Racially Equitable Use of Parks Is the Goal, with Big Dollars at Stake

David Peterson, Star Tribune, June 19, 2016

A politically charged push is taking shape, with millions of dollars at stake, to break down barriers that are making Twin Cities parks and trails feel to some like white people’s preserves.

The Metropolitan Council’s initiative to move toward racial equity in metro-area parks–closing the gap in park usage between whites and people of color–has raised suspicions best captured two years ago, when a suburban member of the council publicly asked: “Will [Theodore] Wirth Park get all the money because it’s next to north Minneapolis? I mean, how does this play out?”

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Met Council staffers said last week that state parks are devoting nearly six times as big a share of their state Legacy funding compared to metro parks to programs aimed at drawing visitors. They suggest pushing the metro area’s 3 percent that’s devoted to park use closer to the state’s 17 percent and will sit down and discuss that issue with local parks leaders next month.

That’s a pool of money amounting to nearly $100 million over the past five years for the state and the metro area each, so a shift of that magnitude would cause repercussions. But all sides agree that a heightened focus on eliminating racial disparities has already begun to bring changes.

“This was fiercely fought by some of the agencies last year,” said Met Council Member Gary Cunningham of Minneapolis, who heads a key council committee overseeing the matter.

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He said that there has been progress, for instance, in creating trail connections between racially diverse and white-dominated neighborhoods. “They are thinking about this,” he said.

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While blacks make up nearly 7 percent of the metro area’s population, they account for less than 3 percent of regional park and trail users. Percentages for Hispanics look much the same.

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“The Elm Creeks and Highlands, the gems of our system” feel to visiting minorities “very white upper class,” according to Anthony Taylor, a black member of the Met Council’s parks commission.

Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega told his colleagues not long ago: “The reality is, when I go to a regional park or a county park, unless there’s a special event by a group, the diversity is not there in terms of usage.”

Taylor is underwhelmed by the compromise strategies he sees emerging so far. At the presentation of a racial equity strategy document last week, he told colleagues: “This is much softer than I was expecting.”

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Taylor, for one, is tired of hearing that “really big” picnic tables to accommodate multigenerational immigrant families are the key to racially integrating Twin Cities parks. Much more is needed, he said, and focus groups bear it out: People of color spoke of feeling unsafe, unwelcome and often just plain unaware of what’s available.

The good news, Taylor said, is that Minnesota is winning attention due to the Met Council’s adding equity as a pillar of its long-range planning, and other initiatives such as the state Health Department’s focus on “structural racism” as a root cause of health disparities.

“As I travel nationally I hear people talking about looking at what is happening in the Twin Cities on equity–which is amazing,” he said.

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