Smile Politely

Let’s be thoughtful about transforming our parks

A group of kids playing on a grey rock structure with a water flowing down the rocks. There is a forest behind them.
Champaign County Forest Preserve District Facebook

With the teardown of Meadowbrook Park’s Prairie Play playground happening soon and glimpses of warmer weather in the forecast, we’ve got spending more time outdoors on the brain. Champaign and Urbana’s parks are wonderful and abundant, with a diverse array of amenities and vibes.

C-U is lucky to have a lot of great parks (you can read about all the parks in our Year of the Park series). Last year, we even devoted our March tournament to parks, and the big winner was Meadowbrook. This park has everything: a trail through the expansive prairie, art sculptures, a big open space for relaxing or flying a kite, and proper bathrooms (not portable toilets). It feels less like a park and more like a place to get out and enjoy nature. And even though the wooden Prairie Play structure will be missed, the plans for the new play space are not only inclusive, but also seem to align well with the natural aspects of the park. The playground will be divided into sections by a long sidewalk with trees, flowers, and plants scattered throughout. There will also be a nature discovery path connecting two of the areas. 

Another exciting transformation is happening at Skelton Park. The makeover will “honor the legacy of Champaign County’s many influential African American musicians by creating interactive musical instruments, new pathways, lighting, a plaza, and a seating wall and gentle slope for watching performances.” This park is in North Champaign in a predominantly Black and low income area. Investing in this area and creating a space here that celebrates Black music has the potential to positively impact the area and the people who come here. We’re glad that Skelton is getting this revamp; it puts action to promises of more equitable maintenance and upgrades to all neighborhood parks. 

With so much going into these two parks it got us thinking: What are some things missing from parks around C-U? In our previous Champaign Park District wishlist article, we mentioned adding improved accessibility, more bathrooms and trash cans, and more dog parks (we have also mentioned dog parks here, and here, and here, because dogs need parks, too). A couple of parks have had recent renovations (Dana Colbert Park in Savoy and Blair Park in Urbana) that have made them not only more fun and interactive, but also much more accommodating for people of all abilities. But the fact remains that there is more work to do. 

It could be fun to let parks have a little more of their own personality. Not every single park should have the same set of activities and amenities available — it is relatively easy to get to most parts of C-U using public transportation, so a handful of splash pads can accommodate more than one neighborhood. Clark Park, which will also be getting a makeover soon, has the tradition of people donating toy trucks to the sandbox. Hessel Park is always full of people grilling in the summer. Is there a way to acknowledge these fun traditions? For instance, with a little more love, the skate park at Spalding could be a great opportunity to become a more dynamic and unique destination for everyone to enjoy. In Urbana, there is movement to build a skate park; there is desire from the community for these amenities, and it is incumbent on our park districts to respond to these calls in a realistic way, folding them into short- and long-term plans.

Weaver Park in Urbana gives us an important reminder to be thoughtful as we go about transforming our parks. Weaver Park is a 60-acre park in East Urbana, primarily comprising wetlands and open fields with an unpaved walking trail. A proposal to add athletic fields and potentially destroy some of the natural habitat had Urbana residents upset and forming a group to protest the development plans. As a result of their input, development plans have been delayed while more feedback can be gathered. As valuable as playscapes and athletic fields may be, it’s also important to have parks that emphasize natural landscapes, preservation, and conservation.  

Indeed we might ask what opportunities there are to make parks more sustainable. With climate change making summers hotter and drier, could the park districts use more environmentally-friendly landscaping practices and plant more perennials and native plants, rather than planting and replanting annuals? Homer Lake has an incredible Natural Playscape. This park has no playground equipment in the modern sense, but what it lacks in metal and plastic, it makes up for with a stunning park that includes hills and giant logs and boulders on which to climb. It also has an interactive stream that is activated by motion sensing pumps. The playscape encourages kids (but also people of all ages) to get dirty, use their imagination, and interact with nature. 

We are lucky to live in cities that truly value park culture. Our parks are well loved and well utilized, but with many renovations and improvements on the horizon, it might be worth exploring creative and unique ways to make our parks even better for C-U. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Louise Knight-Gibson, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker. 

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