Chicago Plays! Informational Interviews Summary

BACKGROUND

History of Chicago Plays!

Grandfather and grandson blowing bubbles — Image by © Beau Lark/Corbis

In 2009, the City of Chicago began conducting needs assessments for playgrounds within the city’s expansive system of public parks. When the assessment concluded in 2011, over 300 playgrounds in parks across the city had been identified as needing repairs. In March 2013, the City began the Chicago Plays! program, a five-year playground renovation project. Parks were nominated for the program through a competitive application process developed by the Chicago Park District and the Friends of the Parks (FOTP), a local non-profit park advocacy organization. The application process was designed to empower residents to improve health in their communities by advocating for safe spaces for youth and family physical activity. In the fall of 2013, advocates representing parks across the city applied to receive the first round of playground renovations. 100 parks were nominated out of a possible 375, and 61 of those nominees were selected to receive the first round of renovations. The final playground of this round was renovated in 2014.

 

Illinois PRC Evaluation of Chicago Plays!             

The Illinois Prevention Research Center, based at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), is implementing an applied public health prevention research project that works with community stakeholders to promote community-wide physical activity by increasing community access to and use of public parks. The core research team for this project, led by UIC investigator Dr. Sandy Slater, recognized the Chicago Plays! program as a valuable natural experiment. Dr. Slater and her team are working to evaluate the program and understand its impacts on parks and community health.

In the immediate wake of the first round of Chicago Plays! renovations, Dr. Slater and her team reached out to successful applicants to obtain their feedback on the program. The names and contact information of applicants were gathered via snowball sampling, where existing study subjects recruited future subjects from their social circles. 47 individuals representing 47 parks were contacted via email in the summer of 2015. 27 agreed to participate and were scheduled to complete semi-structured phone interviews with a member of the research team. Meanwhile, an interview survey was developed with the guidance of Chicago Parks District staff. The survey asked interviewees to:

  • describe their experiences in park advocacy work, either in an individual capacity or as a member of a park advisory council (PAC) or community organization;
  • summarize their experiences with the Chicago Plays! application process;
  • comment on any assistance or support received from the Chicago Parks District during the application and renovation process;
  • reflect on the outcomes of the renovations;
  • summarize their hopes for their parks and communities going forward.

Each interview lasted about 30-45 minutes, and interviewees were compensated for their time. All interviews were recorded, transcribed and coded by members of the research staff.

 

MAIN FINDINGS

Description of Chicago Plays! Applicants

The interviews allowed PRC researchers to connect with a diverse sample of park advocates from across the city. These advocates ranged from retired professionals to stay at home parents to long-active community organizers. They represented a diverse array of parks with unique challenges and assets, from multi-acre greenspaces with many amenities and programs to small neighborhood “pocket” parks. Despite their differences, these advocates all shared a passion for Chicago’s greenspaces and a willingness to act as champions for their communities by pursuing opportunities to improve local health and well-being.

Most (n=24) interviewees described managing the applications as part of a community coalition or organization that existed prior to the introduction of the Chicago Plays! program. On average, these community entities had existed for 13.8 years, with the range spanning 1 to 65 years. Their membership base ranged from 4 to 35 dues-paying members.

Eight of the interviewees associating with a pre-existing group belonged to park advisory councils (PAC), official park advocacy groups recognized by the Chicago Park District and mandated to meet quarterly (although many meet monthly).  Seven interviewees were president of their PAC at the time of the application, while one was treasurer. The PAC members interviewed described their councils as being comprised of members from a wide variety of backgrounds and age groups. This diversity in membership was overwhelmingly viewed as a major asset. We’ve got a really great bunch of people,” said one interviewee of her council. “The current president is an event planner, so she’s amazing when it comes to developing programs. We have a woman who is a communication director [at a university], but she’s also an avid bird watcher, so she has a lot to contribute. Our treasurer is a professional accountant…we could use some more [members], but the ones we have are dynamite.”

The remaining 16 interviewees associating with a pre-existing group were members of various community organizations that took the lead in preparing applications for parks lacking an official PAC. These entities included parenting and faith-based groups, neighborhood associations and other civic organizations. Like the PAC members that were interviewed, members of these organizations also described their groups as having a diverse array of members, including stay at home parents and young and retired professionals from fields such as IT, accounting, law, business, ministry and education. Applicants described the Chicago Plays! opportunity as relating well to an organizational focus on community health and well-being. “We’ve been around since the ‘40s, and we are an advocacy group,” said one applicant of her neighborhood association. “It was natural for [us] to take a role when needed in the park.”

