Openlands History

Since our founding in 1963 as a program of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago, Openlands has been at the forefront of the urban conservation movement. As one of the first organizations in the United States to address environmental issues within a metropolitan region, we have focused on people as much as nature.

Over 50 years later, Openlands remains committed to urban conservation in the greater Chicago region. Openlands’ emphasis on people, places, and policy is the framework and driving factor of the organization.



Throughout our history, Openlands has protected and expanded public access to more than 70,000 acres of land for parks, forest preserves, land and water greenway corridors, and urban gardens across the Chicago metropolitan region. The incorporation of our land-buying affiliate Corporation for Openlands (CorLands) in 1978 enabled us to both purchase and protect notable land.

One of Openlands’ most well-known protection and restoration efforts is the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve which opened to the public in 2011. Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is a mile-long stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline and the first piece of property owned in perpetuity by Openlands.

Located on the Illinois and Wisconsin border, the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge was established in 2012 after seven years of hard work and advocacy by Openlands and partners. Hackmatack is the first national wildlife refuge in the Chicago region and will eventually consist of 11,200 acres of protected habitat for diverse wildlife.

Openlands has played a key role in some of our region’s best known trails. In the 1980’s, Openlands acquired the abandoned rail corridor that would become known as the Old Plank Road Trail, and in the 1990’s Openlands acquired another abandoned rail corridor that turned into the Burnham Greenway. Openlands also took on a vital role in the completion of the Grand Illinois Trail.

Openlands works on varying scales as demonstrated by a few of our key projects and efforts:

1972 Ryerson Woods Conservation Area Nature Preserve was established as a Lake County Forest Preserve and dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

1985 Openlands and the Illinois Prairie Trail Authority identified potential trail and greenway corridors in northeast Illinois.

1990 Openlands’ 21st Century Open Space Plan was launched.

1992 Northwestern Illinois Regional Greenways Plan was published.

1998 Losing Ground: Land Consumption in the Chicago Region, 1990-1998 was published.

1999 Under Pressure: Land Consumption in the Chicago Region, 1998-2028 was published.

1996 After leadership and advocacy from Openlands, President Bill Clinton signed legislation to create Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie at the former Joliet Arsenal.

2001 Openlands, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the Chicago Audubon Society, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began restoration of Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland. In 2005, building off this partnership, CorLands began wetland restoration work at 5 public sites funded through the O’Hare Modernization program.

2008 Deer Grove East restoration project began in partnership with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, City of Chicago Department of Aviation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

2012 To protect regional open space treasures such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Openlands organized a coalition of 30 partners to oppose the proposed Illiana Tollway.

2013 Openlands became an accredited land trust. Openlands Lakeshore Preserve was recognized as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

2014 The Next Century Conservation Plan was formally accepted, providing a strategic vision for the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

2017 Following restoration, portions of Deer Grove East and Tinley Creek Wetlands are designated as Illinois Land & Water Reserves

2018 Openlands is reaccredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission



Openlands has been an advocate for protecting Chicago’s lakefront for more than 50 years. As many development projects have been proposed, Openlands used its voice to protect the lakefront and public open space access. The Chicago River has been another focus for Openlands. In 1980, Friends of the Chicago River was established as a program of Openlands and has since become an independent organization. In 2013, Openlands published a study with Friends of the Chicago River called, “Our Liquid Asset: The Economic Benefits of a Clean Chicago River”.

In addition to the work with waterways in Chicago, Openlands has taken part in many regional water initiatives and partnered with various organizations to create the most substantial impact.

1965 Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was authorized by Congress.

1971 Lake Michigan Federation (now Alliance for the Great Lakes) became independent from Openlands.

1984 President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor.

2005 Troubled Waters: Meeting the future water needs of Illinois was published as a joint initiative with the Campaign for Sensible Growth and Metropolitan Planning Council.

2007 Greenways and Blueways Plan for Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission was published as a joint initiative with NIRPC.

2009 Before the Well Runs Dry: Ensuring Sustainable Water Supplies for Illinois was published as a joint initiative with Metropolitan Planning Council.

2017 Openlands launched Paddle Illinois Water Trails, a comprehensive guide for canoeing and kayaking on the waterways of northeastern Illinois.



Openlands recognizes the importance of urban forestry, both for residents of Chicago and the environment. Urban canopies reduce smog, provide oxygen, and lower storm water management costs while decreasing the flow of polluted water into Lake Michigan. In an urban environment, trees also assist in absorbing and blocking noise.

For over 25 years, Openlands’ staff and faculty, including Chicago region’s urban forestry experts, have taught volunteer TreeKeepers how they can help trees overcome the challenges of an urban environment to grow and thrive in the city. More than 1,800 TreeKeepers have completed the eight-day training course since the program’s founding in 1991 and have gone on to provide thousands of hours annually of volunteer work and advocacy for trees in Chicago and its suburbs. The program is designed to complement the work of the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Bureau of Forestry, and the Forest Preserves of Cook County, while showcasing the importance of “citizen responsibility.”

1987 Openlands launched NeighborWoods, Chicago’s first private volunteer tree planting and maintenance program. In 1989, NeighborWoods’ helped to prompt a major change in the City of Chicago’s stance on urban forestry, leading to improved tree maintenance and public education.

1988 Openlands coordinated Chicago’s first Christmas Tree recycling program.

1991 Openlands launched its Urban Forestry Policy Initiative, expanding the urban forestry technical committee to include more “city players” and representation from TreeKeepers.

1998 The Asian Long Beetle (ALB) was found in Chicago. TreeKeepers was the only citizen group to assist in halting the ALB outbreak mainly through infected tree identification. This assisted in the eradication of ALB from Chicago in 2008.

2006 The Emerald Ash Borer was first detected in Chicago and TreeKeepers were trained to monitor these beetles.

2014 The Chicago Region Trees Initiative began. The Morton Arboretum, Openlands, and other leading organizations from the Chicago Region formed a partnership to build a healthier and more diverse urban forest by 2040, and to leverage financial resources, knowledge, skills, and expertise in the field.



Openlands recognizes the value of education in raising awareness of conservation issues in our region. Openlands’ Neighborhood Open Space Planning program (1993) and Building Urban Gardens (1999) were both launched with a focus on fostering community involvement through nature in underserved Chicago neighborhoods.

Openlands currently works with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) in partnership with Healthy Schools Campaign to transform CPS schoolyards into vibrant places to play, learn, and be outside through a program called Space to Grow ©. Space to Grow has been built from a partnership with CPS that began in 2007 though the Building School Gardens Program. Through this program, Openlands works with CPS to create learning school gardens and to provide professional development opportunities to teachers and administrators.

Additionally, Openlands has seized specific opportunities for educational programming such as Eco-Explorations (2009) and Birds in My Neighborhood, which both invite students to learn about and interact with nature both in and out of the city. These programs are designed to inspire a long-term passion for the environment by forging critical connections between students and the nature in their communities.



Participation and leadership in large-scale, pioneering projects was only possible because of Openlands’ long view perspective: continually working to protect land and adapting to address external demands. Openlands adopts and implements long-term solutions that balance the growth of the greater Chicago region with the responsibility to protect open spaces and natural resources for generations to come.

Openlands’ vision for the region is a landscape that includes a vast network of land and water trails, tree-lined streets, and intimate public gardens within easy reach of every city dweller. It also includes parks and preserves big enough to provide natural habitat and to give visitors a sense of the vast prairies, woodlands, and wetlands that were here before the cities. In sum, Openlands believes that protected open space is critical for the quality of life of our region.