Millard Playlot Park, 1331 S. Millard Ave., Chicago, before and after Chicago Plays! renovation.

Evaluating the impact of city park renovations

Mother playing with her daughter in a park. ©
Mother playing with her daughter in a park. ©

Obesity affects one in five children ages 10 to 17 in Illinois.

The prevalence of obesity is even higher in Chicago. Almost one in three sixth-graders and one in four ninth-graders in the city are obese. Obese children and adolescents are at high risk for chronic health problems — including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer — and early onset of these conditions.

Increasing physical activity is a key strategy in the fight against childhood obesity. In our applied public health prevention research study, the Illinois Prevention Research Center (PRC) addresses the CDC Winnable Battle of promoting physical activity in communities by increasing access to parks and their use. In this study, our scientists are working with Chicago communities to answer this important question:

How do park improvements affect the physical activity and well-being of a community?

As our core, community-based participatory research project, the Illinois PRC is studying the effects of the Chicago Plays! initiative on communities in our city. Our parks research team is led by Dr. Sandy Slater, an expert in the ways that the built environment — where we live, work and play every day — influence behaviors that foster health, such as walking and other physical activity.

The Chicago Park District owns more than 8,100 acres of green space, making it one of the largest municipal park managers in the nation. The Chicago Park District’s 580 parks offer thousands of sports and physical activities as well as cultural and environmental programs for youth, adults, and seniors.

In March 2013, the City of Chicago began a five-year project to renovate 325 aging playgrounds in parks throughout the city. The Chicago Park District leads this project — called Chicago Plays! — working closely with local park advisory councils and the nonprofit organization Friends of the Parks to implement the program. UIC researcher Sandy Slater seized the opportunity to track this natural experiment, evaluate its effects, and answer these scientific questions:

  1. What are the effects of the Chicago Plays! program? What factors in park improvements are key to increasing physical activity and a community’s effectiveness in making local changes for health?
  2. What works to increase exercise and physical activity in parks?
  3. What aspects of community engagement in park renovations lead to greater use of parks and increased physical activity?

Our study examines the impact of park renovation on park-based utilization and physical activity, comparing outcomes from renovations that involved community coalitions to those that did not.


Locations of 78 parks studied in the Illinois PRC evaluation of Chicago Plays!
Locations of 78 parks studied in the Illinois PRC evaluation of Chicago Plays!

Phase 1. Since the summer of 2013, we have been observing the conditions of 78 parks throughout the city. The socially and economically diverse sample of 78 parks are found throughout Chicago, in 31 of the city’s 77 community areas:

  • North Side — 24 parks
  • West Side — 22 parks
  • South Side — 32 parks

The study team visit each park several times, before and after renovations. We take notes and photographs of equipment, community use, landscaping, and signs of maintenance or disorder (such as litter or broken equipment). We observe attendance and physical activity in each park for several hours on both weekdays and weekends.

We will combine our observations with data from the Chicago Police Department and the Chicago Park District. We will examine changes in park programming, park maintenance and crime in the surrounding neighborhood.

Through social media and other outlets, we will share what we learn with residents of neighborhoods surrounding the parks we studied.

Phase 2. By late 2016, we will work with our community partners to apply what we learned in Phase 1 to develop, implement, and evaluate an intervention for building effective community coalitions that can renovate playlots.


In the first year after playlots are renovated, we see…

  • More people in the parks
  • Slightly more sedentary behavior, e.g., bench-sitting
  • An increase in moderate to vigorous physical activity in the park
  • Less crime in the area surrounding the parks

In the summer 2015, we gathered data to see whether these changes were sustained a year after renovations were complete. We published our early findings in January 2016. Read a news summary about these findings, which links to the published peer-reviewed article.

We have also conducted informational interviews with Chicago Plays! participants for their feedback on the program, and summarized our findings in this article.


This study is directed by Dr. Sandy Slater, who studies how our built environment — where we live, work and play — influence behaviors that promote health, such as walking and other physical activity.

Other members of the park study team include:


We are grateful to partner with key stakeholders of the Chicago Plays! program, the Chicago Park District and Chicago’s Friends of the Parks, in this study. Staff from these organizations play an important role in advising the scientific team conducting this study and the overall direction of the Illinois PRC in our Advisory Board.

We also work closely with community residents and leaders of neighborhood park councils, especially those who serve on our Core Community Committee. We consult this committee regularly about the way we conduct our research and how we can share our scientific findings with Chicago neighborhoods. Learn more about this committee.

Are you a resident of Chicago?

Would you like to receive updates about this study’s progress, receive our results as they become available, and know about our presentations in Chicago neighborhoods? E-mail

Park Advisory Council Training Modules

A Park Advisory Council (PAC) is a voluntary group of individuals who meet on a regular basis to support the effective functioning of their local park. The training modules below will teach you how to establish a PAC, manage PAC finances, improve park safety and maintenance, and plan for programs and events at your local park.

Park Advisory Council 101 – What is a PAC?

Park Advisory Council 101 – How to Launch a PAC

PAC Finance

Park Safety & Maintenance

Programming, Events & Permitting

Organizational Level Training for Community

The Illinois PRC Parks Project, the MidAmerica Center for Public Health Practice, and the Chicago Park District Workforce Development teams developed training resources to increase partnership sustainability. These online training modules support park supervisor and staff engagement and sustain partnerships between park staff and the larger community. These trainings can be applied to a variety of roles that volunteers and organizations may have in supporting community engagement and development.

  1. Volunteer Engagement – Provides strategies and tips to promote volunteer engagement in implementing additional programs and activities within parks.
  1. Communication Strategies – Imparts strategies and tips to strengthen communication skills to improve project outcomes.
  1. Conflict Management – Teaches skills and approaches to address conflict and come to resolution.

Do you want to bring change to your local park and community?

Get involved by joining or starting a PAC. View the 3-minute PAC video developed by the Illinois PRC Parks team here or read more about PACs on the Chicago Parks District website. Not in the Chicagoland area? contact your local park district and ask about how you can join an Advisory Council or Board. 

 Improve Community Health by Volunteering at Your Park!

Collaboration between parks and volunteers can bring in more users and increase physical activity. The Illinois PRC Parks Team, funded by the CDC, talked to Park Advisory members to discuss methods on engaging the community and strategies for planning activities in their neighborhood parks. View this video to hear what Park Advisory members had to say.


View the presentation slides (PDF) about this research project discussed at the 2015 American Public Health Association Annual Meeting.

Like the IllinoisPRC on Facebook, where we engage with neighborhood park advisory councils.

Learn about other Illinois PRC efforts to reduce obesity.


This study is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Cooperative Grant No. U48-DP005010) and administered by the Institute for Health Research and Policy of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

The UIC Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement supported our data collection in the parks during the summer of 2013.


At the top of this page are views of Millard Playlot Park, 1331 S. Millard Ave., Chicago, before (left) and after Chicago Plays! renovations. Photographs taken by the Illinois PRC.