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


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.