critical to the area's success. NPS offers a range of services, from planning and technical assistance to interpretation and financial assistance that enhance the user experience. The commission has sponsored dam removals, interpretive plans for historic sites, corridor-wide master plans (including a heritage landscape inventory), and small grants to help improve individual natural and historic sites.

Click to see the National Heritage Area's profile in the Inventory

GreenSpace Alliance

initiative 155 thumb GreenSpace Alliance works in southeast Pennsylvania, which is home to Philadelphia's fast-growing suburbs. The Alliance has taken on the difficult task of conserving open spaces where few opportunities exist. The extensive build-out of residential development creates demand for recreational places while simultaneously limiting the opportunities. The organization must rely on the strength and coordination of its partner network to protect natural areas for recreation. The group's partners include the Natural Lands Trust, many local land trusts, local and regional planning commissions, environmental groups, and other landscape initiatives profiled in RPA's inventory.

The organization's Regional Green Plan is all about setting priorities and getting local partners to use them as a guide for their conservation activities. Using GIS and the knowledge of its stakeholder network as its basis, the plan identifies and prioritizes contiguous natural areas. For rural places, the focus is on conservation of large areas. In urban and suburban settings, the emphasis is on protecting waterways and creating greenways that connect rural areas with more densely populated places. Greenspace Alliance's plan has established land use guidelines, recommending the protection of one acre of open space for every acre that is developed, including a minimum of 50% of the remaining open spaces in rural parts of the region.

Click to see GreenSpace Alliance's profile in the Inventory

Connecticut River Gateway Commission

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The Connecticut River is a popular destination in southern New England because of its immense scenic beauty and the historic quality of the towns along its banks. Like most other places in the Northeast Megaregion, this unique character and environment is constantly challenged by development pressures. In 1973, Connecticut's General Assembly created the Connecticut River Gateway Commission to protect the lower portion of the river. The commission is made up of Connecticut's DEP, two regional planning agencies, and the governments of the eight towns that are in the Gateway Conservation Zone. One of the commission's primary goals is scenic preservation. One of the biggest threats that the Commission addresses is change to the physical appearance of the river valley because it takes away from the special character of the place and hurts the tourism and recreation-based economy of the region. The commission is empowered to acquire land and development rights for areas of high scenic quality, protecting over 1,000 acres to date. The commission has also established minimum protective standards that the eight municipalities in the conservation zone have adopted into their local land use laws. Over the last forty years, the Commission has been highly successful at preserving the "natural and traditional river scene" in the Connecticut River valley.

Click to see Commission's profile in the Inventory

In the Northeast Megaregion, complex urban development patterns and high demand for land and resources pose particular challenges for conservation. RPA / America 2050 is working across political jurisdictions to produce a comprehensive inventory of landscape conservation initiatives that protect watersheds, wildlife habitat, and other natural processes at the appropriate geographic scale. The project was launched in November, 2010 with the support from The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the USDA Forest Service Northeastern Area.

Visit the website to learn more: Northeast Landscape Conservation Atlas

1 Comment

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