The remaining three applicants interviewed had little or no affiliation to a pre-existing PAC or community organization. They were simply passionate individuals who recognized a need for playground improvements in their communities. One applicant described herself as a parent interested in using the renovated playground with her own children, while the other two applicants described being motivated by a general realization that youth in their neighborhood lacked safe spaces to play. Despite their lack of affiliation with an official PAC, these individuals had a history of park involvement. They participated in park programming, stopped to pick up litter when visiting their parks, and had previously brought maintenance and safety concerns to the attention of the Park District. One heard about the Chicago Plays! program during a Park District meeting. Another received an email notification from the Park District, and the third was approached directly by her Park Supervisor and asked to complete an application. These individual park advocates went on to recruit several of their neighbors for help with the application. By doing so, they managed to form small impromptu park advocacy groups as a direct response to the program. One individual described how she became aware of the program through her past involvement with the parks, and went on to organize a small group in response: “In previous years I was the site captain for Earth Day clean-up, so I would always get the Friends of the Parks’ e-mails. So I got [the Chicago! Plays] e-mail and sent it out to a few neighbors and said, ‘Hey, is this anything anyone is interested in?’ and I just got an overwhelming response from the neighbors.” As another individual applicant explained, the Chicago Plays! program created a valuable opportunity for community members to “[come] together as neighbors” and collectively work towards the shared goal of neighborhood improvement.

Our interviews with such a diverse group of Chicago Plays! applicants reaffirmed that a narrow focus on applications generated by official PACs would have resulted in a lost opportunity to recognize and support the many community leaders advocating for Chicago’s parks. Our interviews with members of various non-PAC community groups illustrated the potential for these groups to continue to fulfill a well-defined park advocacy role in their communities, and perhaps even foster the future development of new official PACs.

 

Different levels of engagement with Chicago Park District 

The interviewees reported experiencing varying levels of engagement with the Chicago Park District throughout the Chicago Plays! process. Many interviewees described feeling little need to engage consistently with Park District staff during the initial application process because the application itself was relatively simple to complete. “It was pretty much self-explanatory,” said one interviewee who applied for the program as a member of a community organization. “If I had questions regarding what specifically they were looking for, I reached out and asked the question regarding that. But nothing more detailed than that.”

Other interviewees described feeling reluctant to reach out to the Park District for technical assistance. Some of these individuals mentioned having formed negative perceptions of the Park District through frustrating first-hand experiences with the agency that took place prior to the Chicago Plays! program. These interviewees felt that it was realistic to expect slow and depersonalized responses from the Park District, and they predictably tried to limit the amount of technical assistance that they sought from the agency while completing the Chicago Plays! application. Meanwhile, other respondents described a wariness of the Park District that seemed grounded in a more generalized dread of interacting with large government agencies. As one respondent explained, “Sometimes, the Park District can feel adversarial, so there’s that element, so it’s sort of like partnering with the DMV or something. You’re like, oh, that’s not exciting.”

However, our interviews also captured reports of positive experiences with individual Park District staff, particularly Park Supervisors. Many respondents described learning about the Chicago Plays! opportunity directly through their Park Supervisor. Park Supervisors were consistently praised as being supportive and engaged throughout the application and renovation processes at their parks. As one PAC member shared, “We have an amazing staff and supervisor at our park. There’s only so much that we would want them to do or needed them to do, but if there was anything, they were very helpful.” Reponses like these indicate that while the Park District as a whole might have an intimidating reputation, staff members at individual parks are largely perceived as being sensitive and responsive to the needs of grassroots park advocates.

 

Renovations received mostly positive community response, increased park usage

Woman walking with hand weights — Image by © Terry Vine/Blend Images/Corbis

When asked to reflect on the outcomes of the Chicago Plays! program, interviewees overwhelmingly responded that the renovations resulted in increased park usage.  They described the playground renovations as addressing many of the safety issues that had long kept youth and families away from their neighborhood parks, in some cases for generations. One interviewee noted that the Chicago Plays! program marked the first time in 20 years that his neighborhood playground had been renovated. The most frequently referenced renovations included repairs to swings, the spreading of new surface wood chips, and the replacement of sandboxes and other equipment deemed outdated and hazardous. One interviewee provided a pre- and post-renovation comparison of her park that neatly summarized many of the experiences shared during the interviews: “Before, because a lot of the equipment was broken and damaged, the kids would actually just sit around…versus actually utilizing the playground. But now, every time you go by, there’s tons of kids. Which is a really great feeling, that they’re using what we have.”

Many interviewees explained that, in addition to being structurally safer, much of the new playground equipment encouraged the presence of a wider age range of children. Several interviewees praised the inclusion of new swings specifically designed for infants. Others appreciated the construction of new climbing structures designed to promote physical activity in older children. There’s a whole range of ages at that park now,” said one interviewee, “that weren’t there for the past five, ten years.”

