Lincoln Park Zoo’s community engagement initiatives prioritize working with community organizations and residents in partner neighborhoods to establish long-term relationships and create meaningful change that benefits both people and wildlife.
To bring each community’s ideas to life, we collaborate and co-create—we listen to, learn about, and act upon our partners’ dreams so that we can make them a reality together. Our programs are not really ours. They are the products of each community’s vision for how they want to connect to wildlife in their neighborhood.
Through these efforts, residents of Chicago connect to nature in ways meaningful to them: the first step in creating environments where wildlife and people will thrive.
Artecito is a free, bimonthly program developed with OPEN Center for the Arts that uses the arts to engage families with nature in ways that resonate with local holidays, culture, and wildlife. Every session is planned and facilitated by both Lincoln Park Zoo educators and local artists. With a related art activity, workshops highlight wildlife and nature to encourage children and families to think about nature and their relationship to it in creative ways. The program includes visual arts, such as painting and crafting, as well as performing arts, like theater, dance, and music—and with 24 unique themes, every session offers something new. Sessions rotate between OPEN Center for the Arts and other partner organizations across Marshall Square/Little Village to make the program accessible to everyone in the neighborhood.
Hammond Elementary Learning Garden
Hammond Elementary Learning Garden is a communal green space designed and created by parents, teachers, and students alongside Lincoln Park Zoo’s community engagement staff. Previously an empty lot surrounded by a chain-link fence, this addition to Hammond Elementary School includes an outdoor classroom, nature play space, exercise area, pollinator gardens, and community garden beds, providing a local outdoor green space for students to explore and enjoy nature. Lincoln Park Zoo’s Horticulture staff helped finalize the design and plant list, and a local artist decorated the space by creating a mural with students.
Since the garden’s completion in 2019, the zoo’s community engagement staff has partnered with Hammond teachers to bring every classroom, grades preK–8, to the space each semester for a science class. The school also provides nearly a dozen garden boxes to families, who can plant and harvest their own vegetables.
The WILD Marshall Square
Through The WILD Marshall Square, in collaboration with OPEN Center for the Arts, Marshall Square/Little Village elementary students, grades preK–1, visit Lincoln Park Zoo each year to observe and learn about the adaptations and natural behaviors of various species. Past editions highlighted chimpanzees and polar bears. In order to strengthen their observations, students draw the animals and engage in hands-on activities to explore the animals’ features and behaviors.
Then, community members and staff from Lincoln Park Zoo’s Conservation and Science department and Animal Care department select a handful of the students’ drawings for artists from OPEN Center for the Arts to turn into life-size sculptures. The sculptures will be installed in Marshall Square/Little Village to celebrate the contributions of young and local artists and bring attention to wildlife.
Lincoln Park Zoo partners with Enlace Chicago, a nonprofit in Little Village dedicated to improving quality of life in Little Village and building capacity to confront systemic inequities, to train the organization’s community garden leaders in nature-based topics, such as soil, pollinators, invertebrates, native plants, and local wildlife. Over time, the partnership, called Programa ProTEJA, evolved to offer another layer of capacity building—Enlace’s community garden leaders have begun training their colleagues to spread their learnings to more people and spaces in the community.
As a result of this train-the-trainer model, Enlace can spread the environmental and conservation messages to approximately 150 people every summer across several community gardens. At the same time, the community garden leaders have gained additional leadership experience that helps Enlace build more capacity.
Douglass 18 is a multi-disciplinary program employing young people, ages 16–21, from North Lawndale to create nature-based art installations to improve the miniature golf course adjacent to the Douglas Park Cultural Center, which had been closed for several years. The program participants, called the Conservation Architect Team, themed the redesign after local bird species that thrive in the park, such as northern cardinals, Baltimore orioles, and black-crowned night herons. Each hole focuses on a different bird’s life history, diet, colorings, and other distinguishing features, requiring each designer to research their individual species to create accurate representations while inserting nature-based content into a recreational space.
After the designs were completed, professional artists and multiple organizations lent their expertise and resources to bring the designers’ visions to life. The project involved partnerships with local artists Haman Cross III and Eric Hotchkiss, Firehouse Community Arts Center, Chicago Park District’s Re:Center Initiative, Open Architecture Chicago, Site Design, and University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture professor David Brown. The project also received support from Alderman Michael Scott Jr., the School of the Art Institute at Homan Square, LL Bean, and the Trust for Public Land.
Gardeneers is a North Lawndale-based organization that creates school gardens, on the South and West sides, and supports them through ongoing programming about healthy food. Each space also provides habitat for urban wildlife, providing ample opportunities for learning through observing biodiversity, implementing wildlife research methods, appreciating native plants, and more.
Lincoln Park Zoo collaborates with the organization to create and implement lessons for elementary and high school students about the different dimensions of a healthy ecosystem, from growing food for humans to creating habitat for wildlife. The zoo’s educators train the Gardeneers educators on each subject, and then Gardeneers facilitate these lessons to hundreds of students at five schools in North Lawndale: DRW College Prep, North Lawndale College Prep, Chalmers Elementary School, Holy Family School, and LEARN Charter School. Lincoln Park Zoo staff also take each school on one outdoor field trip each semester, visiting locations such as local forest preserves and the zoo’s Nature Boardwalk.