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Adapt or update municipal plans: Open Space Plans

Adaptation Strategies and Actions

Adapt or update municipal plans: Open Space Plans

Adaptation type: 
Land protection
Planning and prioritization
Policy, laws, and regulations


Update municipal plans - revise town level open space plans to address climate change impacts by considering climate change vulnerabilities, management of conservation land, and strategically prioritizing future areas for land protection.




Revise your town’s Open Space Plan to address climate change impacts and adaptation
What are Open Space Plans? | Incorporating climate change | Preparing an Action Plan

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston's North End. Credit: Joanna Woerner/IAN UMCES.
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway in Boston's North End. Credit: Joanna Woerner/IAN UMCES.

What are Open Space Plans?
“Planning provides the opportunity to assess where you are, where you would like to go, and how you might get there. “ – Massachusetts Open Space Planning Workbook

Open Space and Recreation Plans (Open Space Plans) help guide the protection and management of natural lands within a town or city. Open Space Plans allow a municipality to maintain and enhance all the benefits of open space that together make up much of the character of the community and protect its “green infrastructure.”  These plans also help create a greenway network that simultaneously will improve the quality of life of its neighbors and mitigates greenhouse gases through carbon storage.

"Open space" often refers to conservation land, forested land, recreation land, agricultural land, corridor parks and amenities such as small parks, green buffers along roadways or any open area that is owned by an agency or organization dedicated to conservation. However, the term can also refer to undeveloped land with particular conservation or recreation interest. This includes vacant lots and brownfields that can be redeveloped into recreation areas.

Plans lay out the goals and aspirations of the community and can advocate for protecting natural lands that support wildlife, recreation and ecosystem services, and outline patterns of land development to support them.

The Open Space Planning Process
Open Space plans also provide an excellent vehicle to begin comprehensive planning for community-level adaptation to climate change and can help ensure that investments in land protection and the management of protected areas stay relevant as the climate changes. The following guidance for incorporating climate change adaptation into Open Space Plans follows the plan structure required by the Executive Office for Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA) for all Massachusetts Open Space and Recreation plans.

Before embarking on or updating a plan, you will need to educate other members of the committee and any members of the community involved in the planning effort. Forming a climate adaptation subcommittee of the Open Space planning committee is a good way to start this effort. A subcommittee can help gather information, share ideas, and host public meetings or education sessions on climate change impacts and adaptation strategies prior to kicking off the planning effort. This Tool’s “Communicating Effectively About Your Work: Learn How to Talk About Climate Change” page is a useful source of information and the Learning About Climate Change page provides a basic primer on the impacts of climate change in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Open Space Plan workbook provides useful guidance on how to work through the open space planning process. Below are directions on how to incorporate climate change into the process steps and sections of the plan outlined in the planning workbook, with links to specific guidance available through the Climate Action Tool. 

Incorporating climate change into the Open Space Planning Process

Coastal wetlands at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newburyport, MA. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS.
Coastal wetlands at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newburyport, MA. Credit: Kelly Fike/USFWS.

1.       Set goals and objectives:

The climate adaptation subcommittee should review and revise existing goals and introduce new climate adaptation goals to the plan.  Goals should outline the desired impact of the plan, such as a desired future for the community and its natural resources. An example of a climate adaptation goal might be:

“To create a resilient, connected network of protected lands that supports high levels of biodiversity and other natural resources, and maintains the health and well-being of our citizens even as the climate changes.”

Explicitly incorporating climate adaptation goals into the open space plan will make it clear that the committee intends to consider adaptation to climate change throughout the plan.

Objectives are a formal statement detailing an outcome to be achieved by the plan or project, such as reducing a critical threat or conserving a certain amount of land. They help in determining the actions and strategies that need to be implemented to reach your goal. An objective of the above goal might be, “By 2025, protect 1,000 acres of core habitat as identified in the Massachusetts BioMap 2.”

Existing goals and objectives should be reviewed to understand how climate change might impact them. For example, a goal of managing healthy forests for timber, wildlife and recreation is likely to be impacted by climate changes that may alter species composition, invasive species? or other aspects of forest health. Use the Climate Action Tool where possible to assess how the targets (e.g., species, ecological communities, water resources) may be impacted by climate change and what actions are needed to protect these targets. A full-scale vulnerability assessment is another way to consider climate change impacts on your goals and objectives.

Goals and objectives can often be developed or revised as part of a visioning session or charrette. A public session like this can help the town outline their vision for open space and recreation in their community and provide a forum for participants to begin to grapple with how climate change may affect their region and how they can best prepare for it. Resources available for running charrettes are listed at the bottom of this page and the public engagement action provides useful tips.

2.       Collect data:

This involves gathering data on the community setting, environmental inventory, lands of interest for conservation and recreation, and developing maps to illustrate the data. Information on climate change impacts and possible adaptation options for the community should be assembled.

