60 Years and Counting

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 understand that people are essential to nature.

60 years later, Openlands remains committed to urban conservation in Northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region.

Image from Openlands Archive

Founded as a program of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago.

Indiana Dunes
Indiana Dunes National Park in the 1960s

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore was authorized by Congress.

Beall Woods

Saved Beall Woods, which was a prime oak-hickory forest in southern Illinois.


Received IRS tax-exemption to separate from the Metropolitan Welfare Council.

Goose Lake Prairie

Saved Goose Lake Prairie, a 2,000-acre remnant of prairie, assisted by the Chicago Community Trust.

Lake Michigan Federation

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

Ryerson Woods
Ryerson Woods Lake County

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

McHenry County Conservation District
McHenry County Conservation District

Openlands helps pass a successful Referenda to establish the McHenry County Conservation District.

Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance
Vintage Lake Michigan

Supported and helped pass the Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, to preserve the lakefront from encroaching development.

North Park Village

Began working on preserving the former site of the Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium (now North Park Village).

Friends of the Parks

Openlands helps organize Friend of the Parks with the Business and Professional People for the Public Interest and the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council.

Friends of the Chicago River
Friends of the Chicago River

Friends of the Chicago River was established as a program of Openlands and has since become an independent organization.

Photography Exhibit

Completed the compilation of photographs for An Open Land: Photographs of the Midwest. 1852–1982 (funded partly by National Endowment for the Arts). Exhibit opened at the Art Institute of Chicago and travelled around the country for three and a half years through 1986.

Heritage Corridor Established

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

Tree planting in Chicago

Openlands launched NeighborWoods, Chicago’s first private volunteer tree planting and maintenance program.

Tree Recycling
Christmas Tree Recycling project in 1988

Openlands coordinated Chicago’s first Christmas Tree recycling program.

Urban Forestry Advances

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.

Open Space Plan

Openlands’ 21st Century Open Space Plan was launched.

Urban Forestry Policy Initiative
Urban Forestry Openlands

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

Greenways Plan

Northwestern Illinois Regional Greenways Plan was published.

Focus on Neighborhoods
Neighborhood Open Space Planning Openlands

Openlands’ Neighborhood Open Space Planning program was launched, with a focus on underserved Chicago neighborhoods.

Treemendous Trees

The first year of a Treemendous Trees program ended with more than 30 nominations received for the largest trees of each species growing in northeastern Illinois. A potential national champion and four possible state champions were identified. Morton Arboretum co-sponsored the program.

Losing Ground

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

Asian Long Beetle Outbreak
Asian Long Horn Beettle. Image by Dean Morewood, Health Canada, Bugwood.org

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.

Image by Dean Morewood

35th Anniversary Celebration
Terry Evans

Terry Evans photography exhibit, In Place of Prairie, opens at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of Openlands’ 35th Anniversary celebration.


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

Published Under Pressure

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

Building Urban Gardens
Chicago Urban Gardens

Building Urban Gardens program was launched with a focus on fostering community gardening through nature in underserved Chicago neighborhoods.

Tinley Creek-Bartel Grassland

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. 

Published Troubled Waters

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.

Millenium Park Photography Exhibit

Revealing Chicago: An Aerial Portrait photo exhibition opens at Millennium Park

Emerald Ash Borer

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

Image by Eric R. Day

Greenways & Blueways

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

School Gardens
School Support Grant

Building School Gardens Program began to create learning school gardens on CPS campuses and to provide professional development opportunities to teachers and administrators.

Published Before the Well Runs Dry

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


Openlands launched its Eco-Explorations program that connects classroom curriculum and lessons to nature at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve.

Opposing Tollway

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.

Hackmatack Established

After a decade of work, Hackmatack was established as the region’s first National Wildlife Refuge, with the vision of protecting an eventual 20,000 acres along the Illinois-Wisconsin border.


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

Birds in My Neighborhood
Birds In My Neighborhood Participant

Birds in My Neighborhood was launched with the goal to acquaint CPS students to nature by learning about and exploring birding in Chicago neighborhoods and surrounding large-scale landscapes

Published Study

Openlands published a study with Friends of the Chicago River caked “Our Liquid Asset: The Economic Benefits of a Clean Chicago River.”

Next Century Conservation Plan

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

Chicago Region Trees Initiative

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.

Space to Grow
Space to Grow®

Openlands 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.

Paddle Illinois

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

World Premiere

Openlands partners with Specktral Quartet for the world premiere of composer Tonia Ko’s Plain, Air at the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, which inspired the music.

Get Outside

Openlands launched the Get Outside Map, a comprehensive tool for connecting people to parks, preserves, natural areas, and trails in the region.

African American Heritage Water Trail

Openlands debuted the African American Heritage Water Trail along the Little Calumet River.

Scroll to Top