Chicago Park District CEO and General Superintendent Michael Kelly gears up for another action-packed springtime in the city.
Michael Kelly photographed at the Chicago Park District’s Garfield Park Conservatory, one of the largest conservatories in the world.
It’s a bitterly cold Friday afternoon in mid-February—the kind of raw, gray day that makes it feel like winter may never end—but Michael Kelly’s face is lighting up as he anticipates spring in the Windy City. “It means opening day for baseball season,” enthuses the Chicago Park District CEO and general superintendent. “It means the grass starts to grow. It means the Lakefront Trail—people start coming out in droves. It means opening our playgrounds and, for all our capital projects, it means breaking new ground. Spring is king for us.”
As the chief of the nation’s largest municipal park district (Chicago boasts more than 8,300 acres of open space, 580 parks, 31 beaches, 50 nature areas, and two conservatories), Kelly’s got a big job: making sure that after all the snow has melted, the city blossoms and grows, living up to its motto, “Urbs in Horto” (“City in a Garden”). It’s hard to imagine someone better fit for the task. A native of Mount Greenwood on the southwest side and a current resident of West Morgan Park with his wife and four young children, the 43-year-old practically grew up in the parks. “The Park District was in my life since I was 3 years old, when I learned to swim at the pool,” he reminisces. “Our Mount Greenwood Park had everything for us. I played hockey; I learned how to wrestle in the park. You name it.” At 23, Kelly served in the city’s department of human services as a youth-service worker; after graduating from DePaul law school in 2001 and working in various positions with the City of Chicago, he joined the Park District as director of inter-governmental affairs, working his way up to first deputy general counsel (the CPD’s first), COO, and in 2011, general superintendent and CEO.
Since then, Kelly has seriously stepped up the Park District’s game: He led the agency to the NRPA’s 2014 Gold Medal Award for excellence in planning and resource management—a first for the city, and, says Kelly with pride, the equivalent of winning “the national championship of parks.” Now, with the Mayor Emanuel-driven vision of “Children First,” Kelly and his team have embarked on a series of ambitious new projects to ensure that the city’s kids are well-served: 168 new playgrounds completed under the mayor’s Chicago Plays! program, with an additional 78 on the docket for 2015; new, cutting-edge parks like La Villita in the Little Village neighborhood as well as the new 606 recreation area and Maggie Daley Park (see page 54); and soon-to-come projects like a 600-acre cyclo-cross course on the far South Side that Kelly pledges will be the best in the country—“and probably the world.”
At the crux of the department’s success, insists Kelly, is his team. It’s a statement that would normally provoke an eye roll, but, in the case of CPD, rings true: In peak season, scattered across Chicago is a CPD staff of 7,100 recreation leaders, camp counselors, lifeguards, landscapers, park attendants, and tradespeople. “What I’m most proud of is the sense of morale and pride that I get from our employees,” says Kelly, who has visited every park in the city during his four-and-a-half-year tenure. “When I’m out in the field I can look our folks in the eye and say, ‘You are the front line.’ Our people are like that great teacher or coach you had growing up that you’ll never forget. Let’s face it, you’re trusting your 5-or 6-year-old to the staff of the Park District—that’s an awesome responsibility.”
Kelly acknowledges that running the CPD isn’t all green grass and laughing kids; limited resources are a constant challenge. “In a typical year, two-thirds of [our capital] goes to maintenance,” notes Kelly. “That doesn’t leave much money.” For his team, that means hustling for partnerships—with the state, the federal government, and local community groups—to keep the money flowing. “We can’t just sit back and say, ‘We’ll get to you when we get to you,’” he says. “People in Chicago love their parks, and they want to see improvements in their child’s lifetime.”
In his travels, Kelly has found inspiration in green spaces from Philadelphia to Paris—“Every city we go, I’m dragging my family to the parks”—but he’s adamant that there’s no place like home. “A lot of park districts have more land,” he concedes. “But nobody has the facilities we have; we’re second to none. We really are the green fabric of the city.”