Parks are viewed as places to relax, and a recent innovation at Scoville, Lindberg, Taylor and Mills parks in Oak Park now allow visitors to recharge their cellphones while they relax and recharge themselves.

“Soofa Cores,” solar-powered charging units adjacent to park benches, have been installed at each of the aforementioned parks. Users of these free devices only need USB cable to charge a cellphone.

“To encourage innovation and collaboration, the Park District of Oak Park has a program called ‘Launch Pad,’ which is designed to help staff get good ideas off the ground,” said Bobbi Nance, the park district’s senior manager of strategy and innovation. “The Soofas were shared by an employee through this program in March and staff saw the potential to provide a new service to a very connected community. 

“A staff member had the chance to meet with the Soofa staff and see the devices in person where they were first tested in Boston in 2014.”

According to the park district, Soofas will take about the same amount of time to charge a cellphone as through a standard outlet. If the cellphone is dead, it will take about 30 seconds to turn back on. Each Soofa can charge two cellphones at the same and an average of 10 hours per Soofa per day. 

Even during inclement weather or at night, park visitors will be able to charge their cellphone as Soofas store energy collected during daylight hours for use any time.

In addition to the free phone-charging amenity, the park district will utilize the Soofas to keep track of how many people visit the parks by counting Wi-Fi enabled devices. This information will help foster a better understanding of park usage patterns.

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Soofa was founded by a group of female engineers and designers from MIT and Harvard.

Soofa technology is currently being used in five countries and 18 states with Oak Park as the first community in Illinois to install the equipment.  

 “The design of the Soofa units that we purchased made it easy to roll out an initial pilot of the equipment,” Nance said. “Because they are solar-powered, the only installation work needed was to select the locations and add a small concrete pad to secure the Soofas to the ground. 

“This helped keep the cost of the pilot program down compared to other park equipment installations. It took the park district about six months from the initial idea to installation.”

Factoring in the additional park visitor tracking hardware, each Soofa cost $2,900. The park district has a small innovation fund, created by using the additional fees charged to non-residents when registering for park district programs.

Early feedback from park visitors has been positive about the four Soofas.

“Although they’re still very new, we’ve already had over 60 people use them, with as many as 10 people in a day,” Nance said. “As more park users learn about them, we expect to see the usage rise.”

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Marty Farmer

The Illinois Press Association recently honored Marty with the 1st & 2nd Place Awards for Best Sports Feature for his article He's in an Oak Park state of mind: Former OPRF star Iman Shumpert returns...

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