COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Remaking the Chicago Park District

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Forrest Claypool

General Superintendent, CEO Chicago Park District

Speech from "Achieving Great Parks," the March 1996 LWRD Urban Parks Institute conference held in Austin, Texas.

The Chicago Park District is unique. I didn't fully appreciate that until I became Superintendent in 1993. The Park District had 4,100 full-time employees, and about 3,000 to 4,000 seasonal employees in addition. Our operating budget is $300 million; additionally, about $50 million is expended each year on capital projects. We have 259 staffed recreational facilities and 250 play lots. Chicago's Park District is also unique in that we are the home of nine museums, two conservatories, a world-renowned zoo, Soldier Field, nine harbors and even a series of downtown parking garages that are a source of cash for the district.

Unfortunately, when I became superintendent, the Park District was under fire and that's why the mayor sent me there. I wasn't a park professional. There had been a park professional in charge and the mayor was not satisfied with what had occurred. I knew there were problems; the Chicago Tribune had run a whole series of investigative pieces. Friends of the Park and the Civic Federation had done independent reports characterizing the district as dysfunctional. One Tribune editorial suggested that the Park District was running a string of ghost towns in which there were more employees than patrons. Friends of the Parks suggested that the district was run for the employees, not for the public, the classic institutional problem. In fact, in the same Tribune investigative series, one of the reporters pointed out that an instructor at one of the parks would not allow children on the gymnasium floor because he thought their sneakers would scuff it. And there was kind of an insider mentality too -- you had to know what programs were offered because nothing was ever publicized. No effort was made to draw people in. One woman called her local park to find out if a program was still being offered only to be told that the information was "confidential."

The Civic Federation was correct in using the term dysfunctional; the bureaucracy had grown without any rationale, hence the 4,100 employees and bloated budgets. The tax base had gone up 40% in the six years prior to the time I became Superintendent with no discernible increase in productivity or programming. The departments were a series of fiefdoms that didn't operate in harmony.

So when I became Superintendent and John Rogers became President of the Board, we decided to go back to the core mission, which we defined as recreation and open spaces. We set out to stop spending our time and energy on anything that didn't have to do with that core mission because we believed that you can only do a few things well. Our three principles were downsize, privatize and decentralize.

So, in the last two and a half years we have privatized virtually everything not having to do with that core mission. We privatized our harbors, garbage collection, equipment maintenance, parking lots, our computer system, medical and risk management, Soldier Field and the zoo, among other things. We also downsized radically, from 4,100 employees to under 3,000. And we shifted power from a monolithic, paralyzed central bureaucracy into the hands of neighborhood managers who work in the field, close to the neighborhood parks they serve.

Before we did this, the individual park manager in charge of the neighborhood park had no control over the people who worked for him or her, no control over the programs he or she operated, no control over the budget. Everything was handed down by central. And yet, these individual park managers were supposed to be running and in charge of the parks.

In 18 months, not only was power shifted into local hands, but we were also able to free up extraordinary amounts of resources without raising taxes. We've doubled our landscape budget, doubled our security budget, and increased recreation spending by 53%. Money now goes more towards what parks were designed to do, which is to deliver services to families and not to the employees who were biding their time in the central bureaucracy.

It's much easier to change an organization than to change a culture. Changing a culture is very, very difficult. And in fact the park district culture, which was so deeply ingrained and goes back so many years, has really been a tremendous liability for us, reaching right into the neighborhood parks themselves. In many ways it's like the situation in the Iron Curtain after communism collapsed. The people there are not necessarily ready for democracy, they are not really prepared to rule or govern themselves. Likewise, our managers did not have the skills or ability to work with the community to develop programs, run budgets, or monitor facilities.

Our short-term strategy was really a triage. We would jump start the process through a series of partnerships and top-down types of programming, all in preparation for the day when the local communities and park supervisors would be ready to work together to create their own grass-roots programs. In an effort to accomplish this goal, the Park Partners Program asked our museums and major cultural institutions to provide free programming in their neighborhood parks. We had Dancin' in the Parks where professional dance companies came out and did free dance lessons; Midnight Basketball with the Chicago Bulls; Mayor Daley's sports clinics with college and high school coaches who put on free sports clinics for the kids in the parks; an Artists-in-Residence Program where artists came to the parks and we gave them free space in exchange for artistic programming for our kids; and the Park Kids Program, which is an after-school program in which kids are bused after school directly to the parks to receive tutoring and homework help and two hours of cultural and sports programming.

We launched a massive marketing campaign with advertising donated by BBDO to try to increase park awareness, with a hotline number through which people can actually learn about their parks and get information about programs that are offered.

Fundamentally, the real problem that we now face is the longer term. We have come up with a new program which we are about a year into, called Neighborhoods First. It has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, who've been very generous to us. The primary approaches of Neighborhoods First are community involvement and outreach; and teaching park supervisors how to do fundamentals: everything from how to do budgets to how to monitor their facilities. But the program also follows traditional youth development principles. The problems seemed severe enough that you couldn't do traditional-type training, so we have 'live-in' expert facilitators who actually work with each manager every day. And there's one for every area manager, each of whom has about seven to nine staffed parks to work with.

In the neighborhood where the program is being piloted, I can see the results and the differences. If I'm out with a regional manager going from park to park, they talk immediately about the partnerships that have developed, the church on the corner they got to serve on the advisory board, the neighborhood group they got to bring over kids, the local arts group on the West Side now doing programming in the parks, etc. It's clearly a complete change of mentality, and it's very intense.

This program shows a lot of promise, but we have a long way to go. It is expensive, which means we're going to reach out for other foundation assistance because that kind of intensive training is a tremendous short-term financial burden. We hope in the end to have a permanent training institute to set standards and provide ongoing training for every Chicago Park District employee. Then we can reach a level in which every single one of our 260 neighborhood parks is run with high quality program standards for the benefit of the community.

A local attraction will become part of a larger vision for the city

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