With larger-than-life cherries and tiny buildings popping up from vibrantly colored turf, the Douglass 18 miniature golf course might look like any other whimsical iteration of the game. But this one has a twist: Local teens designed this course to teach players about Chicago’s birds.
Along with obstacles that show diet or habitat, each hole has a sign with a photo of a bird and some information about that species. As golfers place their balls on the turf at Hole 1 and line up their first shots, they’ve already been presented with a bird fact: the high mortality rate of American Robins, the hole’s namesake. Many songbirds face the same challenge. “After they leave the nest, about half of the American Robins alive in any year will make it to the next,” reads the sign.
Three years ago, this golf course in Douglass Park, on Chicago’s West Side, was a dismal sight. The old, run-down course had sat vacant for years—turf peeling away, central fountain not operational. Chicago artist Haman Cross III decided to revitalize it with the help of surrounding residents. He teamed up with the city’s Lincoln Park Zoo, community and corporate partners, and dozens of local teens to create a new course that would be a safe space in his neighborhood of North Lawndale. Cross had already been involved in community building through peace marches, art exhibitions, and murals, and he wanted to lead a project where teenagers could redevelop a community space. The bird theme made sense for a park that's a birding hotspot, hosting more than 200 species each year. “We did the birds that you see regularly, but you just don't know anything about,” Cross says.
After sinking golf balls at the American Robin, players progress past holes for the Baltimore Oriole and the Dickcissel. At Hole 4, golf balls ricochet off a metal Northern Cardinal nest. The next hole pays homage to the Barn Swallow, which likes to make nests on man-made structures. Tiffany Tam, 19, designed this hole to teach visitors about basic facts of the bird’s biology. “The turf is blue, which resembles their color,” she says. Golfers navigate around houses with mud nests under them, a nod to the bird’s specialized construction skills.
The teens joined the project through employment programs for young people. At first, some of them “didn't see themselves as artists, didn't believe that they could do this type of work,” Cross says. So many of the early activities focused on confidence-building and education. To prepare for designing the holes, the teens first learned how mini-golf worked through field trips to other local courses, and they took extensive lessons on bird life: They began with the basics, studying adaptations and anatomy. Jaeda Branch, North Lawndale community programs lead at Lincoln Park Zoo, led the teens through PowerPoint presentations and birding walks.
Then came the art component: The students chose birds that can be commonly found in Chicago and designed models of their holes. “This is the most fun part for me,” says Kanaan Deer, 19, one of the young architects of the course, who enjoys drawing, painting, and graphic design. “We used foam, we used clay, we used ceramic, wiring, wood, plastic, all types of things to make a rough draft, basically, of the golf course.” In the end, a manufacturing company brought their designs to life.
Some holes call attention to the threats to local and migratory species. Building strikes are a huge concern for birds in Chicago, which could be the most dangerous U.S. city for migrating birds due to its glass buildings and location on a major flyway. At Hole 8, the American Goldfinch, players choose whether to aim their shot through doorways in miniature skyscrapers or avoid the obstacles altogether. “It makes it hard for players to putt through,” Branch says. “That was inspired by the challenges that the birds face.”
In Chicago's sea of glass and concrete, Douglass Park is a haven for birds. Trees and a lagoon near the golf course provide habitat for species in the city. Likewise, Douglass 18 is meant to be a safe spot for people, where Chicagoans can take their families.
North Lawndale, say many involved in the project, has a reputation of being violent, and parts of it are underdeveloped or underfunded. But it’s transitioning, Cross says. In 2020, student activists succeeded in renaming Douglass Park after abolitionists Anna and Frederick Douglass, rather than its original namesake, pro-slavery former Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. And throughout the process of making the golf course, the residents advocated for more resources for their West Side park from the Chicago Park District.
“This was a good fit to showcase what's possible when the community can show up and be a part of the development and the change that's happening,” Cross says. “There are people here who have great ideas and are competent and able to deliver.”
This project is a concept that people anywhere can use to revitalize their community and make spaces for birds, says Shannon Waldron, marketing manager for Douglass 18. He's seen, for example, gardens created out of vacant lots in the city. "I think anyone and everyone can put something like this together," he says. "It doesn't have to be a miniature golf course."
Moving past the American Goldfinch hole, even the most novice birder might recognize some of the next few species: Canada Goose, Ring-billed Gull, and American Crow. Deer designed Hole 15 for the Great Blue Heron with cutouts of fish and a small bridge next to the hole that golfers can try to hit the ball over. “Their habitat is a lake, so I got the bridge idea from that,” he says.
On the last and 18th hole, cutouts of American Tree Sparrows peer out from metal branches at the golfers who try to putt around massive earthworms. In the living trees right beside this hole, real sparrows flit from branch to branch. The golf course is an oasis in the city, Cross says. “You see humans and nature, wildlife coexisting.”