On playground equity, Park District comes up short

Jaemey Bush of Little Village plays with one of her children in Piotrowski Park, 4247 W. 31st St. The playground lost most of its swings in a 2010 renovation, a project that has Jaemey wondering what determines the location and quality of Chicago Park District playgrounds.
Jaemey Bush of Little Village plays with one of her children in Piotrowski Park, 4247 W. 31st St. The playground lost most of its swings in a 2010 renovation, a project that has Jaemey wondering what determines the location and quality of Chicago Park District playgrounds. WBEZ/Chip Mitchell
Jaemey Bush of Little Village plays with one of her children in Piotrowski Park, 4247 W. 31st St. The playground lost most of its swings in a 2010 renovation, a project that has Jaemey wondering what determines the location and quality of Chicago Park District playgrounds.
Jaemey Bush of Little Village plays with one of her children in Piotrowski Park, 4247 W. 31st St. The playground lost most of its swings in a 2010 renovation, a project that has Jaemey wondering what determines the location and quality of Chicago Park District playgrounds. WBEZ/Chip Mitchell

On playground equity, Park District comes up short

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Jaemey Bush was excited when the bulldozers rumbled in to renovate the playground at Piotrowski Park, one of the few green spaces in Little Village, a densely populated Latino enclave of Chicago. The 2010 project replaced decaying wood chips with a poured-rubber surface accessible to wheelchairs. Crews tore out all the old play equipment and installed climbing ropes, slides, stepping stools and catwalks. Everything was brand new.

But something bothered Jaemey, a stay-at-home mom in the neighborhood. “When they finally unveiled the playground, it was about a quarter the size of the old one,” she says. “Before the remodeling, we had 16 swings at least. Now there are just 6. Sometimes we have to wait in line for them.”

Jaemey noticed bigger playgrounds in some wealthier neighborhoods. So she asked Curious City:

What factors determine the location and quality of Chicago Park District playgrounds?

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration tells it, the main factors are equity and community need. Park District officials, who report to a CEO and board of commissioners appointed by the mayor, point out that they manage 525 playgrounds — a big number even for a population the size of Chicago’s.

They say more than 90 percent of Chicago children live within a half mile (10-minute walk) of at least one of these sites. They point to an Emanuel administration plan to renovate 300 of those playgrounds within five years. And they say they’re doing their best to acquire land for new parks and playgrounds in the neighborhoods that need them the most.

To determine needs for amenities such as playgrounds, the Park District says it has beefed up its planning staff and embraced state-of-the-art data analysis. Gia Biagi, chief of staff for Park District CEO Michael Kelly, says those efforts include research projects with outside organizations including Northwestern University.

“We said, ‘Here’s our data. Help comb through it. Are we hitting the markets that we want to hit? Are we serving people in the way that they want to be served?’ ” Biagi says. “So we’re doing a lot of the business-intelligence work that we see corporations do. We’re trying to bring it to a Park District, which is pretty unusual.”

Park District officials say they examine data at every level, from the entire city to block-by-block numbers. Biagi says her team considers population characteristics including race, ethnicity and income. “We’re good planners,” she says. “So we look at everything and we look to serve communities that need us the most.”

But looking isn’t the same as doing. Sparked by Jaemey’s question, a Curious City investigation shows that not all kids have easy access to quality playgrounds. Worst off are children of color.

Kids but no monkey bars

Chicago has playgrounds in its poorest neighborhoods, as we confirmed by mapping the city’s playground locations with its 809 census tracts and then shading those tracts according to their child poverty (see Map 1).

Map 1: Playground locations and child poverty (notes)

% of kids in poverty






No children

Playground surface

Wood Chips


But our investigation went further. With help from demographer Rob Paral, we analyzed the playground locations in relation to the latest racial and ethnic data for each of the city’s 46,000 census blocks.

We found something interesting. Chicago’s Latino children are almost 35 percent more likely than the city’s white kids to live more than a half mile from a Park District playground (see Chart 1). More than 23,000 Latino kids live at least 10 minutes, on foot, from the nearest playground.

Jaemey’s neighborhood, Little Village, is not alone among Latino areas with a dearth of Park District playgrounds. A map that shows the playground locations and the census tracts, shaded this time by child density (see Map 2), reveals a shortage in Brighton Park, Gage Park and Chicago Lawn — a Southwest Side swath with lots of children, most with Mexican heritage.

Map 2: Playground locations and child density (notes)

Child population





1,500 or more

Playground surface

Wood Chips


“It makes me really sad that these kids don’t have a chance to play on a playground,” Jaemey says. “That’s such an important part of being a kid and growing up and being healthy. We also have a lot of gang violence and kids getting into trouble. I feel like more playgrounds could contribute to solving some of those problems.”

The Park District, presented with our data and findings, sent a statement that describes the city’s playgrounds as “well distributed in existing parks.” Officials say they’re also planning a new playground site in a 20-acre former industrial area between Little Village and the Cook County Jail.

“We take seriously issues of equity and constantly examine the distribution of, and demand for, all of our resources, whether camps and programs or events and arts or natural resources and capital projects,” the Park District statement says. “As it should be in any major city and within any park system worth its salt, our work on equity, proximity, and improving the quality of life for all Chicagoans is deliberative and evolving.”

A complication for many of Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods is their relative lack of open space. They tend to be densely populated, so it’s more expensive to clear space for a playground. Biagi, the Park District chief of staff, says Brighton Park just doesn’t have many vacant lots.

The Park District also avoids putting parks on less than two acres because, Biagi says, the small scale would make them more expensive for maintenance crews to keep up.

Not all jungle gyms are equal

Turning to playground quality — the other part of Jaemey’s question — we found a lot of evidence that Chicago’s children of color are not getting their share.

First we looked at playground surfaces — the ground material that provides a cushion when kids fall from the equipment. The surface of almost every Park District playground once consisted of wood chips.

In 2000, however, the Park District started replacing wood chips with poured rubber, a smoother surface that is easier for disabled kids to navigate. Rubber can also be safer because, unlike wood chips, it doesn’t require refilling or raking. And a rubber surface signals that the Park District has recently replaced the playground’s equipment.

A big downside to playgrounds with the poured-rubber surfaces, officials say, is that they cost roughly five times more than wood-chip playgrounds with similar play equipment.

A Curious City spatial analysis using the census data shows that 53 percent of the city’s 421,000 Latino, African American and Asian kids live within a half mile of a rubber-surfaced Park District playground (see Chart 2). White children have a 24 percent greater likelihood than those kids of color to live within that distance of a rubber-surfaced playground.

Another measure of a playground’s quality is its safety.

“Kids are hurt on playgrounds by falling, but the way kids actually die on playgrounds is, somehow, a child is strangled or their airway gets blocked,” says Amy Hill, who coordinates an injury-prevention center for the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “Clothing gets entangled onto a bolt or something protruding somewhere, and the other way that their airway gets blocked is something called a head entrapment, which is any space that’s bound on all four sides that’s larger than 3½ inches and less than 9 inches. And so we test all the openings for head entrapments.”

Hill’s center conducts a 21-point inspection of Park District playgrounds to find hazards ranging from those entrapment spaces to peeling paint and missing guardrails. Based on the inspections, the center assigns each playground a safety score. The latest inspection round, held last year, covered about 490 playgrounds. Of those, the 40 with the lowest safety scores were all south of Roosevelt Road (see Map 3).

Map 3: This year’s playground renovations (notes)

Renovated after receiving one of the lowest 40 safety scores.

Renovated after not receiving one of the lowest 40 safety scores.

Not renovated after receiving one of the lowest 40 safety scores.

“That shows a neglect of playgrounds on the South Side,” Jaemey says.

The Park District did not answer our questions about what led to that disparity. A spokeswoman for Kelly, the Park District chief, instead sent a statement criticizing the whole idea of assessing a playground’s safety based on a single visit. “The static-in-time inspection does not account for the routine site maintenance and work orders for repairs,” the statement said.

Kelly’s spokeswoman also touted Mayor Emanuel’s renovation program, dubbed Chicago Plays. Expected to cost $38 million over the next five years, the program aims to replace the play equipment at 300 sites and departs from the policy of installing the expensive poured rubber as part of every Park District renovation. Many of these playgrounds will have to stick with wood chips.

“We have reduced a 20-year replacement cycle to 5 years by implementing a practical, cost-effective citywide construction program,” the Park District statement said. “We changed our strategy to do more with fewer resources, and reach more Chicagoans in the process.”

Under the Chicago Plays banner, the Park District added 50 renovations to a list of 11 playgrounds otherwise slated for rehabilitation this year. “It’s not a paint job, it’s a total redo of equipment,” Emanuel said at a West Side playground this July. “No other city is doing this.”

But the renovation push, despite its scale, is not having a big impact in the South Side neighborhoods with those 40 low-scoring playgrounds. Just 8 of them are getting renovated this year (see Map 3).

“The Park District is obviously not focusing on the worst playgrounds,” Jaemey says. “There’s no justice in that.”

At some of the playgrounds panned by the hospital but overlooked for renovation this year, officials have let the play equipment deteriorate. This week at Murray Park, 1743 W. 73rd St., some of the wooden rungs on the sole climbing structure were rotting. Others were loose or missing.

At another low-scoring South Side playground, the Park District has removed all the equipment except two swing sets, both decades-old. Drexel Playlot Park, 6931 S. Damen Ave., now looks like a vacant lot.

Proving ‘ownership’

If equity and safety don’t solely determine the location and quality of Park District playgrounds, what other factors are in play?

One is funding. The Park District says it’s spending about $125,000 per renovation in the Chicago Plays program. That’s enough to replace all the equipment at the 300 playgrounds. “It will be equitable across the city,” says Rob Rejman, the district’s planning and construction director.

But the Park District expects to attract a lot more funding for playground renovations during the program’s five years, as it has in the past. Since 2007, Park District coffers have accounted for just 40 percent of playground funding, officials say. Another 35 percent has come from city sources ranging from tax increment-financing, to money leftover from last year’s NATO summit, to a “menu” program in which each alderman controls funds for public-works projects in the ward.

At Chicago’s Murray Park, 1743 W. 73rd St., some rungs of the sole climbing structure are rotting or loose. Others are missing. Murray is among dozens of South Side playgrounds the Park District did not renovate this year despite low marks from independent safety inspectors. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)
Another 18 percent of playground money has come from state of Illinois grants, the Park District says. The remaining 7 percent has come from private donors such as foundations, chambers of commerce and neighborhood groups.

“We always welcome partnerships,” Rejman says. “The outside funding, though, comes where it comes. We don’t have control over it.”

That means it comes unevenly across the city. The aldermanic menu money for playgrounds, for example, tends to flow to the North Side, the Chicago Tribune has reported.

The funding imbalance played a role at the Piotrowski playground, where Jaemey takes her kids. Renovating that 1993 facility cost $314,000 but, according to the Park District, much of that sum went into a poured-rubber surface instead of play equipment. The Park District didn’t manage to pin down any outside funding, a source involved with the project adds. Ald. Ricardo Muñoz (22nd) confirms he didn’t channel menu money to the project. So, as Jaemey observed, the renovation actually scaled the playground down.

Besides uneven funding, another factor helps determine playground locations and quality. “You don’t want to just helicopter in a playground,” says Maria Dmyterko Stone, a program director of Friends of the Parks, a group that’s working with the Park District on the Chicago Plays program. “You want the community to want it, need it, desire it, claim it as theirs.”

Stone says the community engagement helps protect playgrounds from litter bugs and vandals. The community also informs the Park District when a piece of play equipment breaks, she adds. Volunteers will even help rake wood chips to cover “fall zones” where the ground is bare.

Community members with a stake in a playground will also call police to sweep away people who don’t belong there. “It could be taken over by gangs,” Stone says. “It could be drug sales. People could be drinking in the park. And if you put a playground in there and the community hasn’t taken ownership of it, you’re not going to have kids playing there.”

To demonstrate that “ownership,” the Chicago Plays program requires a community group — such as a park’s advisory council or a block club — to apply for each renovation. The application includes a 50-signature petition, a letter of support from the local alderman, a community impact statement and a report on the playground’s current condition. The application form also encourages visual evidence such as photos or video.

But many communities where high-quality playgrounds could make the greatest difference for kids also lack park advisory councils. Park District records show an advisory council at only a third of city parks. Without one, it’s harder to apply for the renovation and raise funds to pay for a poured-rubber surface or extra equipment.

Chicago Plays thus embodies an old Chicago logic of investing in public infrastructure, first, where it has the greatest chance of “success” — and pushing areas that lack resources and clout to the back of the line. In this sense, Mayor Emanuel’s playground renovations look something like his bike sharing docks and planned bus rapid transit routes.

Jaemey, our curious citizen, says it’s not fair. “Too many places where kids really need good playgrounds are not getting them,” she says. “They keep getting left behind.”

CONTRIBUTORS: Reporting and data analysis by Chip Mitchell. Geospatial analysis by Rob Paral. Maps, editing and additional reporting by Shawn Allee. Follow Mitchell, WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter, on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.

SOURCES: Playground locations from the Chicago Park District and the Injury Prevention and Research Center of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Playground surfaces from IPRC, Friends of the Parks and Google Maps. Playground safety scores from IPRC. Age, race and ethnicity data from the 2010 Census of the U.S. Census Bureau. Poverty data from the bureau’s 2007-2011 American Community Survey.

NOTES: The terms “children” and “kids” refer to Chicago residents, ages 0-14. The racial and ethnic categories, as described by the Census Bureau, are “One Race / Asian,” “One Race / Black or African American,” “Hispanic or Latino,” “Not Hispanic or Latino / White alone.” An entire block is considered within a half mile of a playground if any portion of that block is within a half mile. The poverty data are subject to sampling variability that can lead to unexpected results for individual census tracts. Geospatial coding may plot playgrounds slightly off their exact locations; if you notice a significant error, please write Curious City Editor Shawn Allee.