An open space system consists of several components, including parks, trails, natural areas, greenways, and farmland. The land is publicly or privately owned and may or may not be protected. Open space enhances a community’s aesthetic character and quality of life. The need for open space planning increases as the communities of the Lehigh Valley continue to grow.
To help communities plan and implement a park and open space system that their citizens’ desire, in 2009 the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) developed a benchmarking tool for parks and recreation, replacing the previous single set of standards. NRPA Park Metrics is the most comprehensive source of data benchmarks and insights for park and recreation agencies, allowing a comparison to peers.
Open Space Plans
In response to recommendations made by the LVPC, Lehigh and Northampton counties started major countywide park programs in the late 1960s. The counties and the LVPC have been actively involved in park planning, acquisition and development ever since. In 1971, the LVPC completed the first Regional Recreation and Open Space Plan (updated in 1980). Subsequently in 1997 LVPC staff prepared the report Lehigh County Parks — 2005 and in 2002 wrote Northampton County Parks — 2010. A comprehensive update of our trails data was completed and a report was produced in 2009 and updated in 2013. The Livable Landscapes plan for each county updates this information..
The Lehigh County Livable Landscapes plan was developed through collaboration between LVPC and Lehigh County with the intent of guiding future park, recreation, open space and agricultural land efforts within the County.
The focus of the plan is on environmentally-sensitive areas, farmland, trails, outdoor recreation, historic and cultural areas, economic benefits and the overall quality of life within Lehigh County. The plan was developed through a robust public engagement program and identifies goals, policies and recommended actions that will define the desired future of Lehigh County.
The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC), in collaboration with Northampton County, developed an open space plan to guide future conservation and outdoor recreation efforts within the county. The focus of the plan is on environmentally sensitive areas, farmland, trails, outdoor recreation, historic and cultural areas, economic benefits (see Return on Environment), and the overall quality of life within Northampton County.
A vision for Northampton County’s open space network defines the desired future of open space in the county. Further, the Northampton County 21st Century Open Space Guidelines were reviewed and updated as part of the plan. These guidelines provide information for applicants to obtain county funding to preserve natural areas and farmland and to acquire, develop, or rehabilitate municipal parks.
A greenway is defined as a corridor of open space, that may vary greatly in scale from narrow strips of green that run through urban, suburban and rural areas to wider corridors that incorporate diverse natural, cultural and scenic features. Greenways are a critical component of any landscape. They protect the environment, provide alternate routes of transportation, supply recreational opportunities, and connect natural and cultural areas to one another providing a linear resource for a variety of users. Connectivity is the defining characteristic that distinguishes greenways from isolated paths and pockets of open space. While individual parks, preserved lands, undisturbed natural areas and waterways are valuable resources in and of themselves, their conservation and recreational value is compounded when they are linked together.
This 2013 update, in addition to incorporating updated trail information, includes two new components: identifying priority trail gaps and providing guidelines to designing safe road crossings for trails. These two new components are part of a statewide effort by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to help organizations and municipalities implement trail initiatives. There is a lot of interest in trails in the Lehigh Valley, and this compilation of trail efforts provides municipalities, counties, and conservation partners a tool in advancing the development of the Lehigh Valley trail network. The trails information is constantly evolving, and the county Livable Landscapes plans plus the Walk/RollLV plan provide updates on open, proposed and conceptual trails.
Lehigh and Northampton counties have some of the best farmland in Pennsylvania. This land is being converted to housing, commercial and industrial uses. Most agricultural areas of the Lehigh Valley are under intense development pressure. Lehigh Valley residents think preserving farmland is important. Voters in Lehigh and Northampton counties have strongly supported open space and farmland preservation bond issues. Farmland preservation efforts have mostly focused on agricultural easement acquisition by the counties.
Agricultural security areas have been designated in both counties. To qualify for the agricultural easement program land must be in an agricultural security area, which is created under voluntary agreements between the property owner and the municipality. Under the agricultural easement program the property owner sells rights to develop land for nonagricultural purposes to the county. The property owner continues to own and farm the land. Municipalities can preserve farmland through local zoning controls. To be effective these controls must exclude uses other than agriculture, farm residences and accessory uses in agricultural areas and they must curtail subdivision development. Effective zoning practices have not been popular in the Lehigh Valley.
The areas recommended for farmland preservation in FutureLV: The Regional Plan were defined based on existing agricultural lands, existing agricultural easements, locally designated agricultural security areas, high priority soils and their proximity to other farms. Large clusters of lands with these characteristics were defined as High Preservation Priority with smaller clusters defined as Medium Preservation Priority.