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The Park Business

Redefining the public park

Illinois Times

April 11, 1991

Cities change, times change, people's need for park space changes, and so have parks. Not enough, in the case of a great many Illinois cities. Surveys suggest that the people believe their town doesn't have enough park space, but surveys also make clear that most existing park space is empty most of the time.


Springfield's park system in particular has been a patronage fief for decades, with the result that everyone who presumed to plan and manage the parks seemed to be just a little behind in their reading. Thus this helpful primer.


It didn't surprise me that voters rejected [ex-Springfield fire chief] Pat Ward as the new president of the Springfield Park District board. By barring a fireman with a hands-on management style, they insured that the wiener roast fires will burn bright at Springfield picnic pavilions for years to come. I confess to being uneasy about the pledge of the new president—Leslie Sgro, a mortgage banker—to run the park district like a business, but the worst that can happen is that she'll foreclose on the Henson Robinson Zoo and throw a lot of penguins onto the street.


I would be happy enough if Sgro started running the SPD like a park system. Springfield (especially its east side) has been under-parked for decades, and like most small city systems there hasn't been enough spent on maintenance (including forestry). A sizable new park is needed on the city's metastasizing west side, and ways must be found to augment the district's revenues. 


The first order of business, however, is to rethink what parks are for. The term "park" now encompasses play spaces, athletic fields (including swimming pools), pastoral retreats, nature preserves, city plazas, "animal parks" (otherwise known as zoos), even golf courses. Nonetheless, parks planners nationwide have come to realize that even their promiscuous definition of "developed open space" doesn't provide for the complex landscape needs of metropolitan populations.


Park development in the U.S. is too complicated a topic to summarize here, but if I had to write a headline for such a history it might read, "Pasture to playground to problem." Passive recreation in the form of a nature experience was the rationale for the first generation of urban parks. Later reformers promoted parks as a boon to public health, as parks were redesigned as venues for wholesome games meant to counter the corrupting influence of the streets. (That tradition is the ultimate source of Sgro's campaign pledge to create new youth programs.)


Lately, the middle class (who can enjoy both nature and corruption in their own backyards) have come to see parks (literally) in scenic terms as urban "open space." Study after study confirms that most people "use" parks simply by looking at them. (One of the reasons even popular parks like Washington suffers a reputation as dangerous is that there are usually very few people in them most of the time.) These traditions have become jumbled, so that one finds the different kinds of park spaces not only within single jurisdictions but sometimes within individual parks.


New trustee Jack Pfeiffer said after the election that there wasn't a kook in this year's group of candidates. (To some recent park boards, a "kook" was anyone who doesn't play golf.) Everyone running had useful ideas, but Pat Ward's suggestion that the SPD coordinate its long-range planning with the regional planning commission may have been the most radical. Radical in Springfield terms anyway. Parks planners in places like California, Minnesota, and the Sun Belt have for years been integrating open space preservation, environmental protection, recreation, and growth management into their acquisition and development plans. In Springfield, such an integrated approach might have prompted the SPD to acquire stream bottoms on the west side in advance of development through fee simple purchase, donated easements, land trades, or takings; the land could be used as greenways that would simultaneously provide flood and erosion control, scenic amenity, and space for biking and jogging trails.


Greenways suggest another step toward a redefinition of the public park. Conventional park plans determine the size and location of new parks as if they were stores and shopping centers. But it also makes sense to think of parks—as candidate Bill Crook did when he suggested that abandoned rail corridors be added to the system—as streets. It also makes sense to think of streets as parks. The SPD was established in 1900 to provide not only parks but "pleasure driveways"; if our streets looked less ugly, parks wouldn't be so important as places to escape to.

Parks planning is a form of applied sociology. Designing a good one takes more than computing the optimum ratio of picnic tables to trash cans. The trickiest thing is to put the parks where the people are; as the city has learned with Union Square downtown, the handsomest park in the wrong location will never get used. Indeed, a case can be made that the SPD has too much park space, if you define a park in terms of use rather than acreage.


Well-placed "park" spaces already exist in and around Springfield by the hundreds. A city's real playgrounds for example are its schoolyards, its alleys, its yards, its vacant lots. (And its historic sites; the Lincoln home area would be a wonderful park if the National Park Service would allow it.) I always liked Nanchen Scully's idea of closing off a block of Clay near the Springfield Clinic, if only because it would have meant taking a little land in that neighborhood back from the cars.

Such oddball parks can be expensive to maintain, of course,which is why other cities enter into maintenance agreements with garden clubs or adjacent property owners. Conversely, an SPD that can't afford to buy land for parks might be able to afford to maintain parks on land owned by other government and non-profit agencies, even private landowners.

Perhaps the most vexing problem facing the SPD is how to pay for new park space on the burgeoning west side. My view is that it shouldn't. More alert municipalities realize that parks adds to the profitability of private land developments.(Washington Park, remember, was developed as part of a real estate promotion.) Park systems in booming cities thus recapture some of this profit for public use by demanding from developers increasingly substantial exactions in the form of cash and/or land in new neighborhoods.

None of this is new in principle to the SPD. The agency in the past has accepted land donations and worked out joint operating agreements with other local governments. Such unconventional approaches are not enshrined as policy, however, but are seen as mere stopgaps, experiments, compromises. The park board in the old days built things; in the future it will also have to learn how to arrange things. It hasn't done badly in recent years, by government standards. But more efficient management may not pay off as handsomely in the future as more intelligent management. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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