COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Neighborhoods First: Putting Community Back into the Chicago Park District

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago Park District has embarked on an aggressive effort to increase community involvement in the design and implementation of quality park programs. Under Neighborhoods First, outside "facilitators" train local park staff to work more closely with residents and neighborhood groups to help shape and evaluate park programs.

Project Background

Neighborhoods First is an outgrowth of a sweeping decentralization of the Chicago Park District that began a year ago. Under General Superintendent Forrest Claypool, the district cut its payroll by 25%, shifting resources and authority to regional managers and local park supervisors while privatizing other operations. The district won praise from former critics for its commitment to partnerships and community collaborations.

Neighborhoods First was unveiled by park district officials last May at a ceremony at the South Shore Cultural Center, where community participation in park planning has blossomed and attendance in various recreational and cultural programs has tripled in the past year under newly trained managers. District officials hope to apply the lessons of South Shore elsewhere to increase healthy use of the city's parks.

In developing Neighborhoods First, the district has drawn on the asset-based approach to community building pioneered by Northwestern University's John McKnight and John Kretzmann. The approach emphasizes the use of "community mapping" to target internal neighborhood assets and the importance of local support and service delivery services.

Initial Activities: The program, which has been piloted in 48 parks on the city's North Side, includes the following components:

  • Development of performance standards for the attractiveness and cleanliness of facilities; the quality of park programming; and responsiveness to park users.
  • Periodic management reports at each of the city's 259 park field houses with updates on park attendance, facility maintenance and community outreach.
  • Staff training by outside "live in" technicians from the academic and nonprofit fields on effective strategies to build community partnerships.

Technicians are guiding local park field staff, consisting of instructors and park supervisors, through a one-year cycle of program planning and development. Participants receive one-on-one training, coaching and mentoring in how to: assess community needs; develop community partnerships and relationships; create quality programs; use instructional methods; and incorporate business standards to run their parks.

The district has elongated the pilot and is beginning to roll out the program to the remaining five regions. Ultimately, it hopes to develop an operations manual and an in-house institute to provide ongoing training and educational materials to district staff.

Lessons Learned

Though not complete, the pilot has produced encouraging early results. Some examples:

  • A "Renegade Fund," established to reward innovative programs with small cash grants, had no applicants from the Near North Side before the pilot was launched. A year later, park staff submitted detailed proposals for community collaborations that involve a mix of new cultural and recreational programs.
  • One park supervisor, described as having little interest in his park's facilities or programs, developed a partnership with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that included free concert tickets for neighborhood children and led to a meeting afterwards with the musicians.
  • Several parks have developed partnerships around health services in response to community interest. One now offers free immunization, shots and health seminars, while another partners with a nearby hospital for nutrition seminars.


Parkways, Inc., a nonprofit group established by the park district to generate funds for its programs, raised separate $200,000 grants from the MacArthur Foundation and Chicago Community Trust for the Neighborhoods First pilot. The district is seeking additional private funding to expand the program.


Staff have developed benchmarks to document progress, including customer service, evidence of written community outreach plans, and commitment to program evaluation. The district has also hired the Civic Federation of Chicago to conduct an external evaluation of the program. The Federation is working with the Hay Group to develop and implement surveys to measure attitudinal changes among staff.


Helen Doria, Chicago Park District, tel. 312-747-2683

(March 1996)

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