Quest for 'racial equity' in parks has some wary

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2014 - 11:35 PM

Met Council is cautious about its new effort to plan with minority underuse in mind.

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A sunny day Tuesday drew people to Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. The Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis is seen as a park area with a lot of facilities and a mix of users.

Photo: BRIAN PETERSON •brian.peterson@startribune.com,

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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?”

Some wealthier and whiter parts of the region don’t have much in the way of regional parks, she said.

“Equity works in both directions,” she said. “Dakota County does not have much compared to the Chain of Lakes. There are big holes, and the ones that are there don’t have a lot of facilities.”

A change in approach to direct more effort toward minorities “can sound very startling to people hearing about it for the first time,” said Elliott Bronstein, of Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights, whose approach is a model for the Met Council.

“But the reality is, we did things in the badder old days that were intentionally designed to further inequity or unintentionally had that impact, and we’re asking people to begin to do things differently.”

Opportunities exist for faster park development in areas such as the Upper Mississippi in Minneapolis, close to diverse neighborhoods. In recent years, millions have gone to nail down land in suburban counties such as Dakota and Scott.

In all, the Met Council has a role in distributing about $30 million a year for parks, but not all of that would be subject to the new rules.

Mark Themig, Scott County’s parks chief, said he believes his colleagues at metro parks “all want to do the right thing” in terms of racial equity but would be wary of having a lot of new rules imposed.

“Help us in this journey,” he said, “but don’t tell us what the journey is.”

Deeper concerns

Lynnea Atlas-Ingebretson, a pioneering black parks manager, formerly of the Three Rivers Park District, said racial inequities in the parks system are not just about infrastructure; it’s also about programming and other calls that managers make.

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  • In 2011, Jorge Ariza prepared corn with kids David Ariza, at left, and Jorge J. Ariza for a family picnic at Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. The Met Council is weighing changes to park planning with racial equity in mind.

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