Playground Matters


Playgrounds matter in cities. If you want to make your city a place that not only attracts but keeps families in it, invest in playgrounds. They are a fundamental “unit” of park that makes neighborhoods feel livable and vibrant. Chicago has more than 500 park playgrounds scattered across the city, whether in large regional parks or standing alone on small lots nested in the fabric of residential neighborhoods. There is a playground touch-point in every community in Chicago. And so the Chicago Park District recently launched “Chicago Plays” to invest in neighborhood livability and vitality.

Chicago Plays has a simple premise: fix all the playgrounds that need it and do it as quickly as possible.

This means fixing two-thirds of Chicago’s 500+ park playgrounds in less than 5 years. Most of the playgrounds in need were built 20 years ago and hadn’t seen a new piece of equipment in ages. But not for lack of attention to the problem. In fact, the District had spent millions of dollars on a decade-long playground construction program that became defined by well-intended design choices that made the average cost of a new playground around $500,000. Balanced against other capital needs, this meant that — even with community fundraising and grants — addressing more than a dozen or so playgrounds each year was cost prohibitive. This was largely due to the expense of underground infrastructure and poured-in-place rubber surfacing. So the District changed its model and focused on above-ground development like great play equipment, stuck with fibar surfacing which park nerds know is engineered wood chips common in public playgrounds, hired in-house design expertise, partnered with the local park advocacy group to facilitate community engagement, and cut the costs by 60 percent. And now a whole generation of children in Chicago will grow up playing on new playgrounds instead waiting for a 20-year replacement cycle to get to around to fixing theirs.

And the winners are…


A big congrats to NeighborSpace and the Chicago Park District for their wins last night at the Urban Land Institute Chicago’s Vision Awards!  The Park District won for their “Chicago Plays” program: re-building 300 playgrounds across the City.  NeighborSpace won for doing what they do so well: fostering community-based management of public open spaces at nearly 100 sites across Chicago. Oh yeah…accepting the awards also meant sliding down a slide attached to a podium that towered around 30 feet above the audience. Considering that Red Moon Theater hosted the event, I suppose it was to be expected…


“Making a garden is about more than cultivating plants, it’s about cultivating people”

Photo Copyright CNN

Jaden Tap Tap | Photo Copyright CNN

We’re pleased to share this article from the Guardian featuring the inspiring work of our friend Daniel Tillias in Haiti.

“Making a garden is about more than cultivating plants, it’s about cultivating people” – Daniel Tillias

Daniel and two of his friends created Jaden Tap Tap, a vibrant and growing community garden in Cite Soleil, where they grew up together.  This community garden is taking root in one of the most disadvantaged areas of Haiti and contributing substantial social and material benefits to the neighborhood. We hope you will learn more about this inspiring project at

Imagination at Work in Durban

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“There’s a lot of emphasis on the interconnectedness of things,” says Zondo. “People want prosperity, but they want accessibility most – for the city to be walkable, for example, and for government to be available. If a city is open, it’s more vibrant and people interact. It is safer. People surprise us. They don’t always ask for more police or CCTV cameras, they ask how they can make their neighborhoods more neighborly.”

Next City highlighted an innovative civic engagement strategy used in Durban, South Africa that was designed by our friend Bliss Browne.  Bliss is the founder of Imagine Chicago, an organization dedicated to helping communities understand, imagine and create the future.



Who wants Kandi?!

Chicago bike share station: rain, sleet, or snow...

Chicago bike share station: rain, sleet, or snow…

Bike sharing in Chicago exceeded most people’s expectations.  With 11,000 subscribers and counting, Chicago now has one of the largest bike-sharing programs in the U.S.  And just wait until we’re out of the polar vortex.  Our guess is we’ll see a postive bounce in those numbers when the snow melts.  Of course, we’ve got car sharing too.  Chicago’s the birthplace of I-Go (now owned by Enterprise) thanks to the bright minds at the Center for Neighbohood Technology.  Not quite the same as bike sharing, car sharing works on a round-trip basis (return the car where you found it) whereas bike sharing generally promotes one-way trips (from one bike station to another).  And now there’s Kandi — not in Chicago but in Hangzhou, China — that combines the one-way feature of bike sharing with car rentals by the hour.
Kandi car dispenser

Kandi car dispenser, via Forbes

In a phrase, Kandi Technologies makes an “electric car vending machine”.  One way rentals with stations to drop off and pick up your vehicle.  Check out Mark Rogowsky’s post in Forbes and Aaron Rockett’s YouTube video.  Here at Civic Design Lab we generally love the intersection of new technology, alternative fuel, and the sharing economy.  Kandi bills itself as a response to escalating pollution and we take them at their word.  That said, let’s hope that Kandi doesn’t stop city dwellers from choosing bike or mass transit options and make street congestion worse.  Hangzhou’s probably the right kind of place to test the model.  They’ve already got one of the largest bike share programs in the world with 60,000 bikes and 2,700 stations.  They’ve got dedicated bus lanes and diesel-electric hybrids that travel them.  And they can acquire land needed for the necessary vertical garages.  With a population north of 6 million people, maybe a few electric cars are in order?  We’ll be watching the rollout if or more likely when it lands stateside.

Eye on a prize


A new prize for architecture was announced Monday by the Illinois Institute of Technology.  The Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize (MCHAP) will recognize excellence in architecture — broadly defined — in North and South America.  Not just a ribbon for a cool building, this prize seeks to support a “rethinking of the metropolis” by encouraging work that recognizes human ecology and the interdisciplinary nature of design and built works in cities.  