Many interviewees claimed that the renovated playgrounds and the enhanced presence of children and families made the entire parks safer and more welcoming. “With the new renovations, I can see more people in the community coming out” said one PAC member. The playground renovations encouraged his PAC to implement more programming throughout the park, and he anticipated a steady increase in visitors “as we increase the park and its activities and gangs [in the park] begin to weed out completely.” Another interviewee suggested that the playground renovations spurred the implementation of other safety measures that made all areas of his park more accessible. “The playground also influenced…the Park District to make sure that everything that needed to be fixed would be fixed, [like] painting the building, fixing the fence, putting up lights in the park…” Other respondents described seeing more teenagers playing on basketball courts, dog-walkers roaming green spaces, and older adults strolling on walking trails. One interviewee praised the diversity of the residents that she observed in her neighborhood’s newly renovated playground. “[The park] is very well used. It wasn’t before, nobody wanted to go to it because it was a mess. [Now] there’s lots of activity. I think it is bringing the different components, the different ethnic components, of our neighborhood together. It’s just really beautiful.”

The park advocates that we interviewed stressed that this overall increase in park traffic was an anticipated and highly desired outcome of the Chicago Plays! playground renovations. Most interviewees indicated that the larger groups of park patrons interacted positively with one another, as the renovations inspired a sense of community pride and well-being. “Everybody seemed to look and see [the renovations]”, remarked one interviewee. “So there was no vandalism or anything like that. In general, people gathered around the fact that some life was coming into the park and into the neighborhood.” Another expressed her belief that the renovations, in addition to contributing to increased park traffic, inspired more effective and positive means of communication in her park. “It’s more pleasant,” she said. “People see that something is nice in the neighborhood and they want to keep it, so they begin to communicate more, [and be] more sensitive with each other as well as with the playground itself.”

 

Increased park usage resulted in occasional disagreements among park patrons

Some of the park advocates that we interviewed acknowledged that boosts in park traffic can highlight disagreements between groups of park patrons with different, and occasionally conflicting, opinions regarding the proper use of park spaces and equipment. For example, one interviewee described seeing larger groups of older children playing on his park’s new equipment occasionally block smaller children from accessing it. The renovations reaffirmed the need, he said, for a “little bit more negotiation and navigation between the different groups and the different ages.” Another was pleased that the renovations were attracting larger groups of youth to his park, but acknowledged that the noise and crowd levels bothered some community members who were accustomed to a quieter park environment.  “Unfortunately what we have run into is what [the children who use the park] are interested in is really not what general…residents of the community are interested in. It’s kind of like trying to find a balance, but also not dismissing the park goers, their thoughts as well.”

 

Two years after renovations

In Summer 2016, two years after the playground renovations occurred, follow-up phone interviews were conducted with the 27 interviewees.  Though the response rate at two years was much lower (n=7 interviews), some insight was gained as to continued usage and engagement with renovated parks.  All seven follow-up interviewees reported a sustained increase in park usage when compared to pre-renovation usage, with five of seven reporting an even greater number of people at two, than at one year.  Some noted that people seemed to be traveling from other parts of the city to visit the renovated parks.  At two years post-renovation, minor graffiti had been reported at a few of the parks, however there were no major maintenance issues with the new park equipment. Four of the seven park advocates described ongoing clean-up efforts by park users and neighbors between one and two years, with reports to park supervisors when needed.   One park advocate did note the missed opportunity to incorporate environmentally-conscious park equipment and natural play features.

Most park advocates have reported a continued positive relationship with the Chicago Park District.  While most maintenance issues have been resolved directly with the park supervisor, there has been support from the central office in hosting and promoting events such as Night in the Parks.  Additionally, several of the respondents noted the desire for further improvements to their parks.

Of the seven 24-month respondents, two belonged to a Park Advisory Council, four belonged to a neighborhood organization, and one participated on behalf of the museum that completed the initial application for its neighboring park. Six of these seven organizations all existed prior to the Chicago Plays! Program and six of them continue to focus on park improvements and events.  Of the seven 24-month respondents, two went on to form new park advisory councils after the Chicago Plays! Program. However, based on the response rate at 24 months, many individuals who originally completed the Chicago Plays! application, may no longer be involved for a variety of reasons.  Of the remaining 20 respondents from 12 months, 2 respondents were reached, but are no longer involved with the parks, and 18 could not be reached after several attempts of contact by phone and email. Based on a web search from May 2017, 13 of the 27 original respondents have active Park Advisory Councils and 5 have active neighborhood organizations that are still involved with the parks.

Overall, at two years, the seven respondents were very pleased to report that usage at the renovated parks remained high and that community members continued to enjoy the new equipment.  “I live near and walk by and do see it – it seems way more crowded than before the renovations, it’s more popular than ever, and safer and cleaner, too.”

