A park advisory council (PAC) serves as an advocate and supporter for its local park (or even parks), by serving as the eyes, ears and even hands of the park. PACs are made up of people who generally live close by and use the park for recreation programs, gardening, meeting friends and neighbors, or simply for the quiet and respite that parks provide. The goal of the park advisory council is most often to ensure that the park is the heart and center of the neighborhood and that the park is brimming with people, sports and activities for children and adults all year long.
There are presently about 200 park advisory councils. The term “park advisory council” is very specific language to Chicago Park District parks in Chicago, and oftentimes aldermen and community members know what the term means. In other cities, similar groups are known as “Friends of” groups, and even some of Chicago’s PACs are named “Friends of ___ Park” instead of “______ Park Advisory Council.” All PACs look different, and vary in sophistication, community transparency and inclusion, and activity. Here are various roles and activities that park advisory councils take on:
Advocate for park programs
Work with the Chicago Park District on issues in their park
Fundraise for new playgrounds and park improvements
Host Movies in the Park
Work with Alderman, State Representatives, and community members
Plant gardens, trees, and flowers
Plan special events such as parades, dances, Circus in the Parks, farmers markets, etc.
Host community meetings and planning charrettes
Advocate for new parks and open spaces
Influence the design of new playgrounds and parks
Host clean ups
Supplement park programming
Monitor their park’s budget
Protect park from land infringements
Mentor other PACs
Give park tours
Promote their park
Though there were a few park advisory councils before the 1980’s, a series of events in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s led Friends of the Parks to initiate the development of the local park advisory council system. In 1978, the Chicago Sun-Times released a series on terrible conditions of Chicago’s parks. The following year, the Midwest Community Council sued the Chicago Park District for discrimination: more tax dollars spent in white parks than in African American and Hispanic parks. The lawsuit went to trial and the Park District was acquitted. At this time, the U.S. Justice Department began to investigate the allegations of discrimination against the Chicago Park District. Under an umbrella of accusations of institutional discrimination in minority communities and parks, the City of Chicago applied to the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery grant program — which made millions of dollars available for the restoration of urban parks and required that residents must have a voice in how federal dollars were spent — and filtered grant funds to Friends of the Parks in 1980 to start organizing park advisory councils in the parks where federal dollars were assigned. By the end of the year, Friends of the Parks had helped communities establish over 30 park advisory councils across the city.
In 1982, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the District for pursuing policies that discriminated against residents of Chicago’s black and Hispanic communities. The Justice Department charged that less money was spent on personnel, maintenance, and capital improvements in minority communities than in non-minority communities. In 1983, the Chicago Park District and U.S. Justice Department entered into a consent decree, stipulating that at least 65% of the $60 million in District capital improvements slated be spent in minority communities over the next six years. The consent decree echoed the requirement of community participation and we pursued our work to organize park advisory councils. In 1987, Friends of the Parks received the Beatrice Foundation Award of Excellence for organizing over 125 park advisory councils in Chicago.
The park advisory council system thrives today and park council members continue to advocate for and support their parks, and we continue to bolster their work and build their capacity by providing programming and one-on-one technical assistance.