“This new prize will not be bestowed to an individual or organization based solely off inventive form, however clever its design, or based solely off a submitted image, no matter how captivating. The prize’s jury will instead be holistic in their approach to selecting exceptional works. Architecture, as a discipline, will continue its pursuit of technology, so that it can further advance. And architecture is for people; it is strengthened by their presence.” – Dean Wiel Arets, IIT

Great to see a prize that will reward thinking beyond the four walls of a building and toward the intersection of projects, context, and people.  Nominated works will be shortlisted this summer with winners announced this coming fall.  

Faces of Hope: Building a Community Art Center

Civic Design Lab is supportive of the new community arts initiatives led by the residents of the Old Town neighborhood in Chicago.  We’re always impressed with community-driven social initiatives where the residents themselves are the ones leading the design and leveraging their community’s assets.

Art on Sedgwick has launched a kick-off fundraising event based on their belief that “everyone in our neighborhood matters and our diversity is an asset”.

“Faces of Hope” will help create opportunities for neighbors to celebrate and leverage our diversity through a shared public art show featuring the “faces” of our community as drawn by students.

In this project, young artists in grades 4-8 from our four neighborhood schools will be invited to submit portraits of community residents. The submitted artworks will then be displayed at a public event at the space for the forthcoming “Art on Sedgwick” community arts center to be housed in the Marshall Fields Gardens public housing center. This event will create an opportunity for neighbors to appreciate the talent of our young artists, meet each other and celebrate the diversity of our community through creative expression.

Accountrapreneurship in Liberia

According to Transparency International, Liberia is perceived by its citizens as one of the most corrupt nations in the world.  Not surprising,  given the lead of the Human Rights Watch 2014 Report on Liberia which leads with the quote:

“Longstanding deficiencies within the judicial system and security sector, as well as insufficient efforts to address official corruption, continue to undermine development and human rights in Liberia”.

Especially in the field of international development, corruption is incredibly difficult to tackle.  When development specialists are assessed and promoted based on often vacuous and misleading quantitative indicators like how much money they spend rather than any real qualitative assessment of impact, its not hard to understand how corruption becomes at best easy to ignore as a part of doing business.

accountabilitylabIn a recent Forbes/Focus article on corruption, journalist Clair MacDougal profiles the work of Blair Glencorse and his work at Accountability Lab.  According to Glencorse,

“The amount of money that has flowed into this country [Liberia] since the end of the war 10 years ago has changed incentives so that aid has become a business rather than a process to help people improve their lives.  What this means from a Liberian perspective is you can make a lot of money in the non-profit world by telling foreigners what they would like to hear rather than doing work that would actually improve the lives of Liberians.  The government has become a lot more accountable to external actors rather than its own citizens”.

Glencorse and his team at Accountability Lab are building an innovative grassroots approach that leverages civil society in Liberia through small, targeted and creative interventions.  In a country where the adult literacy rate is only 61%, Accountability Lab has helped to build an Accountability Film School to help expose and address corruption in a medium accessible to nearly everyone.  The have helped to build the Tell-it-True corruption reporting tool using the SMS functions on almost all cell phones.

We look forward to reviewing the forthcoming “Accountability Toolkit” that will help grassroots leaders start their own accountability labs in their own countries.  Sadly, both corruption and the scourge of governments being more accountable to donors than their own citizens are all to common realities.

To learn more, we invite you read the Forbes Focus article and check out Accountability Lab’s blog.

Easy Green

"Parklet" in Mexico City.  Credit:, Fundacion Espacios, DAS Architecture

“Parklet” in Mexico City, via ArchDailyMX

Who doesn’t love a bit of green? Even if it’s the grassy kind that goes under your feet and not the paper kind in your wallet? In the past few years, we’ve seen a movement in cities to bring parks to the people. The constraints of space and funds can make land acquisition for parks tough to do in urban environments. And while temporary parks are no substitute for permanent open space anchors in communities and the benefits therein — economic, social, emotional, health — here’s a salute to a few bright attempts to shorten the distance between city dwellers and a patch of green.

Another view of "parklet", via ArchDailyMX

Another view of “parklet”, via ArchDailyMX

In Mexico City last fall, our friends at Fundacion Espacios and DAS Architecture parked a park in the street in a busy commercial and residential area. Even with the gigantic Chapultepec Park located only a few blocks away, this “parklet” — a series of benches and plantings on a trailer — served the informal open space needs of folks looking for a little respite, comfort, and novelty on the way to wherever they were going. These are not destinations by design, but impromptu discoveries that make cities vibrant and feel more humane. Arch Daily Mexico has a few more photos and info.

Park at the Zocalo

Parklet at City Hall/Zocalo via

Across from Mexico City’s City Hall is a somewhat more permanent parklet that sits a bit awkwardly between lanes of traffic, but makes a point about urban open space: you can put it just about anywhere. And if it’s in front of the mayor’s office, it’s not a bad statement about how the administration feels about parks and recreation — not to mention the green roof on top of City Hall that overlooks the parklet.

Mobile urban agriculture, via Bus Roots

Mobile urban agriculture, via Bus Roots

The next big thing in a little green? How about mobile urban agriculture? The folks at Bus Roots are growing green spaces on top of buses and food trucks. Samantha Zeldin writes a nice piece in Planet Forward about Lulu’s Food Truck in St. Louis that offers “hyperlocal” food grown on top of the truck — you can’t get more locally sourced than that!

Credit: Bus Roots, Lulu's Eatery

Food on the move: Lulu’s Eatery in St. Louis, MO