 

CONCLUSION

Our interviews with the initial round of successful Chicago Plays! applicants offered meaningful insights into the park and neighborhood improvement efforts taking place across the city. The interviews highlighted opportunities to further support the efforts of diverse park advocates by:

 

  • Creating more consistent opportunities for collaboration

Chicago Plays! Community Support Chart by the ©Illinois PRC

Many members of PACs and community groups that we interviewed cited their group’s diversity as a major functional asset. Internal collaboration amongst members with a wide range of interests, skills and backgrounds allows for these groups to generate new ideas and resources. However, there was little mention of this kind of collaboration taking place between separate PACs and organizations. As a result, there remains a clear need for initiatives that support networking amongst regional and non-regional PACs, community organizations and other park advocates. We recognize that one free networking opportunity already exists in the form of the Chicago Park District’s PAC Conference. However, this event only takes places once a year, and is only open to members of registered PACs. The facilitation of more frequent opportunities for collaboration, open to a wider variety of attendees, could allow for stronger mentoring relationships to develop between different groups of park advocates. Ideally, these mentoring relationships would be as mutually beneficial as possible. For example, two separate neighborhood groups seeking official PAC status might join together in order to help one another navigate the application process. A young PAC struggling to raise funds might seek advice from an older PAC with extensive fundraising experience; in return, the newer PAC might help the older PAC recruit younger volunteers for labor-intensive park maintenance activities.

 

  • Leveraging positive relationships with Park Supervisors

Through our interviews, we recognized that one of the most important relationships that park advocates develop is one with their Park Supervisors. Park Supervisors often work closely with park advocates to address maintenance and safety issues and implement programming. As a result, despite some reports of negative perceptions of the overall Park District, the interview responses largely indicated that park advocates cultivate supportive relationships with Park Supervisors. Any work to support park advocates going forward should actively seek to build on the foundation of trust underlying these relationships, and engage Park Supervisors in their unique role as links between communities and the Chicago Park District.

 

  • Supporting efforts to provide on-going park maintenance

Interviewees were asked to submit plans for post-renovation park upkeep as part of their Chicago Plays! application. Many park advocates mentioned that the playground renovations were actually inspiring more park patrons to pick up litter or report a maintenance issue. However, because the renovated parks are receiving more traffic, there is the potential for maintenance issues to occur more frequently from simple wear-and-tear. There still appears to be a need to help park advocates recruit regular maintenance volunteers, and keep volunteer enthusiasm from completely fizzling out over time as the renovations age.

 

  • Supporting community engagement efforts

    Young man and woman with kids (7-10) working in garden

Connecting with other park advocates and recruiting a steady supply of maintenance volunteers is ultimately linked to a capacity for community engagement. Maintaining a level of community engagement may be seen as an even more vital activity for park advocates now that increased traffic at renovated parks is requiring some adjustments in how different groups of park patrons navigate the use of park resources. The Chicago Plays! program was widely valued by the interviewees as an opportunity to engage diverse groups of residents in meaningful discussions about community issues and goals. The end of the program can make continuing this engagement challenging, especially for the newly established PACs who developed in response to Chicago Plays! and are still attempting to formally establish themselves in their neighborhoods. One interviewee described the difficulties that her organization faced when trying to organize a community engagement event in her park after the program ended: “We really wanted to put a block party together to celebrate the new park, just not in an official capacity, but just to get the community together. Unfortunately, everybody was just so busy, we weren’t able to pull it together.” Another interviewee expressed uncertainty regarding his ability to remain in contact with other community members post-renovation: “We all still have each other’s e-mails, we have each other’s phone numbers, we see each other when we’re out and about. We do have an understanding that there’s a couple of things that we want to see happen in the park, that we know that we want to work on in the future. It’s just when are we going to find time and when are we going to get together?” Responses like these clearly indicate a need to support park advocates in their efforts to maintain high levels of post-renovation community engagement.

Specifically, we perceive an opportunity to help PACs, community organizations and other park activists plan, fund and host community engagement events similar to the official Chicago Plays! kick-off events, which were widely described as being well-attended and enjoyed by community members of all ages. These events would ideally be low-cost or donation-based, and would feature food and entertainment for children and adults. Most importantly, the events would help foster a welcoming environment that promotes community inclusivity and progress. As one interviewee said, park-based events can be excellent opportunities to facilitate community discussion. “If you create a safe place for people to let off steam, and a safe place for people to come together and talk, the community always gets better.”

 

Next Steps

Our next steps involve continuing to engage the park advocates involved with the Chicago Plays! program as they discuss their experiences and goals for implementing new park programs, enhancing park maintenance and safety, and fostering leadership and community engagement. We are grateful to this first round of advocates for sharing their experiences and insights, and we are looking forward to learning more and highlighting these lessons in future work.