Illinois PRC Evaluates $44 Million Playground Renovation Program

Illinois PRC Evaluates $44 Million Playground Renovation Program

The Chicago Park District (CPD) maintains nearly 600 neighborhood parks and serves Chicago’s 2.7 million residents. In 2013 when the CPD began the process of renovating playgrounds in over 300 of these parks, Dr. Slater of the Illinois Prevention Research Center took the opportunity to partner with CPD and Friends of the Parks to investigate the impact of these park improvements on park use. After the completion of playground renovations, the research team will gather community stories which will inform on best practices for increasing park use and engagement.

The CPD park renovation project, called The Chicago Plays! Program, spanned 4 years. The park district selected playgrounds for renovation through a competitive application process. Community groups applying for the program provided evidence of neighborhood support for the renovations, including letters of support from local business and government officials and signatures from community residents.

After CPD selected the winning applicants, these groups were involved in the selection, installation, and maintenance of new park equipment. During the first year of the program, the research team selected 78 playgrounds scheduled for renovation and conducted observations before, one year after, and two years after the renovations occurred. In addition to the observations, the research team conducted interviews with these successful Chicago Plays! Program applicants to gain a better understanding of community groups’ involvement in the process. These lessons learned will be shared with growing park organizations to increase use and engagement throughout the city.

“People see that there is something nice in the park and they want to keep it that way…people linger longer and are socializing more and meeting neighbors.” — Chicago Plays! applicant and park coalition member on benefits of Chicago Plays! renovations.

In many parks, use and levels of physical activity rose after playground renovations. However, there were some parks that saw little to no change. The Parks study team is now investigating characteristics that made some parks more successful. Once the team has uncovered these success stories, they will share them with other Chicago communities. Similarly, the team will research factors that prevented an
increase in physical activity and use so that other community groups can eliminate these barriers in their
local parks. The research team will combine these lessons learned with CPD’s programming and resources to create a park coalition building intervention with the primary goal to promote sustainable increases in community engagement around Chicago’s community parks. The parks research team and the CPD will build upon the strengths of these communities to address needs, and provide resources and trainings to increase local ownership and community action.

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About the image.  Anita Bontu, MPH, Program Manager (left) of the Illinois PRC Chicago Plays! Evaluation, demonstrates a playground observation tool for park coalition leaders.