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Open Space & Offsetting Carbon Emissions
Updated June 2013

Sustainability Best Practice Area

Forests, parks, agricultural lands and open space serve as “carbon sinks” by storing greenhouse gas emissions that otherwise contribute to climate change. Co-benefits of preserving open space and protecting local agriculture may include: making recreational activities available to community residents and, in some cases, reducing vehicle miles traveled.


Plans and Policies

  • Include specific goals and policies designed to reduce carbon emissions in the open space element of the agency’s general plan.
  • Adopt a tree ordinance to protect urban forests, including protection for specific individual trees or tree species important to the community.
  • Adopt a ridgeline and hills ordinance to restrict grading and home building on hillsides as a way to enhance public safety and preserve open space.
  • Adopt a climate action plan that includes strategies to reduce carbon emissions through open space.
  • Adopt a policy to thin agency trees and remove brush on agency land, as feasible and appropriate, to reduce the threat of fire and release of carbon emissions from forest and range fires.
  • Adopt a policy to support waste-to-energy projects that use forest waste, food waste or other vegetative sources of methane and other greenhouse gases that would otherwise release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
  • Apply for designation as a Tree City USA community by the Arbor Day Foundation.


  • Increase the number, type and accessibility of parks and other recreational opportunities in the community, including promoting associated public health benefits.
  • Increase opportunities for recreational open space.
  • Build environmentally sustainable parks by incorporating reused and recycled materials, water-efficient landscaping and water-efficient technology systems.
  • Evaluate opportunities to convert closed solid waste landfills to parks or open space.

Habitat & Open Space

  • Protect natural lands through:
    • Partnerships with other agencies, stakeholders and non-profit organizations
    • Land acquisition
    • Conservation easements
    • Other long-term mechanisms
  • Evaluate habitat monitoring, management and restoration protocols to consider possible future impacts of changing climatic conditions.
  • Work with property owners, state and federal wildlife agencies to create a new or expanded multi-species habitat conservation plan.
  • Develop and implement a community-wide urban forestry management and reforestation program to increase the carbon storage potential of trees and other vegetation in the community.
  • Manage parks, open space, recreational facilities and other natural areas owned or operated by the agency to ensure the long-term health and viability of trees and other vegetation.
  • Remove invasive non-native plants in order to reduce risk of forest and grassland fires (and the associated greenhouse gas release) and promote sustainable native forests and grasslands.
  • Inventory existing trees on property owned or managed by the agency, including street trees, and implement a management system to preserve and enhance the tree system.
  • Plant native trees and drought tolerant vegetation throughout the community.

Agriculture and Food Purchases

  • Enact a policy to purchase locally grown food for agency food purchases, when feasible, to promote retention of local agricultural land uses.
  • Where feasible, direct new development away from open space and agricultural lands in order to take advantage of carbon storage opportunities.

Offsetting Carbon (Greenhouse Gas) Emissions

  • Achieve carbon neutrality at agency-sponsored events and activities through conservation, efficiency, recycling, alternative transportation and other strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Purchase and retire (put out of use) third-party verified greenhouse gas emission reduction credits.
  • Create incentives for community organizations, businesses and residents to reduce their carbon emissions, including the purchase of third-party verified greenhouse gas emission reductions.


Tree Planting

  • Provide tree planting resources and information on the agency website to encourage tree planting by residents.
  • Participate in regional tree planting efforts to mobilize and encourage the community to plant trees.
  • Create an agency-sponsored tree planting program that offers free shade and other trees to residents, businesses, schools and non-profits, as well as education about the care and benefits from trees. Collaborate with the local utility if it has a tree planting program to help get the word out.

Agriculture and Food Purchases

  • Assist efforts by community groups and non-profit organizations to create community gardens.
  • Encourage community gardens and farmers markets to support the availability of healthy, locally grown produce.
  • Provide financial incentives for low-income residents to purchase fresh produce at farmers markets in the community.
  • Promote the purchase of locally-grown produce through farmers markets and other measures.
  • Promote conservation tillage and other agricultural practices to retain carbon fixed in soils.
  • Host workshops to showcase community supported agriculture, farm-to-school programs and local organic farms.
The Institute gratefully acknowledges the following individuals who reviewed this best practice area and offered their comments:
  • Jesse Langley, Program Manager, Southern California Edison Company
  • Karen Gaffney, Conservation Planning Program Manager, Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District
  • Michelle Beasley, Senior Field Representative, Greenbelt Alliance
  • Pat Stoner, Local Government Energy Efficiency Statewide Coordinator, Local Government Commission

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