PopCourts! – A Small Plaza That Turned Into a Movement

Honor Award

Urban Design

Chicago, Illinois, United States
The Lamar Johnson Collaborative
Client: West Side Health Authority

An exemplar of activating community-centered public urban space that brings people together, empowers, and benefits the local community. It has an incredible community impact using color and whimsy to transform vacant sites. An inspiring and creative way to bring new life to underutilized land while providing unique and engaging community-centered spaces. Fun, joy, energy, and imagination are front and center in this design.

- 2023 Awards Jury

Project Credits

West Side Health Authority, community partner (PopCourts!, PopGrove, PopF!t)

Far South Community Development Corporation, community partner (PopHeights!)

City of Chicago- Department of Planning, partner

Project Statement

PopCourts! is a public plaza that not only transformed a historically disinvested commercial corridor but also changed how the City of Chicago thinks about vacant space. Designed, funded and built in less than a year, the project became a case study and inspiration for the “Public Outdoor Plaza” program. The “POP” program, has pledged to fund ten more community plazas along neighborhood retail corridors in historically underinvested and primarily black and brown communities.

Since the grant's inception in 2022, the design team has designed five additional "Pop" projects. All are either built or on their way to being constructed; each is designed to meet the unique needs of their communities and respond to global trends.

Project Narrative

As a post-pandemic response, PopCourts! transformed a vacant lot in a historically disinvested commercial corridor and inspired a city-wide initiative to transform other underutilized spaces across Chicago. It is innovative in its placemaking and the way that it engages and mobilizes stakeholders. Community members, public and private funders, and the design community coalesced behind a common goal and built the project in less than a year. POPCourts! was designed to provide a stage for neighborhood gatherings, a canvas for community artists, and a safe space for the local youth. The project includes three zones, familiarly known as "Courts," each serving a variety of community functions. The flexible programming allows activities to "Pop" up and transform over time. Each Court has unique characters and materials. The basketball court doubles as a sports and community plaza. The gravel drive is for food truck parking, farmer's markets, and other seasonal vendors, becoming an informal business incubation space for the community and contributing to the economic resilience of the corridor—the shaded lawn functions as a food court with casual seating that attracts visitors of all ages. Popcourts! is a catalyst and the first of many investments along the corridor, including two miles of streetscape, small business investments, and new construction civic and residential projects; it marks a shift in the community. The success of PopCourts! and its brand inspired the city to dedicate 10 million dollars to a city-wide Public Outdoor Plaza (POP) program to support community-based organizations in their efforts to spur economic development and activate underutilized commercial corridors. The design team has built three more "Pop" projects since the establishment of the grant in 2022, PopGrove, PopF!t and PopHeights, each tailored to the unique needs of its community. PopGrove was developed on a vacant site along a commercial corridor in a neighborhood that lacks greenspace and biodiversity. The project team took special care to incorporate indigenous and pollinator-friendly vegetation, increase the tree canopy, and utilize permeable materials across the site. As a result, the site was transformed into an "oasis" for the local community. PopF!t improves African American health by increasing opportunities for recreation, including a multi-functional field, a walking track, and fitness equipment in a neighborhood with insufficient outdoor sports facilities. This park also garners excitement and builds momentum while the rest of the site is being developed into a community and workforce development center. PopHeights, is the first park built in the Roseland neighborhood in 50 years. The project benefits area residents by providing inspiring, beautiful, and culturally relevant programmed community spaces. While Roseland is firmly grounded in rich history and family values, it lacks engaging, dedicated public open spaces that encourage residents of all ages to connect. This project presents new opportunities to unite community members in accessible, creative, and exciting ways. Activating this vacant parcel increases residents' access to arts, culture, and nature.