Seven people per hour make the Puget Sound region their new home, with this population explosion impacting biodiversity, social equity, and human health. Compounded by the challenges of climate change and uneven economic development, it has become urgent to coordinate efforts across the hundreds of jurisdictions and non-profit organizations to protect, enhance and connect a regional open space network accessible to all. The Regional Open Space Strategy (ROSS) is a multi-scale planning effort established to address this need. The project 1) brought together local governmental and NGO leaders to envision a robust, connected green infrastructure system from urban to wild; 2) analyzed the ecosystem services provided by the region’s open spaces; and 3) identified priority, multi-benefit projects at watershed and regional scales. The ROSS team also developed planning tools to account for the value of open space and catalyzed governance, finance and advocacy mechanisms to implement the regional vision.
The Central Puget Sound region is comprised of eight major watersheds and four counties in the Greater Seattle Metropolitan Area, stretching from the crests of the Cascade Mountains to the shorelines of Puget Sound. The current and expected population growth is projected to severely strain the region’s natural resources, threatening the environmental assets that have defined the region and fueled its economic growth and quality of life. While numerous efforts are aimed at protecting and restoring Puget Sound landscapes and waters, government and non-profit initiatives have been uncoordinated and inadequately funded to confront major challenges at an effective scale. While conservation and enhancement of the region’s landscapes can help to provide resilience to challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and health equity, current economic and natural resource decision-making processes fail to account for the full value of natural capital, leaving open space investments consistently under-funded and under-prioritized.
Project Overview and Goals
The Regional Open Space Strategy (ROSS) is a collaborative effort led by landscape architects and planners to integrate and elevate the many activities underway to conserve and enhance the ecological, economic, and cultural vitality of the Central Puget Sound region. With a collective, integrated vision and coordinated system, planners and decision-makers will be able to consider actions in light of their regional significance and priority, potentially drawing greater investment to the region’s infrastructure, and more efficiently use available resources. Accounting for the full values that open spaces yield will recognize multi-benefit potential and inform landscape planning and investment.
To achieve this, the ROSS adopted four primary goals:
For the past five years, the ROSS has advanced an all-embracing definition of “open space,” incorporating recreational spaces and trails, healthy ecosystems, working landscapes such as farms and forests, and community parks and open space amenities. The project began with development of a “Preliminary Comprehensive Strategy,” which engaged over 100 stakeholder representatives to identify the desired qualities of a regional green infrastructure system and to create a process roadmap for establishing such a system. That plan recommended working with communities at the scale of individual river watersheds contributing to Puget Sound, while simultaneously developing tools and processes to measure and emphasize regional connections and to merge visions and prioritized actions into a regional whole. The Preliminary Strategy called for an integrated spatial vision that optimizes open space benefits, applying landscape ecology and ecosystem services concepts to guide decision-making and promote open space conservation values, from urban to rural to wild.
Valuing the Region’s Landscapes to Address Regional Challenges
The ROSS team and its partners defined five regional challenges for which open space could contribute solutions: biodiversity conservation; climate change; social equity; health; and economic vibrancy. We convened expert task forces to develop “green” papers documenting the role of open space in addressing each of these regional challenges, posted on the project’s website. The team identified sixteen categories of “open space services,” adapted from the traditional ecosystem services rubric, to provide a valuation format that better incorporates social and cultural benefits. Using this framework, staff worked with economists to quantify the economic value of the 4-county region’s existing open spaces. The model indicates the contribution of open spaces to the economy of between $11- $25 billion annually, and with an asset value of approximately $825 billion. The team and partners created a prototype of an interactive GIS web tool to model and convey the open space services delivered by the region’s landscapes, including their relevance to addressing the five regional challenges; the full tool buildout is currently in process and is expected to be freely available in the fall, to inform open space conservation and enhancement scenarios and decision-making.
Watershed Open Space Strategies
Working with local governmental and advocacy groups, the ROSS team produced three Watershed Open Space Strategies (WOSSes) to identify targeted local strategies, projects and actions that would inform development of the overarching Regional Strategy. Prioritized projects were those that would require outside assistance and collaboration, would contribute most to the development and function of the inter-watershed, regional open space system, and which would provide maximum open space values. While each of the three watershed studies employed different processes that reflected the unique needs and capabilities of the different watersheds, each engaged local advisors and advocates in the analysis and planning process through a series of interactive meetings and workshops.
The first, the Puyallup-White Watershed WOSS, worked with established local “communities of interest” to identify regional trail gaps, threatened farmlands, areas of regular flooding, open space “deserts” near urban populations, and unprotected areas of highest ecological integrity. Three major integrated ideas emerged: a “Green Y” target area to capture multiple benefits of farmland preservation, trail connections, floodplain expansion and open space provision for underserved communities, currently contributing an estimated $7M to the regional economy annually in agricultural products; preservation of the White River Corridor focusing on riparian enhancement; and a “Greater Rainier Coalition” to promote conservation and expand recreation-related economic activities in the communities surrounding Mount Rainier.
For the highly populous Green-Duwamish Watershed Strategy, we employed an intensive expert-engagement process of interviews, focus groups and open houses in a “Listening” phase to establish a thorough baseline of existing conditions, initiatives and plans. The project’s Watershed Advisory Group identified priority foci for the watershed strategy as social equity, a comprehensive approach to connected open space, and integration of stormwater planning. For the Snohomish WOSS, our staff mapped extensive GIS data and identified ecosystem service “hot spots” to inform subsequent planning. We then worked with county, state, municipal and non-profit planners to create and evaluate spatial scenarios, to understand the multiple benefits of potential collaborative actions and proposals.
Developing Regional Spatial Strategies
The ROSS team applied outcomes from the Watershed Strategies, GIS data, expert and advocate engagement, and measurement of open space values to identify the most critical landscapes to conserve, restore, and provide public access in the four-county region. The preliminary regional spatial vision identifies targeted priority action areas, addressing urban and rural agricultural lands and forests; needed trail connections; added recreation and community open space; habitat protection and restoration; and flood hazard and stormwater impact reduction. Using digital flyover software, we are incorporating three-dimensional video flythrough representation of the interconnected spatial priorities in a video that presents the key components of the Preliminary Regional Spatial Strategy.
Governance, Funding and Implementation
Continued development and implementation of the ROSS will be advanced by exploring the prospect of tasking the quasi-governmental agency for the 4-county area, the Puget Sound Regional Council, with open space planning, and by formalizing a convening coalition of nonprofit, government, and businesses to continue advocacy and communication, refine planning, attract and administer funding, and cultivate a collaborative regional community to protect, enhance and steward the region’s landscapes. The ROSS compendium of multi-scalar analysis and planning products and ecosystem/open space service studies and tools will support both of these parallel processes. By expanding the role of landscape architecture, the ROSS project has established a solid foundation and fostered an alliance between a broad spectrum of agencies and organizations that, together, can sustainably achieve multi-dimensional, integrated priorities for regional open space protection and enhancement.
"The ROSS represents a real opportunity to develop a national model for doing conservation right at the regional scale” - Ron Sims, former Deputy Director of H.U.D.
UW Green Futures Lab: