Playground Renovations and Social Capital on Youth Park Use and Physical Activity


By November 2013, the Chicago Park District and Friends of the Parks, a local nonprofit organization, will renovate 35 playgrounds (for use by children 12 years and younger) across Chicago. The goal is to make the parks safer and more accessible for all Chicago residents.

A unique feature of this initiative is that community organizations (e.g., park advisory boards, scout troops, church groups) will play a key role in:

  • Selecting which playgrounds will be renovated, and
  • Supporting their ongoing maintenance.

The process is meant to empower residents living in the intervention areas (i.e., those receiving renovated playgrounds) to improve their neighborhoods by creating a safer physical environment and social safety net for children and their families. As community members create stronger relationships amongst themselves through the renovation process, we hypothesize that this will lead to greater levels of trust and willingness to help each other (social capital), which in turn will improve unsafe neighborhood and park conditions (crime), as well as improve civic engagement by increasing volunteerism (i.e. assisting with park renovations and ongoing maintenance) among community members. This study presents a rare and unique opportunity to examine how involving community organizations in playground revitalization efforts may impact neighborhood social environments and physical activity levels and will help inform all levels of government about the role urban park revitalization can play in improving the quality of urban life through increased community engagement, social capital and safety, which will lead to improved individual and community health.

The specific aims of the study are:

Aim 1: Determine the impact of 35 playground renovations on population-level change in park-based utilization and physical activity as measured by direct observation at baseline (pre-playground renovation) and post renovation follow up, compared to a matched control group of 35 parks.
Aim 2: Examine what impact community involvement in playground renovations has on park-based utilization and physical activity, at the population-level, as well as if community civic engagement results in changes in: a)neighborhood and park-based social capital and b) neighborhood and park-related safety.

Through a combination of direct observations and semi-structured interviews, the researchers will examine the larger implications of how the city involves citizens in revitalization efforts by examining how this new mode of engagement (involving community members in the playground renovation selection process and ongoing maintenance) works at the local level.

Learn about the current stage of this research:

Illinois PRC - Chicago Parks and Communities Study
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About this grant

This work is supported by a UIC Civic Engagement Research Fund Award, which supports UIC faculty's work to strengthen civic engagement in community change initiatives.