Some resources to include:

  • Information on species or habitat vulnerability to climate change: Use the Climate Action Tool to investigate the vulnerability of particular species or habitats. You may want to consider prioritizing habitat for species likely to be significantly affected by climate change.
  • Information on climate stressors in your community: Use the Climate Action Tool to learn more about climate stressors affecting your community
  • Map Information showing land needed to protect important wildlife and natural resources as the climate changes: Many of the pages included in the Climate Action Tool provide map information that is relevant to climate change adaptation. Sources for these map data are provided in the map captions.
  • Other resources on climate change impacts in Massachusetts are available on the Learning About Climate Change page.
'Area Closed' sign in Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge, Harvard, MA. Credit: Zachary Cava/USFWS.
'Area Closed' sign in Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge, Harvard, MA. Credit: Zachary Cava/USFWS.

3.          Analyze data:

As part of the planning process, conduct a climate change vulnerability assessment. This can be complex, or it can be kept simple with basic  projections. Information and tools for conducting assessments are available here. A full-scale vulnerability assessment can be time consuming and potentially expensive (and you may want or need to hire a consultant), but can also be extremely valuable for fostering a more complete understanding of which resources are most vulnerable in your community. Grants may be available to complete these assessments (see the resources section below).

Using maps that take into account climate change, you can begin assembling a new priority map for land conservation. Use GIS to overlay existing maps of protected lands or protection priorities with maps that show land priorities for climate change to determine the extent to which these priority areas have already been protected in your town. A town planner or conservation agent may be able to help with the GIS analysis.

Analyze how conservation land is currently being managed and make adjustments, as needed, for climate change. For example, if no management is happening on forested sites, are there thinning treatments or invasive species? control that needs to happen? Are there species on these sites that are likely sensitive to climate change and require habitat improvement measures? The Climate Action Tool includes many examples of actions that can be taken to manage land under the Manage My Land search button. Examples include protecting and maintaining cold water stream habitat, managing herbivory to improve tree regeneration, and preventing the introduction of invasive plants.

4. Prepare the Action Plan: Below, each section of the Open Space Plan is listed with suggestions of climate change information and considerations to include for each.

Preparing an Action Plan

Section 1: Plan Summary:
A.      Highlight any revisions made to the previous plan to undertake climate adaptation efforts.

Section 2: Introduction
A.      Statement of Purpose: Consider including a line that indicates that the plan will help to protect natural resources and public infrastructure in the community as the climate changes.

B.      Planning Process and Public Participation: Describe the public process that led to the plan’s development and outline steps that were taken to include climate change in the process.

Section 3: Community Setting
A.      Regional Context: It may be useful to include information about other towns or communities in the region who have addressed climate change in their open space or community conservation plans. If there are regional climate change plans available, these should be referenced here as well. This section could include discussions with other communities about shared natural resources that may be impacted by climate change. An important aspect of climate change adaptation is that large scale, strategic and coordinated conservation will lead to better outcomes for wildlife and natural resources. Connected landscapes that allow species to move and respond to climate change are particularly important. This makes regional coordination increasingly important and it will be in your community’s best interest to think about the regional context and work with neighboring towns to plan for the best network of open space and recreation lands.

B.      History of the Community: This does not change much with adaptation.

C.      Population Characteristics: Think about the community’s needs for open space and recreation and how a changing climate may impact these needs. Is climate change likely to disproportionately impact vulnerable populations in your community?

D.      Growth and Development Patterns: Consider how climate change may impact growth in your town. Is your town a coastal town that will see populations moving inland as the sea level rises? If so, is there room within the town for more inland development or will people be displaced to neighboring towns? Is your town inland from a major coastal city and therefore might in the future experience an influx of people as the population shifts in response to rising sea level? Is your community vulnerable to the flooding of low lying land around rivers and streams? Consider what this will mean for population growth and development patterns.

Hurricane Sandy marsh restoration at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS
Hurricane Sandy marsh restoration at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Margie Brenner/USFWS.

Section 4: Environmental Inventory and Analysis
A.      Geology, Soils and Topography: Capturing areas of high diversity in soils, geology and topography can be one way to conserve diverse habitats for the future. Collecting information on these features and mapping them within your community may help you prioritize a diversity of sites for land protection. For more, see the Strategic Land Protection action.

B.      Landscape Character: It might be helpful to describe how climate change may alter the landscape character and how that might impact the community. For example, in coastal communities, beaches, wetlands or other areas could be significantly altered by rising sea levels.

C.      Water Resources: Describe all water resources giving special attention to recreational access and identifying known water quality or quantity problems.  Addressing both coastal and inland flooding risk as the climate changes is particularly important. To address flooding risk, FEMA maintains a National Flood Hazard Mapper. The Climate Action Tool also contains information on Changes in Hydrology, Storms and Floods, and Sea Level Rise.

