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President's Letter: Big City, Small Spaces

Have you heard of NeighborSpace? It’s an innovative way for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to support Chicago residents through open space projects that were once considered too small and too urban to be compatible with the District’s system of preserves and natural areas.

By design, the Forest Preserves circle the city, an oasis of natural areas and vast open spaces offering an escape from the stress, structure and congestion of urban living.

But what about people who don’t have easy access to the Preserves? NeighborSpace, a unique partnership between the private sector, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, the City of Chicago, and the Chicago Park District, is one of the ways we can expand open space throughout the County.

NeighborSpace works with community organizations like block clubs, schools, and churches to secure land, ranging in size from one to six city lots, for small parks, gardens, natural areas, river edges and scenic landscapes. The lands are managed and developed by local volunteer groups, while NeighborSpace provides site permanency, insurance, annual monitoring, response to emergencies and, when possible, access to a dedicated water source. To date NeighborSpace has acquired 81 sites, primarily in underserved areas of the city, and has more than 4,500 community volunteers.

NeighborSpace is both expansive and inclusive, with each site as unique as the community that surrounds it. For example,

  • One garden donates their vegetables to both the Inspiration Café (a free restaurant staffed by and dedicated to the homeless) and Groceryland (a free supermarket run by Open Hand Chicago that serves low-income persons with AIDS).
  • Whittier Elementary School’s educational garden includes economic education by selling herbs to a high-profile local restaurant;
  • A 1.5 acre Chicago River edge has been carefully restored by neighbors who maintain it as a native habitat and a community nature trail;
  • Windy City Harvest and Growing Home run training farms on land protected by NeighborSpace, teaching residents valuable life skills while providing produce for the community;
  • Hundreds of families have access to vegetable plots right in their own neighborhoods. Children from Rogers Park to South Deering and from the South Loop to Austin are learning the value of wildlife through gardens in their communities which include native plantings, bird habitats, butterfly gardens and rain gardens.

NeighborSpace empowers communities to help themselves. The sites foster solidarity and pride among residents who come together to create and maintain them. They also attract developers, and help reduce violence with community presence and involvement.

Through NeighborSpace, the Forest Preserve District and other agencies are addressing a need that cannot be fulfilled by residents acting alone. NeighborSpace is a success because of the founding agencies’ belief in the benefits of open space preservation and community involvement, and their commitment to supporting the efforts of neighborhood volunteers.

To learn more about NeighborSpace, visit neighbor-space.org