It was during that time that Chicago native and urban planner Kesley Zlevor — who is next up in Allerton Park and Retreat Center’s Joan and Peter Hood In-Residence Program — was empowered to find ways that public spaces could be better designed for those who are experiencing depression.
“Rooted in my role as a parks planning consultant and my experience as a park user with a psychological disability living alone during the COVID-19 pandemic, I began asking: how might park and public space design reflect the lived experiences of people with depression in order to foster healing and belonging?” said Zlevor, who moved back to Chicago about a year ago after eight years in Oregon.
“I have found that tactile experiences and access to nature are critical in supporting people through depressive episodes, which fuels my commitment to applying park and outdoor space ‘design amendments’ that are informed by social neuroscience, lived experiences and reflect the power of our mental and physical relationship to the natural world.”
Zlevor will share her passion for parks and mental health awareness as the next participant in Allerton’s In-Residence program, where she will be onsite until mid-November.
Her time will be spent researching and offering public outreach programs. Zlevor said her preliminary work has found people with depression can benefit from comfortable seating, access to bodies of water, encouraging tactile experiences and having spaces to play (for adults and children).
She said Allerton is an ideal fit for her research.
“Allerton is an incredibly unique residency and a perfect fit for me in this way: A beloved and familiar park to many that is making space for creatives like myself to experiment with new ideas,” Zlevor said.
The In-Residence program at the Monticello-area park began in 2020 and has hosted painters, poets, authors, naturalists, photographers and playwrights. It enables participants to stay at the part between two and six weeks to explore their ideas, immerse themselves in the serene surroundings of the park and engage with area communities.
“This residency program as provided so many artists and naturalists an opportunity to engage with the park and provide great outreach events for our community,” Allerton Senior Program Coordinator Olivia Bunting said.
“Some of our residents wouldn’t have had the chance to experience the beauty and awe of this place that we all love so much if it weren’t for this residency program, and the thought of Allerton being a topic of conversation all across the country is pretty neat.”
There is already an opportunity scheduled to enable community members to work with Zlevor as she conducts her research. Mental Landscapes: Community Workshop for Designing with Depression will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9. Sessions are free but registration is required at www.allerton.illinois.edu.
“I am deeply grateful to Allerton for hosting me at this pivotal point in my work,” Zlevor said. “I look forward to engaging with visitors and hope to also explore the impacts of seasonal affective disorder on park use as we transition from summer to fall.”
About Kelsey Zlevor
Kelsey Zlevor is a spatial strategist, design researcher, and cultural worker at the convergence of planning, climate justice, and social change. She is the keeper of Mental Landscapes, an on-going body of independent trauma-informed design research and scholarship that centers on depression and psychological disability in public space design.
Zlevor works with park users across the United States and Canada who have a history of depression with a mission of empowering those with psychological disabilities to be trusted narrators of their own experiences, shaping park design that fosters healing and belonging.
She is a Senior Associate at Muse Community + Design, a Chicago-based women-owned planning firm, and a board member of the Association for Community Design, and Women in Planning and Development.
Allerton Park and Retreat Center is a 1,500-acre public park located just southwest of Monticello, Illinois. The park features formal gardens, natural areas, nearly 16 miles of hiking trails, sculptures, and a historic 1900-era Georgian mansion/retreat center that hosts conferences, weddings and other events. The Mansion and other park properties also feature 34 rooms available to the public for overnight stays.
Allerton Park and Retreat Center is part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The park’s vision is to inspire the community to utilize and value nature, history, and the arts through accessible and sustainable programming, research, and facilities.