D.      Vegetation: State Natural Heritage Program data and BioMap 2 data can be used to help identify rare plant species and unique habitat areas in your town, which may be important conservation targets as the climate changes. You may also want to consider how forests and other plant communities may change as the climate changes. The Climate Action Tool contains information about current and projected forest communities and can help you to identify which vegetation communities may be particularly sensitive to climate change.

E.      Fisheries and Wildlife: Here you can use the Climate Action Tool to identify species in your community that may need special protection under climate change, as well as those that are less likely to be impacted. For a full listing of species that occur in your community use the Town Species Viewer from the MA Division of Fish and Wildlife. BioMap 2 can help you to interpret species information and prioritize habitat to protect a diversity of wildlife, including rare species. In this Tool, actions related to aquatic and terrestrial connectivity can also help identify lands that support wildlife connectivity across the landscape.

F.       Scenic Resources and Unique Environments: Consider how these resources may be vulnerable to climate change in the future. For example, scenic resources, such as beachfront conservation land, may be vulnerable to sea level rise. Unique environments, like bogs or spruce-fir forests, may be threatened by warming temperatures and changes in precipitation. Specific interventions may be required to protect these unique places.

G.       Environmental Challenges: In addition to the categories listed in the workbook, include a dedicated section on the impacts of climate change on the community. This includes a summary of the information that came out of public sessions, information gathered and incorporated into other portions of this plan, and description of the vulnerability assessment, if completed. Also consider how climate change may impact other environmental challenges, as some, such as invasive species?, may be exacerbated by climate change. As the workbook guidance suggests, it is best to consider all environmental challenges, including climate change, at both local and regional scales.

Section 5: Inventory of Lands of Conservation and Recreation Interest
This section identifies the protection status of parcels throughout the community. The workbook states that the “primary objective of this section is to consider all valuable open land and identify those parcels that are permanently protected open space, and those that are not protected and therefore vulnerable to adverse development.” As the community plans for adapting to climate change in the future, it is essential to have a clear picture of the current protection status of existing open space.

Section 6: Community Vision
It will be important to explicitly reference climate change here and highlight the related goals and objectives and why they are important. For updates to existing plans, it would be a good idea to highlight climate change as an important update throughout the text of the revised plan.

Section 7: Analysis of Needs
This section will allow the community to assess where the gaps are and identify problems and potential solutions, opportunities, and actions that can help to achieve the community’s vision and goals.

A.      Summary of Resource Protection Needs: Some key resource protection needs for climate adaptation might include: identifying gaps in wildlife corridors, enlarging conservation areas, or securing land necessary to protect water resources or prevent flooding. Refer to the Strategic Land Conservation page of the Climate Action Tool to help identify land protection priorities.

B.      Summary of Community's Needs: If surveys are designed to gather information about the community’s needs in terms of recreation and conservation, they should include questions about climate change.

C.      Management Needs, Potential Change of Use: This is a good place to highlight the need for additional staffing (or consultants) to plan for climate adaptation, or to highlight changes in existing land management practices that will be required as the climate changes.

Section 8: Goals and Objectives
Make sure to include climate adaptation goals and objectives in this section.

Section 9: Five-Year Action Plan
Specific climate adaptation actions for particular circumstances can be identified through the Climate Action Tool and incorporated in the plan to meet different climate objectives. Adaptation actions may also be needed to meet non-climate objectives. For example, the goal of managing town forest lands for productive forestry and recreation may not seem to be directly related to climate change, but in order to meet this goal as the climate changes, specific actions will be necessary that address and compensate for climate stressors. The tool has examples of these adaptation strategies and actions. Developing detailed actions and linking these directly to objectives will help to track progress towards the objective, measure outcomes, and outline the expected timeframe for completion.

A good resource on how to improve the effectiveness of strategic plans using “Results Chains,” is here.

To be eligible for open space grant funding from the state, a city or town must have a current and approved Seven-Year Open Space and Recreation Plan filed with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA). Approved plans make communities eligible for funding opportunities including Self-Help, Urban Self-Help, Land and Water Conservation Fund, and other grant programs administered by the EOEEA. Open Space and Recreation Plans also help to coordinate with ongoing acquisition efforts of state environmental agencies and local and regional land trusts.

Target Species, Species Groups, Habitats and Stressors

Habitats and Species Groups: 

Scope and Constraints

Ongoing action
Lower cost category
Moderate cost category
Higher cost category
Municipal or county jurisdiction required


National Fish Wildlife Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy Goal 1: Conserve habitat, diversity, and connectivity
National Fish Wildlife Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy Goal 3: Enhance capacity for management


1. Gibbons, J. (1998). Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO), University of Connecticut. Retrieved June 6, 2016, from Open Space Planning:

2. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (2008). Retrieved 2016, from Open Space and Recreation Planner’s Workbook:

Click link above to view references.

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