One of the most profound realizations I came to in finishing this project was just how wrong my assumptions were about the scope of our parks and the organizations that run them. There's a lot to unpack when you analyze and start to define something like a taxing body, which is responsible to not only everyone, but to many individuals, all based on something that is collectively funded and run through a governmental system of checks and balances. That funding has restrictions — and it has layers of red tape to cut through — in order to actually write a check for this, that, or the other.
I think I knew all that, but once you truly begin to see the layers, and explore the depth of difficulty that it contains, perspective changes.
In my opinion, these are the twenty best parks to visit and explore in all of Champaign-Urbana. Does that mean they are the twenty best kept? No. Does it mean that they are the twenty that provide the most amenities? No. Does it mean that I am a human being with thoughts and feelings and a forty plus year history living here that played a role in this assessment?
Look, there's no one person who can define what the "best" of anything is, honestly. I have my perspective, and I think it is both cogent and valuable. But what matters the most here is that no matter how you choose to assign a ranking to some thing or things — a parks system in this case — it's that you are thinking and feeling something strong about it. It is good to feel passion about things like this!
Thanks again for reading these, whatever you were able to read, or if you are just reading this right now for the first time. If that is the case, feel free to explore what I unpacked over the last year. Soon enough, I will retire my byline at Smile Politely, (probably forever, who knows, let's not speak in absolutes!) and I hope that this series called Year of the Park is something that endures, and that someone will update it down the line, as we continue to rattle on together as citizens of this weird, but spritely, Midwestern community.
And now! Your Top 20 Best Parks in Champaign-Urbana:
Sunnycrest Tot Lot: Photo by Tim Bailey.
If this isn't the cutest little spot to take a young kid around, I don't know what is. I shoulda taken my kids here more often now that they are too old to really enjoy it the right way. Don't waste time if you have them in your life; this is such a wonderful old timey little snack of a park.
Bristol Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
Here we get to celebrate the amazing work that the Department of Public Works and Office of Economic Development at the City of Champaign can provide when they are given the funding and direction from council. This area, and this park, was once a total disaster. It is now truly a lovely place to live.
The work isn't done yet. The bloated police budget and governmental incompetence that exists at the highest levels of the City remains, but at a minimum, this area of town will get the benefit of existing in a good spot for whoever inherits the role of leadership in Champaign. You can't yet say the same for Garden Hills, but who is counting?
Spalding Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
I think maybe this is a bit high of a ranking for Spalding, but because the designs for its future are solid, and because of this gnarly skate park inside of it, and because it has the best local baseball field around (despite the bullshit turf on the mound and in the batter's box) this one gets the high marks it gets. Also, the park has magnificent trees and a shady grove that is just sort of unlike any other spot around.
Colbert Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
I do not like the suburb of Savoy. This has been established. I think the people who ran the Village for its past history are actually fairly selfish and stupid, and some of them were well known white supremacists who deserved to be publicly humiliated and they were! But whoever did Colbert Park did a really nice job. This is the best hill to roll down in town. It also has a lovely lake you can catch and release little fish in. The playground is magnificent, and it is a showcase of the value of putting funding and resources into shared spaces for everyone to enjoy.
Savoy: you really need to elect some competent people in the coming years. I don't live there, so I can't vote there, and I wouldn't ever consider it, because... fuck that. But reader, you might live here, and that's OK, that is good! If you do, please, help yourselves up your game. Your game mostly sucks. Skateland is great though.
Davidson Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
Like the Sunnycrest Tot Lot above, Davidson Park has an idyllic flavor to it, and it is situated in a place that makes it unique and rewarding each and every visit. If there were ever a hidden gem in Champaign as far as parks go, I think this one is it.
Robeson Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
One of the wonderful parts of living in a community like this one for your whole life is getting to watch families grow and develop into more magnificent pieces of the community as time goes on. The Robeson family is synonymous with that idea. This is Kyle and Phyllis Robeson's gift to Champaign, and their children have continued to define that legacy with legacies of their own. Lots of wide open space; a great path for biking and walking, and honestly, just the right vibes. Love this park.
Kaufmann Lake: Photo by Maddie Rice.
This one, again, might rank a little high on this list, but obviously, I am only human. A piece of it is named for my Aunt, Bobbie Herakovich, who put in twelve years as Executive Director, and continues to be present in the growth of CPD and its projects. So it gets some extra love from me in that regard. It should be named Herakovich Lake as far as I am concerned. At least Kaufmann Lake at Herakovich Park. Let's try to honor the ladies and the non-binary and people of color a bit more moving forward, eh?
Beyond that, it's a great place for a walk, any time of year. It has interesting connectivity to Heritage Park which connects to Dodds Park. You can see some of the best public artwork around in the form of graffiti by sneaking under the I-72 bridge to the north. And you can catch fish here, and keep them, and eat them. Don't worry, the poisons they carry aren't any worse than the poison you just put into your body with that bag of Doritos, buddy. I assure you.
Scott Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
The job well done that CPD accomplished with the renewed Scott Park on Springfield and 3rd St. in Campustown cannot be overstated. The skyline view is incredible, and the park itself is really beautiful. Add to it connectivity to Helms Park and to the Second Street Basin, and you have yourself #13 on a list of 82 parks for a reason.
Crestview Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
No one agrees with me about this park, and I understand why. The Sunnycrest Shopping District is sort of a wasteland now, and there's not much to it. But this park, and the Japanese gardens that are on site, are what makes it for me. I love any park that offers something beyond the standard playground, sports hoop, shelter rubber stamp. Give it a shot one day, and I assure you, it is worth your time.
