© Brodie Kerst Productions

Discover Lamar Johnson Collaborative’s Design Process for Outdoor Amenity Space POPCourts!

Chicago, IL, United States

Architizer Editors Architizer Editors


PopCourts! – Imagined as a respite from the struggles brought on by the pandemic, PopCourts! provides much-needed outdoor amenity space in the heart of the Austin neighborhood on the West side of Chicago. It is part of a larger vision to bring development to Chicago’s historically underinvested communities. Our vision for the project was to create an engaging and exciting space with a bold identity that would become a catalyst for new development in the community. The final result is an easily programmable and interactive plaza which acts as a canvas for the community to take over.

Architizer chatted with Anezka Gocova, Landscape Architect & Urban Planner at Lamar Johnson Collaborative to learn more about this project.

Architizer: What inspired the initial concept for your design?

Anezka Gocova: POPCourts is part of a larger plan to improve the quality of life, access, visibility, and agency in historically underserved neighborhoods. The empty lot at Chicago and Lockwood has a long history of violence and unrest. Located on a prominent corner, the site had potential to spark a community-led transformation the neighborhood.
POPCourts! was designed as an armature for gathering, engagement, and change. The project includes three zones, “Courts,” each serving a variety of community functions, with the programming meant to be flexible, allowing activities to “Pop” up and transform over time. The basketball court doubles as a community plaza. The gravel drive will host food trucks, farmers market and other seasonal vendors, and the shaded lawn functions as a Food Court with casual seating.

© Brodie Kerst Productions

© Brodie Kerst Productions

What do you believe is the most unique or ‘standout’ component of the project?

POPCourts! exemplifies the power of communication. Community, government, designers, and builders all worked together in a truly collaborative effort. POPCourts! was effectively planned, designed, built, and ultimately programmed and occupied during a time of extraordinary challenge and need.

The success of POPCourts! lies in the non-traditional nature of the project. The project team, which included city officials, community leaders, architects and planners, artists, and a general contractor, met virtually weekly (officially), but were in contact almost daily discussing details of the project. The contractor worked off of design sketches, and often suggested changes that helped relieve schedule and budget challenges. The sense of urgency, and the mission, bonded the team and community and resulted in a space that is positively impacting the neighborhood beyond what we imagined.

What was the greatest design challenge you faced during the project, and how did you navigate it?

POPCourts was envisioned to be a semi-temporary space, with a lifespan of only 3-5 years and a limited budget. The team was also challenged with visioning, gaining support for, and building the project “as soon as possible”. As the team kicked off the project in late August 2020, the goal was to open POPCourts! while the weather was still conducive to outdoor gathering¬− to give residents an open public space during the height of COVID. Our team worked through several designs in a matter of days and then used the in-house construction estimators to provide high level pricing, to make sure the proposed design stayed on budget.

© Brodie Kerst Productions

© Brodie Kerst Productions

How did the context of your project — environmental, social or cultural — influence your design?

As a result of systematic disinvestment of African-American neighborhoods in Chicago, communities like Austin have had to endure years of underfunding of public open space. One of the goals of the project was to create a space that would showcase Austin’s robust arts and culture and would become the envy of affluent neighborhoods in the city. It was meant as a catalyst of pride in the community and a symbol of resiliency and change that would spark other investments along the corridor.

The construction of the park enabled local artists and contractors to showcase their capabilities and has become a testament to the community’s capacity to self-organize. The pride and delight that residents take in the project can be felt through the way people interact with the site and even through posts on social media.

© Brodie Kerst Productions

© Brodie Kerst Productions

How have your clients responded to the finished project?

POPCourts! is continually used as an example, by the Mayor’s Office and DPD, of successful engagement, design, and execution of community space along an INVEST SouthWest Corridor. The city’s desire to replicate this model, as a catalyst for other corridors, recently led to the introduction of the POP! program. Public Outdoor Plazas (POP!) is a $10 million dollar grant designed to help community-based organizations revitalize underutilized land along neighborhood retail corridors. The program, based on POPCourts! and introduced in February of 2022, is seeking proposals to create strategic community gathering spaces that serve as destination points for local residents, shoppers, commuters and neighborhood visitors. The city expects 8-12 more plazas to be complete by the end of 2022.

© Brodie Kerst Productions

© Brodie Kerst Productions

Is there anything else important you’d like to share about this project?

This project was accompanied by a film that told the story behind the architects, city, and community coming together to build for the better. With the help of Brodie Kerst, the filmmaker, this film won the 2021 AIA Film Challenge which helped project this project into nationwide exposure. The story of success that is told in the 3-minute video sets the precedent for small projects that have the power to make a large impact.

To watch this film please visit the following link.

Team Members

Alan Barker, Anezka Gocova, Max Komnenich, Vanessa Stokes, Mary O’Connor, Brodie Kerst


Butler Frelix Construction LLC., West Side Health Authority, Paint the City, Chicago Department of Planning and Development Funding by: United Way of Metro Chicago, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)

For more on POPCourts! please visit the in-depth project page on Architizer.

POPCourts! Gallery

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