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10 Commandments of a good community tour

A neighborhood tour can put your community on the map --- literally. A tour can be a key component in a comprehensive community development strategy, drawing new partners, impressing funders, energizing residents and even promoting local businesses. But only if you do it right, said Joel Bookman of LISC/Chicago.

“I've been on so many bad neighborhood tours,” he said. “Folks don't present their neighborhood in the best possible way because they don't know the tricks of the trade.”

(This article first appeared on the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development website. For a related article on the benefits of neighborhood tours, please click here.)

Photo: Patrick T. Reardon

Carlos Nelson, executive director of Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp., leads a tour through Auburn-Gresham.

In 2009, the Chicago Office of Tourism agreed to promote tours designed and led by neighborhood groups as part of a city-wide celebration, and LISC/Chicago hired two veteran tour guides to help them prepare. One, Vince Michael, is a professor of historic preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Here are his tips for how to design a memorable tour:

I --- Pick a Theme.

Once you've gathered your planning group, you need to choose a theme for your tour, said Michael. “What's attractive or interesting about your neighborhood? Why should we come?”

For instance, Albany Park, a community where more than 50 languages are spoken, chose “Chicago's Gateway to the World” as its focus to highlight its ethnically diverse restaurant and business district.

In East Garfield Park, an African American community, the theme was “A Neighborhood in Bloom,” showcasing its world-class conservatory and major redevelopment efforts following decades of disinvestment.

Chicago Lawn named its tour, “Building a Sweet Community,” not only because it is home to both Tootsie Roll and Nabisco, but because its ethnically diverse residents, formerly in conflict, are now working together to rebuild their business base. 

II --- Include highlights related to the theme.

Photo: Gordon Walek

Indianapolis LISC Executive Director Bill Taft narrates a tour through his city's neighborhoods for Institute board members last fall.

Selecting tour stops that reinforce your theme is the key to a memorable tour, said Michael. Unrelated information is quickly forgotten. But visits to places intrinsic  to the theme can create an engaging narrative.

“We have this natural need to find a story in things,” he explained. “That's what people will remember.”

Albany Park's “Gateway to the World” tour includes a stop at a Cambodian museum and a view of businesses owned by immigrants from Korea, Albania, Lebanon, Jordan, and El Salvador, among others.  The tour in East Garfield Park, “Neighborhood in Bloom,” stops at the Garfield Park Conservatory, a new high school with an environmental theme, and a former brownfield site that is now a center for promoting energy efficient building. 

III --- Tell little human stories.

“People remember stories [more] than facts associated with a place,” Michael explained.

Vincent Michael

For instance, the Chicago Lawn tour included a story about an offshoot of the American Nazi Party that during the 1960s held a loud demonstration each time a non-white family moved into the neighborhood. Finally, the city thought to pass an ordinance requiring them to purchase $250,000 worth of insurance before each demonstration.

The Nazis moved on. 

On one of his own tours, Michael points out a South Side Chicago high school and tells about a student in the 1930s who was so talented that other kids would pay a nickel to hear him play.

The punch line is that it was Nat King Cole,” he said. “That's the sort of story people remember.” 

IV --- Throw in a few statistics.

Overwhelm your audience with dates and numbers, and they'll quickly tune out. But a few well-chosen statistics can pique their curiosity.

Focus on your neighborhood's most remarkable features—perhaps it’s the height of a building, the number of nationalities represented or the number of volunteers who transformed a vacant lot into a garden. 

Knowing some specific facts also makes you sound knowledgeable. (“That building was built in 1912” sounds more knowledgeable than, “That's a cool building and it's really old,” Michael said.)

The advantage in sounding knowledgeable --- but not telling everything you know --- is that it will prompt visitors to ask questions. And asking questions will help them become more engaged and retain more of what you tell them. “People have to be actively engaged to get a message,”  he explained. 

V --- Talk about what's in front of you.

Photo: Courtesy Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp.

Blocks of well-maintained brick two-flats are a prominent feature of the Auburn-Gresham community.

Your tour will be more interesting if you focus on what is actually in view. “One of the things that really frustrates people is if you tell them about something they can't see.  They need something physical to latch onto,” Michael explained. If you need to mention an upcoming sight, explain that it's not yet in view, he said.

At the same time, don't neglect to mention anything large or obvious in the landscape, even if it's not related to your theme, he added. Pause your story if you need to, and point it out. Otherwise, your audience will be distracted.

VI --- Use examples.

If you want to talk about a common feature of your neighborhood, say a particular style of architecture, don't point out every example you can find. Instead, highlight the best example or point out a group of examples on a particular block. In any educational process, there's a fine line between too little repetition and overkill, said Michael.

VII --- Talk in superlatives.  

Is there anything in your neighborhood that is the oldest, the biggest, the smallest, the most, the first, the only of its kind in your city, if not the country or the world?

Chicago Lawn, home of Nabisco, has the world's largest bakery in a single location –-- with 10 ovens each the size of a football field. Superlatives tend to stick in people's memories. Try to include a few in your tour.

VIII --- Make connections between the past and present.

Knowing the history of your neighborhood can add depth to your tour. But don't rely on dry dates and facts.


“What makes history boring is that it’s separate and in the past,” Michael said. “And what makes history interesting is that it has some connection to the present.”

An easy way to connect past and present is to tell a bit about the history of interesting features in the landscape. Chicago's 30-acre River Park was once the site of a Pottawatomie village, for example.

You can also look for stories that explain how the past shaped the present. East Garfield Park's commercial district, for example, was completely destroyed in the riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterwards, the street was rebuilt with much-needed public housing, but that killed the chances of reviving the commercial district in that location.

Contrasting the present with the past is also a great way to highlight your neighborhood's progress. Chicago’s Center for Green Technology, the country first rehabbed building to earn LEED certification for energy and environmental design, was once the site of a dump with debris piled 70 feet high.

IX --- Have a practical plan.

You can choose to organize either a bus or a walking tour depending on the amount of ground you want to cover. But since long bus rides tend to make people antsy and long walks tire them out, a combination of riding and walking is usually best.

Ideally, chose a location in the middle of the tour where visitors can stretch their legs and see the neighborhood close up. About half way through the tour, plan a restroom break.

Make sure that guests have sufficient space to park at the starting point of your tour. Beginning at a spot near public transportation might also attract more visitors.

X --- Leave them wanting more.

Plan on a tour of about two hours. That length will seem substantial to your visitors but still leave them wanting more, Michael explained.

“Part of the way you get people to come back is you don't throw everything out the first time. You want to be able to say, 'There's more to see!'”

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