Can Minneapolis Parks Achieve Excellence AND Equity?

OAP is working with Hope Community to build equity policies and practices in the Minneapolis parks system. This piece also appeared on the site Opine Season

By Vina Kay

Most mornings I roll out of bed and head out the door to enjoy a run around Lake Harriet. It is part of our beautiful city parks system, just recognized by the Trust for Public Land as the best among the nation’s largest cities. I certainly benefit from the easy access to nature and exercise, and that probably makes me healthier and more energetic through the rest of my day. But what if I didn’t have access to such an idyllic park path each day? And why wouldn’t I, in the number one city in the country?

TOP PICK cover Photo 5The Trust for Public Land looked at three factors in assessing the quality and accessibility of park systems. They considered acreage, which includes the median park size and the park acres as percentage of the city. They looked at overall investment through spending per resident and playgrounds per 10,000 residents. Finally, they considered access or the percentage of the population living within a 10-minute walk of a park. For an analysis encompassing so many cities, this seems like a good set of questions. Minneapolis scores highly in all of these categories, certainly earning its ranking as number one.

No one doubts that our spending on parks is high. We should also ask whether equity exists  in the quality of parks and services throughout Minneapolis. Our public parks, much like our public schools, should be just as good, whether in rich or poor neighborhoods. Having an equitable park system is a moral imperative when we are the number one parks city in the country. An equitable park system may seem small on the radar of important systems to change, but parks can change lives.

Chaka Mkali knows this is true. As the Director of Organizing and Community Building at Hope Community he works to engage the community and build partnerships in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. For seven years, he has been organizing and leading efforts to make the local neighborhood park – Peavey Park – a safer community gathering space. Peavey had been known as one of the most dangerous parks in the city. Once when Chaka was walking through with a park planner, shots rang through the air, sending tufts of grass flying. Children dropped to the ground, as if they knew just what to do. With limited staff and programs, as well as poor lighting and shabby equipment, nothing was in place to improve the park. Through years of building relationships in the community and with the Park Board, Chaka and Hope Community have seen change. Now, he smiles as he drives past and sees a park full of neighborhood folks, people talking together, kids playing basketball.

The work to improve Peavey Park continues, and Chaka knows how much organizing and advocacy that takes. The same is necessary for other city parks, and requires leaders to begin taking notice of what an equitable parks system should look like. Chaka wants the Park Board to help  make sense of what he observes in poor communities throughout the city – that the quality of park amenities is lower in poor neighborhoods and that the access to quality youth programming also differs between wealthier and lower-income parts of the city.

Paying attention to equity would require the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to truly analyze our city’s parks system by asking questions related to geography, race, and equity. Only by breaking down the numbers the Trust for Public Land relied upon for its nationwide analysis can we get to answering whether our parks funding and programming is equitable, and what we can do to make the system more equitable. This will mean going beyond the overall investment or proximity to parks, to considering the level of investment between parks and whether it meets the needs of the community.

Chaka tells me that it is challenging to obtain this information. Either it is not being collected and reported, or the data is just not readily available. The Park Board’s first step in making our system truly excellent for all of Minneapolis will be to pay attention to how it is investing in parks and programming across the city. What will each investment and programming decision mean for communities most dependent on our city parks for recreation? Are investments focused on adding opportunities to those areas where park offerings have been most limited? How can the Park Board make such information readily available to communities? These are the kinds of questions worth asking if our parks are to be truly excellent – to be so, they must also be equitable.

These are also questions we should be asking candidates for the Park and Recreation Board – all commissioner seats are up for election this fall. Currently, the Board does not represent the diversity of our city. The majority of youth who most rely on parks are youth of color.

Giving youth in low-income neighborhoods access to a community center, a pool with swimming lessons, and sports leagues gives them something they are not likely to get anywhere else. Having nearby exercise classes for adults can improve health. Bringing people together in a safe public space will build stronger communities. The value of parks is high. We should pay attention to the power of parks to build positive change alongside communities. Our number one status can be more than a pat on the back – it should spur us toward a system of parks that is a model for equity.


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