From Colorblind to Race Conscious: Two very different sets of metrics

By Jake Virden

Parks and PowerAs the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) announces it has been ranked the #1 park system in the country for a third straight year by the Trust for Public Land, now is a good time to share some observations from our perspective as the Parks and Power community campaign engaging the MPRB on issues of racial and economic justice. This is the third year in a row that the MPRB has received the #1 ranking in the country from the Trust for Public Land and, frankly, its getting pretty boring. The response from Parks and Power to this ranking has been consistent over the past two years that the MPRB has been boasting of its champion standing, if we add metrics that take into account race and economic factors we get far from a perfect “5 bench” score.

This PR campaign by the Trust for Public Land and the MPRB is another version of the colorblind narrative of the “Minneapolis miracle” that erases the struggles of communities of color and poor people in the Twin Cities. The Trust looks at three areas to rank park systems for its ParkScore Index:

  • Acreage (total park land/median park size)
  • Access (% of residents in walking distance to a park)
  • Facilities and Investment ($ per resident)

These metrics completely ignore the social geography of the cities and park systems they evaluate, perpetuating the colorblind myth that people from all racial and economic backgrounds have the same relationship to public resources. If the Trust for Public Land and the MPRB were serious about evaluating the benefit of our park system for the public good they would incorporate measurements that take into account history, power and the experience of the people that live near and use park land. What is different about this year is that, thanks to the persistent effort of neighborhood leaders pushing the MPRB to prioritize racial equity, there is an example of race conscious metrics being developed at the MPRB that point toward a new way of doing business.

Colorblind vs. Racial Justice Perspectives

At the April 20, 2016 meeting of Park Board Commissioners, MPRB staff presented a racial equity based criteria system for allocating money to come from the City of Minneapolis and MPRB’s 20 year Neighborhood Parks Plan. MPRB staff have developed criteria used to assign points to various parks, the parks that get a higher number of points are prioritized for rehabilitation. What is new, exciting and promising about these metrics is that they are race conscious, which is to say they take into account the generations of oppression, disinvestment and disenfranchisement of communities of color by both the public and private sectors and have the explicit goal of directing resources in a racially equitable manner. This criteria system is rooted in a racial justice framework, as opposed to the criteria used by the Trust for Public Land, which perpetuate a colorblind framework.

A colorblind framework pretends as if race has not been a determining factor when making investments and setting public policy. A colorblind approach does not see the dramatic disparities in living conditions between white, affluent residents and communities of color and low wealth European Americans. A racial justice framework consciously acknowledges the colonial, white supremacist history of Minneapolis and sets out to creatively chart a new course toward racial equity.

Let’s get into the specifics of how projects are weighted and how race and class play into the decision making under the MPRB’s new criteria. Each park is scored using seven criteria, with four based on community characteristics and three based on park characteristics. A park can earn a total of 23 points. The metrics include:

Community Characteristics

  1. Is the Park located in a Racially Concentrated Area of Poverty or (RCAP) (5 possible points)? RCAPs designate a census tract where 50% or more of the residents are people of color and 40% of the residents or more have family incomes below 185% of the federal poverty level. If a park is located in an RCAP, it is given a 5 and moved up the list of priority for rehab.
  2. Population density in the neighborhood where the park is located (2 possible points). The more densely populated neighborhoods will be a higher priority for rehab. Communities of color and low wealth communities tend to live in high density neighborhoods in Minneapolis. This metric takes into account extra wear and tear on park infrastructure in high density areas and the proportional value of public investment dollars per person in those areas.
  3. Youth density of the neighborhood where the park is located (3 possible points ). The higher the youth density of the neighborhood, the higher it is scored and it is moved up the list for priority for rehab. Same logic as the above metric applies with an extra focus on the needs of families.
  4. Neighborhood safety ( 2 possible points). Neighborhood crime statistics are looked at to determine need, with more crime in an area resulting in a higher score and increased priority for rehab investment. This is a public health and racial equity approach to crime reduction, grounded in the understanding that crime is the symptom of disinvestment and oppression, rather than racist myths about super-predators and character deficiencies.

Park Characteristics

  1. Park asset lifespan (3 possible points). Amenities in the park are evaluated and higher points are given to parks with infrastructure more than five years past its lifespan.
  2. Park Asset Condition (5 possible points). Assets in worse condition receive higher priority for rehab.
  3. Proportionality of investment (3 possible points). Referring to the amount of capital invested since 2000, this measure helps prioritize parks that have not received capital investment in the last 15 years.

When applied to the capital investment plan these criteria yield real results for communities of color and low wealth neighborhoods. Park staff applied these metrics and released the projected list of parks slated for rehabilitation for the first five years of the 20 year plan and it looks like they are working. Parks in the most disinvested areas of North, South and Northeast Minneapolis are slated for much needed capital investment. Beyond the immediate application to the 20 year neighborhood parks funding plan, these metrics can help set a precedent for socially and racially conscious capital investment that can provide substance to the suddenly popular and often abused term racial equity. These metrics bring history and power into the conversation at the point of budgeting. This is a necessary, meaningful and concrete step toward racial equity.

But these strong criteria, the substance of racial equity in this funding proposal, have not yet been instituted as policy at the MPRB or City of Minneapolis. Currently, the metrics have been developed by staff and presented to MPRB Commissioners, but no vote has been taken to make these metrics official policy and guarantee their application. All of the back patting being done by City Council members and MPRB Commissioners about racial equity in the 20 year neighborhood park funding agreement is for proposed changes in policy and process that have not been instituted. This posturing demonstrates how many in the establishment think about racial equity; first resist the conversation completely, then begrudgingly acknowledge the community pressure for change, and then when the momentum from the people can not be denied, claim to be an advocate for racial equity — while not actually committing to or understanding the transformation we are seeking.

While a plaque that says “number #1 park system in the country” must feel nice for MPRB officials to hang on their wall, we at Parks and Power are not interested in colorblind self promotion; we are concerned with the urgent work of transforming our public institutions into bodies that promote racial justice. A claim to be #1 by a city so deeply divided is distasteful; racial equity must become the measure of excellence for serious people. The metrics developed by the MPRB for allocating funds from the 20 year Neighborhood Park Plan are a sign of progress, an example of a racial justice framework solidified in policy that encourages us to deal with the problem rather than ignore it. Hopefully next year the Trust for Public Land will take a step toward relevance by adding some depth to their ParkScore index.

The work continues.

Jake Virden is the Parks & Power Organizer at Hope Community

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