Kudos to Chicago’s Park Advisory Councils!

Kudos to Chicago’s Park Advisory Councils!

Chicago has the most parks of any major city in the U.S., and our park system would not it be what it is without the Park Advisory Council (PAC) members who advocate and volunteer to make their community parks safe and welcoming for their neighborhoods.

PAC members advise the Illinois PRC in our community engagement activities, especially in our core research project, where we evaluate the Chicago Plays! initiative and develop a toolkit for communities planning park improvements.

Anita Bontu, project manager of Illinois PRC’s parks study, and I recently attended the PAC Conference at Kennedy King College in Chicago. The five-hour conference, hosted annually by the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Parks Foundation, provides an opportunity for PAC members to network and discuss tools, resources, and strategies for enhancing their parks.

At eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, the room was full of volunteers from across the city. In the opening session, awards were presented to PACs whose applications for seed grants were successful, and we enjoyed breakfast made by the culinary school students at Kennedy-King College. There were many sessions to take in, so Anita and I split up to tackle the day.

In a session hosted by the Chicago Park District, Danielle Litman and Angela Tillges led PAC members in mapping the “reality” of their parks. They first drew the layout of their parks and the area surrounding them, noting physical and natural features. They listed people who typically use the park, drew two things that work really well within the park, and sketched two obstacles that need to be overcome. The facilitator asked us to consider how we might use their park’s assets to overcome a barrier they’ve experienced at the park. I loved the exercise, as it is very similar to the asset mapping I’ve done in public health, and was struck by how organically the solutions arose from the barriers and assets the PAC members identified.

Anita attended a session on Chicago Park District’s natural areas and how to bring natural play spaces into neighborhood parks. Working with the Department of Natural Resources, the Chicago Park District has introduced a program to incorporate natural play areas into city parks to encourage the relationship between city residents and nature. These natural areas are spaces where children and adults can build, explore, and play. Residents can get in touch with their local park supervisor to discuss bringing a natural play area to their park. Anita was excited to learn that anyone can get out and volunteer at a local nature area and there are over 340 volunteer days at 20 natural area sites in Chicago!

The day was inspiring, and I enjoyed myself immensely. We were struck by the geographic diversity represented at the conference, the engagement and excitement of the PAC members, and the knowledge they shared. Anita and I learned a lot that we can take back as we plan an intervention to increase community engagement around park utilization. In the mean time, we both decided its time to volunteer in our great city’s parks.

Want to learn more? Check out the Chicago Park District website.

This blog was written by our deputy director, Amber Uskali, MPH, who has worked in community research since 2008. She loves people and dog watching in the Chicago parks.