How your community's green footprint can impact our future


By Christopher Thomas

What kind of world will we live in if we don't pay attention to open space, parks, and natural habitats? Even today, kids believe that food comes from grocery stores, not farms; that getting close to nature requires an hour-long drive; and that endangered species are something you see at a zoo.

We need to take care of our environment, maintain more open space, and be greener. But with economic times changing, economic growth has won over being green. Now we are reaching a point where there will be a bigger impact on our economy and world if we don't balance green infrastructure with gray infrastructure.

Keeping the Balance

For decades, short-term economic growth took precedence over long-term environmental concerns. We've overlooked a critical component that's often not considered part of our development—our ecosystems, waterways, open spaces, wildlife habitats, agriculture preserves, parks, and other natural areas, also known as green infrastructure.

So what are we currently doing to ensure that we are balancing our natural and built environments? While it is critical that we repair bridges, extend water delivery to our citizens, and increase economic growth through broadband delivery, it is equally important that we understand the impacts of not paying attention to green infrastructure.

With larger populations, urbanization, and more development, green infrastructure is becoming increasingly forgotten and destroyed. We have an opportunity to course correct; we need to balance our development with open spaces, parks, watersheds, habitats, and more.

Where Do We Go Green from Here?

Simply stated, green infrastructure is not a new concept. Most comprehensive land-use plans call for the need to set objectives to reach a balanced community. The question is: given the evidence of dwindling natural resources, climate change, the impacts of too little or too much water, and urban sprawl challenging our connection with nature; are we doing enough? Have we taken the time to set a benchmark for how well we are doing?

Geographic Information System (GIS) is instrumental in helping planners, city officials, community leaders and others see green infrastructure assets around them. GIS provides a computational, quantitative, and rational way to help everyone understand what is important by combining data from many sources on one map.

An online, interactive map spanning the contiguous U.S. of every intact natural area greater than 100 acres has been developed and is available for use for free by any person or organization wishing to explore locally-relevant green infrastructure strategies, and connect to a national green infrastructure network. Freely available apps help identify critical landscapes, assess risks, explore connection options, and create landscape strategies.

Reemphasizing a green infrastructure approach to planning with more accountability and metrics is important. Going green must be viewed as an investment in our future—one that reaps the same type of benefits that the other elements of comprehensive plans set out to achieve. Here are a few steps communities can take:

  • Take a critical look at the development policies already put in place. Are we making sustainable decisions that protect natural habitats, parks, and waterways? Or do zoning and development regulations need to change?
  • Examine the benchmarks for how your community compares to others. Protect natural assets that are unique to your community.
  • Include a green infrastructure element in your comprehensive plan in order to ensure green infrastructure is a priority and is balanced with development.:
  • Use analysis and tools to help you stay on track for the future.

Green Infrastructure changes the way many view land planning – decision makers are tasked with identifying landscapes of greatest value first, prioritizing which ones to preserve, then creating and executing the development plan last. Even in already developed areas, green infrastructure plans can show areas that are in need of protection or highlight which areas can be reconnected by planting natural corridors and relinking fragmented landscapes.

With GIS technology, protecting and conserving the green aspects of our communities is that much easier. GIS helps those in planning disciplines create baselines of where we are, where we said we'd be, and how we can get back to a balanced environment of growth and conservation that meets the needs of communities and nature alike. 


Christopher Thomas is the director of government markets at Esri. He previously served as the GIS manager for Ontario, Calif. Reach him at

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