Natural Environment Element

The Natural Environment Element in the Comprehensive Plan addresses the management of open land and natural resources in Palo Alto and the protection of life and property from natural hazards. It is one of the broadest elements of the Comprehensive Plan. The existing 1998 Comp Plan Element satisfies the requirements for four of the State- mandated General Plan elements:

  • Open Space—with policies describing the use of open space for the preservation of natural resources, the managed production of natural resources, outdoor recreation, and public health and safety.
  • Conservation—with policies to protect creeks and riparian areas, wetlands, the urban forest, water resources, wildlife, and air quality; to regulate and limit the use and transport of hazardous materials; and to minimize solid waste disposal and promote clean energy.
  • Safety—with policies describing how exposure will be reduced to natural hazards such as earthquakes, flooding, and wildfires.
  • Noise—with policies to decrease exposure to undesirable levels of noise in the community.

The Current Plan: A Solid Foundation

Palo Alto has vast open space resources for a city of our size. The Natural Environment Element seeks to protect the 29 neighborhood and district parks, in addition to the Baylands, Foothills Park, Montebello and Arastradero Preserves, and Barron, Matadero, and San Francisquito Creeks. All of these areas provide important habitat, scenic, and recreational value.

With more than 300 tree species, Palo Alto’s urban forest is an extension of the natural woodland and grassland plant communities and provides a bridge for wildlife between the foothills and the Bay. The Element supports this resource both for its biological benefits and contribution to the aesthetic appeal of Palo Alto.

The Natural Environment Element has also proven effective in protecting the health and safety of our community by limiting noise and exposure to hazards. Most of its policies will be carried over into Our Palo Alto 2030, including:

  • Seeking opportunities for adding open space, including connections between Skyline Ridge and San Francisco Bay.
  • Re-establishing riparian and other natural features that have been diminished by development, and protecting surface and ground water from pollutants.
  • Expanding the urban forest, including by requiring development to provide landscaping and street trees.
  • Conserving water and energy, and securing long-term water supplies and renewable, clean energy.
  • Reducing waste, recycling construction materials, and encouraging reusable, returnable, recyclable, and repairable goods.
  • Protecting the community from noise, air pollution, hazardous chemicals, and natural hazards.

Our Palo Alto 2030

To better describe its importance and respond to new trends that have emerged over the past decade, Our Palo Alto 2030 features a renamed Natural Environment Element. Based on City Council direction, air pollution, hazardous chemicals, and natural hazards have been moved into a new, separate Safety Element.
The updated Natural Environment Element adds new concepts that include:

  • Monitoring and adapting to impacts caused by climate change.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • Actively supporting regional efforts to reduce the community’s contribution to climate change while adapting to the effects of climate change on land uses and City services.
  • Balancing conservation with improved open space access and encouraging low impact recreational use.
  • Addressing State regulations requirements for transportation noise generated from roadways, airways, and railways, and limiting noise impacts to existing and future homes, schools, senior centers, and other sensitive receptors.

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Vision Statement

“Palo Alto will meet today’s needs without compromising the needs of future generations. Palo Alto will respect and manage natural resources in a way that sustains the natural environment and protects our foothills, baylands, creeks, parks, urban forest, wildlife and open space legacy. A substantial portion of the City will remain as open space. Even in built-up areas, the network of parks will provide access to nature and an urban forest will provide ecological and health benefits and a source of beauty for residents. Palo Alto will strive for clean air and clean water. Policies and programs will foster energy and water conservation. Finally, the City will maintain a sustainable water supply for the future, and facilitate the implementation of climate change adaptation strategies.”


Click here to view the 1998 Comp Plan version of the Natural and Urban Environment and Safety Element.

Click here to view the June 30, 2017 version of the Natural Environment Element.

Click here to view all CAC meetings where this Element was discussed.