Quest for ‘Racial Equity’ in Parks Has Some Wary

David Peterson, Star Tribune, April 8, 2014

Faced with numbers showing that its parks are underused by minorities and having spent millions to develop parks in largely white suburbs, the Metropolitan Council is moving to impose a “racial-equity” filter as it forms its latest long-term plan for transportation, land use and recreation.

The destination of millions in parks funding is emerging as an early point of conflict in those debates.

“This will make us uncomfortable, but we need to ‘go there’ or we will just keep getting the results we have been getting,” said Gary Cunningham of Minneapolis, chairman of a Met Council committee overseeing parks and planning.

Cunningham convened the first joint meeting this week with the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission to underscore the importance of the issue.

The issue is perhaps best captured in park user counts showing large gaps in usage for some communities of color. Blacks, for instance, make up nearly 7 percent of the metro area’s population but less than 3 percent of regional parks users; for Hispanics, the comparable figures are 5 percent and 2 percent.

How a racial equity plan would work is unclear, but some Met Council members are already wary.

“Do we start dictating, ‘OK, Minneapolis can’t do anything [in the white-dominated] southwest; it has to go southeast or north because they don’t have enough stuff?’ ” asked council member Wendy Wulff of Lakeville. “Will Wirth Park get all the money because it’s next to north Minneapolis? I mean, how does this play out?”


After months of research and focus groups aimed at understanding why people of color don’t more often visit the region’s marquee parks, planners are also considering more modest day-to-day tweaks, but ones that could also raise hackles.

A case in point: Hispanic families, often more prone to spontaneous multigenerational family gatherings, find themselves blocked out at parks by people who reserved space months earlier for family reunions. Should fewer reservations be offered so that each culture’s patterns can play out?


The context for the discussions is the council’s emerging Thrive 2040 long-range plan, which stresses demographic change not only in race and ethnicity but in other forms, notably aging. The plan addresses things such as land use, transportation, housing and parks.

The Met Council is governed by a 17-member board whose members are appointed by the governor.

Many parks leaders are stressing a need to pivot away from child-centered parks to trails, which serve the rapidly rising senior population. But minorities tend to be younger and the parents of youngsters.


The consensus of Monday’s joint session was to cautiously green-light a move by the Met Council staff to pursue more detailed suggestions.

“I think you’re in the right ZIP code here,” said Steve Chavez, who represents a diverse district in northern Dakota County. “But the devil’s in the details.”

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