Eisner Park: Image from Champaign County Historical Museum.
The history of Eisner Park is magnificent. Just look at the way it used to be back in the day! But now, it's still a great little neighborhood park with lots of old trees and amenities. The Hays Recreation Center is wonderful and the "turf grass" tennis court is unique and fun to play on. Awesome spot.
Blair Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
A few years ago, Blair doesn't make the Top 20. Today, it makes the Top 10 with a bullet! Work is underway and now that it will have a walking / jogging loop, and magnificent new facilities for kids and families, we have to call it: this is one of the best parks in town. Climb the trees, my friends! They are climbable and it is worth your time!
Mattis Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
I am not much of a south side of Champaign kinda guy, but Mattis Park makes me so happy when I am there. There is a majestic beauty to your walk, and it might be the best place to bring a picnic in the city. I love that Moore Park is basically connected to it as well, which is its own valuable space in its own rite. Love this one.
Trevett-Finch Park: Photo by Maddie Rice.
I implore you to find me a more dynamic and interesting tree in the entire state of Illinois. Seriously, someone show me a tree this incredible? I want to see it. This is the best spot to meet a friend and have a chat anywhere in Champaign-Urbana.
Clark Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
In the end, it's the sandbox and the toy truck collection that makes the difference here for me. Something about that, about the natural way that came to pass, with people just donating their old toy trucks for younger kids to make use of them, makes this park a Top Tenner for me. Just a feeling, really.
West Side Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
West Side Park should be higher on this list, but the dearth of programming and lack of bathrooms puts it where it is. That doesn't mean I don't love the park. I really really love West Side Park and continue to frequent it more than just about any other due to the proximity to my home. I need to make that 100% clear, and with emphasis so I am going to bold, italicize, and underline this next sentence: I love West Side Park and I need you to understand that!
But it can be, and should be, much more than it is. That will require programming, and more vision, and I don't just mean putting on some "live music" for people to not really care about.
Jesus Harold Christ, you can't just put on live music and expect it to fulfill the vast potential of "programming" that a park could host! Trust me on this one. This park needs complimentary programming to its already gorgeous space, and that means food, served from trucks, IN THE PARK, and not just at certain times. It needs food trucks all the time, regularly scheduled, and yes — paid for by us. It also needs to be an Open Container park, because this is 2021, and whatever you read in the Bible about drinking being bad is fundamentally and literally untrue. Let me remind you that Jesus Christ himself announced himself as not just a deity but THE DEITY — THE GREAT GODDAMNED I AM — to worship by miraculously creating the best wine in the land from nothing more than water to a wedding that couldn't afford to have it.
I don't believe that story, honestly, but regardless, maybe we should have some wine together at West Side Park? Maybe that would be a nice thing for me and you to do. I drink wine at West Side Park, because I am an adult, and I don't really give a rat's ass about the "rules" that some clowns decided upon because they are too shortsighted to understand what builds community.
I love this park. Evidently, I love it more than everyone on the Park Board. That's clear by now. I'd like to see it become better through smart programming and by telling board members to grow up. Seriously, please. Time to grow up.
Douglass Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
Thank God for the community that surrounds this gorgeous park. This is a prime example the Black community doing for them, since the rest of us don't seem to know how to do it well enough, or even at all. The good news is that with each passing year, the Champaign Park District, and Unit 4, and the City of Champaign, continues to improve upon it, and seems to be listening better, to assist the neighborhood who primarily cares for it. This is important work.
There is work to do! I am looking forward to watching it materialize, very much. I believe in this community, all of it.
Crystal Lake Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
Honestly, this is my favorite park in all of Champaign-Urbana. I do not think it is the Best park in all of Champaign-Urbana, however. It lacks the connectivity to Downtown Urbana that it needs, currently and it is under construction. But the UPD is on the case, and I believe as time goes on, it is going to find itself in the discussion for Best Park in town. The world you can explore here, particularly because of Busey Woods being attached to it, is just marvelous. I love this park so so much.
Like West Side Park, I also think it needs more programming, in order to find connectivity to the Downtown area. I think it would be wise for UPD to explore opportunities beyond the standard fare. There are things, particularly with the Lake House and its facility, that could truly change the identity of what it is and how it interacts with the community. But I like where it is going, and I look forward to seeing what they have planned.
Hessel Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
It is Champaign's best and most comprehensive park, because it is the park that the Champaign Park District has made the most investments in over the years, by my standards. Being next door to Custard Cup doesn't hurt, of course, but there's so much to love here. A splash pad for kids, and a huge playground to go with it. A walking path that is easy to love. The best public tennis courts around. A tremendous pavilion (that should also be an outdoor WiFi cafe and weekend pub but a boy can dream!) gives way to one of the best park groves you can find.
When we invest in our parks, we invest in ourselves. Hessel Park is the park that showcases that more than any in Champaign.
Carle Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
In a sentence: this park is magical. In another sentence: I invite you to spend as much time here as you possibly can. Final sentence: this is actually my favorite park in all of Champaign-Urbana.
Meadowbrook Park: Photo by Tim Bailey.
Alas, this is the Best Park in Champaign-Urbana, and honestly, it's not even close. I am not going to rehash the reasons why here. I invite you to click the link above and read Dana Mancuso's history about it, and then watch our little video below. But yes, Meadowbrook Park is the type of park that would go noticed in literally any city worldwide. It is our crown jewel here in C-U, above all others, and the story of how it came to pass is so compelling.
As someone who grew up across the street from it, and watched it arrive in my youth, I am smitten by it, of course. But setting emotions aside, this place is just perfect. Truly and absolutely perfect. Well done, UPD.