Garfield Park Lot To Become New Nature Play Area Thanks To West Side Green Space Effort

Credit: Humboldt Park Montessori | Kids playing in Humboldt Park Montessori's nature play area.

GARFIELD PARK — The Garfield Park Community Council and NeighborSpace staged a pop-up playground for neighborhood children last week, previewing a new nature play space planned for the area.

The pop-up playground was held Friday at Eco Orchard, a community garden and gathering space at 3013 W. Fifth Ave. The garden was created in 2021 as part of the two organizations’ West Side Nature Play Network effort, which is working to bring green spaces to areas without access to local nature areas.

West Side Nature Play Network is set to add another play area to the community, this one coming down the street from Eco Orchard at 3065 W. Fifth Ave.

Plans for the the play area on Fifth Avenue include a play forest, performance stage, river bed area, footbridge, tree tower to climb on, rain garden and a pollination garden, according to information sent by Garfield Park Community Council’s director Mike Tomas.

The play area is being made possible by a $75,000 grant from Wells Fargo to invest in clean environments for communities of color.

The project was conceived with help from Institute for Sustainable Communities to invest in the improvement of the environmental conditions of Black and Brown communities, Thomas said.

“The opportunity to create a community-managed space for families is very exciting to us,” Thomas said.

Credit: Trey Arline | The proposed location along South Albany Avenue and West Fifth Avenue for a new nature play area.

Natalie Perkins, NeighborSpace’s community coordinator, said having a safe outdoor play area is vital for childhood development in terms of community interaction and sparking a natural curiosity about the world.

NeighborSpace is an urban land trust that helps build and manage gardens and community areas.

“We find that when kids have spaces like this, they want to collaborate and play more with each other. They are innovating, learning and growing together,” she said.

Local kids got a chance to preview the future nature play space Friday.

That’s when NeighborSpace and the Garfield Park Community Council brought children to the Eco Garden area to try out some natural play equipment and be entertained by public art organization Operamatic.

The event featured walking paths made of mulch, hula hoops, a miniature solar panel to educate on renewable energy, a model house-creating station and an area to pet two bunnies for a day, Fefe and Valentino.

The bunnies’ owner, Chio Cabrera, brought other theater professionals from her group, Operamatic, to help create the play area and to entertain the children. A born-and-raised West Sider, Cabrera said having the nature area gives neighborhood a kids a safe haven to play and explore the outdoors.

“Growing up in Humboldt Park, I was always told that coming here was always dangerous, even when our neighborhood was also dangerous as well. Now I’m here in a different capacity, because I want to make it as great and awesome as I can,” she said. “I feel like I’m reaching out to my younger self. I would have wanted something like this.

Credit: Trey Arline/Block Club Chicago | Bunnies Fefe and Valentino, in a play area in Garfield Park.
Credit: Trey Arline/Block Club Chicago | A model home created in a Garfield Park play area.

Agnotti Cowie, another West Sider and an Operamatic artistic co-director, said art and valuable investment in communities like Garfield Park are important.

“I grew up in Logan Square when the area was extremely disinvested in. It’s really personal to me that we invest in communities that are neglected. All people should have access to art and community joy,” she said.

The West Side Nature Play Network was established by NeighborSpace, the Garfield Park Community Council and Site Design Group to address both the need for accessible and safe nature play sites for children and the need for additional community stewardship of existing gardens in communities of color.

Austin Coming Together and The North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council are also involved in the West Side Nature Play Network initiative.

More projects could be coming to the West Side as part of the effort, too. The program has identified seven sites it would like to incorporate into the nature play network, including two in West Garfield Park and three in Austin.

Those sites will be empty lots near concentrations of housing or in areas lacking green or play spaces for children, and are ideally close to early childhood education providers, according to organizers.

The Garfield Park Community Council was one of ten different organizations nationwide supported by Wells Fargo as part of the Climate Justice Fund, working alongside the Institute for Sustainable Communities and the Tides Foundation to improve the environmental conditions and energy equity for communities of color.

LaTrina Shepherd, Wells Fargo’s vice president of philanthropy and social impact lead for Illinois & Wisconsin, said it is important for children to have a clean and safe environment to learn and play.

“It’s wonderful to see people bring opportunities like this back to marginalized communities. To imagine getting to build a world, play, put your hands in the dirt and just be a kid again is important,” Shepherd said.

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