Open Space & Greenways

sunny meadow surrounded by trees

What is Open Space?

Open space is natural land that has not been converted to residential or commercial development. It includes forests, greenways, parks, meadows, wetlands, floodplains and farms. The County partners with municipalities to construct greenways.

Open space land is owned and managed in the public interest for:

  • Protection of good water quality.
  • Preservation of natural resources.
  • Managed production of resources (forest and farmland).
  • Preservation of historic and cultural property.
  • Protection of scenic landscapes and outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • Protection of public health, safety and welfare.

Open Space & Greenways

Wake County’s Consolidated Open Space Plan

Wake County's Open Space Program strives to protect the remaining natural lands in the county in partnership with local non-governmental organizations, municipalities and state/federal agencies. The program's overarching objective is to protect 30% of Wake County’s land area (or roughly 165,000 acres) as permanent open space.

Open space acquisition is primarily funded through voter approved general obligation bonds. The County has done three previous bonds in 2000 ($15 million), 2004 ($26 million) and 2007 ($50 million). Most recently the County did a combined Parks, Greenways, Recreation and Open Space bond of which $20 million was dedicated to open space. These funds are used primarily for land acquisition and planning. Early on in the program, the County supported each of the municipalities in creating its own open space plans before combining attributes from individual municipal plans with county-level priorities to create an integrated, countywide Consolidated Open Space Plan. Open Space staff work to implement the recommendations of the COSP and protect key parcels of land through leveraging County bond monies and purchasing land and conservation easements in targeted conservation areas.


In 2011, the City of Raleigh approached Wake County about partnering to construct the Neuse River Greenway to benefit residents in both the incorporated and unincorporated areas of the county. After this project, Wake County has continued to partner with municipalities on greenway projects under the guidance of the 2017 Wake County Greenway System Plan (Updated September 2018).

Greenway partnerships are considered through a solicitation process that generally runs in parallel with the open space land acquisition process. Staff send each municipality a letter inviting them to submit partnership proposals, including project scope, cost estimates, funding requested from the County. County staff provide a recommended slate of greenway partnerships to the Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee for input. The recommendation is then forwarded to the Board of Commissioners. If the commissioners concur with the recommendation, staff will negotiate interlocal agreements with the selected municipalities and bring those agreements back to the Board of Commissioners for final review and approval.

Benefits of Open Space & Greenways

As Wake County’s population grows, natural lands are being converted to suburbia at a rapid rate. To balance this pressure on the natural environment and ensure future generations will have access to greenspace, Wake County government has recognized the need to protect a portion of the county’s remaining natural land.

Protecting open space and constructing greenways will generate an interconnected system of greenspaces that attract homeowners and businesses; prevent economic losses from floods and costly pollution; support a clean water supply; and produce fresh air, fertile soils and biologically diverse landscapes. The Open Space Program's investment in the preservation of working lands (farms and forests) will also help support a vibrant agricultural economy that has historically defined much of the county’s sense of place.

Economic Benefits

Open space, especially buffers along our streams and wetlands, prevents economic loss from floods and costly pollution, attracts new business and industry, and increases property values. Attractive areas are more desirable to developers as they increase the value of nearby land, and owners of buildings or properties that contain or overlook these areas can command premium rents. Recreational opportunities also encourage corporations to bring their headquarters to this area. Wake County studies have found that homes sell for significantly more money – and therefore generate higher property taxes – if they are located closer to any type of open space.

Water Quality Benefits

We need water for drinking, boating, swimming and fishing, so improving our water quality by buffering wetlands and streams is one of the most powerful benefits of preserving open space. Rivers become polluted when rainwater picks up motor oils, fertilizers, litter, pesticides and other pollutants and then "runs off" into streams and creeks, which empty into rivers, lakes, estuaries and the ocean. Every time a site is developed with parking lots, roads and buildings, the amount of water that soaks into the ground is reduced, and the amount running off increases. Any land that remains undisturbed does not contribute pollutants to our streams and lakes. Open space, particularly open space surrounding streams, lakes and rivers, usually contains natural vegetation that serve as filters, removing pollutants before they are deposited into our water bodies.

Recreational Benefits

Recreational opportunities are important to quality of life, and greenways are an excellent way to provide active and passive recreational opportunities to our residents and visitors. Greenways create a network of bicycling and walking trails throughout the county, enabling people to choose alternate means of transportation other than cars, and encourage activities such as jogging or simply walking in the woods.

Wildlife Benefits

In some cases, open space areas contain endangered plants and animals. One of the biggest causes of the decline in animal and plant populations worldwide is loss of habitat. Every type of animal and plant needs certain things from its home in order to prosper. If too much of an animal's or plant's habitat is developed for other uses, it may not be able to adapt to its new circumstances and may leave, become or endangered, or even extinct. Protecting large, contiguous tracts of land and maintaining good water quality are important for healthy wildlife habitat.

Our Sense of Place

As author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner said, "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are."

By supplementing agriculture, farms and scenic vistas, open space helps offset the visual impact of our growing cities and towns. Our culture and history are seen in our open space and best articulated in the stewardship of the land. Our community grew along the creeks and streams that flow from abundant watersheds throughout the county. Our rolling terrain has been the building block for our agricultural and industrial economy. Our natural history has served to define who we are as well as where we live. Preserving open space and creating greenways to connect them conserves the cultural and historical landscapes of Wake County for future generations.