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."
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.
She said that as manager of Richardson Nature Center in west Bloomington, an affluent and largely white area, she was struck by the diversity of the clientele and by the sometimes differing needs of persons of color.
The staff preferred to work daytime hours, she said, but many of the people who showed up during working hours were nannies towing children, while a more diverse clientele could turn up in the evening.
"It's disruptive to make these points," she said, "but I do think some of the top people at Three Rivers valued my point of view."
After months of research and focus groups aimed at understanding why people of color don't more often visit the region's marquee parks, planners are also considering more modest day-to-day tweaks, but ones that could also raise hackles.
A case in point: Hispanic families, often more prone to spontaneous multigenerational family gatherings, find themselves blocked out at parks by people who reserved space months earlier for family reunions. Should fewer reservations be offered so that each culture's patterns can play out?
The context for the discussions is the council's emerging Thrive 2040 long-range plan, which stresses demographic change not only in race and ethnicity but in other forms, notably aging. The plan addresses things such as land use, transportation, housing and parks.
The Met Council is governed by a 17-member board whose members are appointed by the governor.
Many parks leaders are stressing a need to pivot away from child-centered parks to trails, which serve the rapidly rising senior population. But minorities tend to be younger and the parents of youngsters.
Many, like Atlas-Ingebretson just this year, are migrating to the suburbs, in her case St. Louis Park — which suggests that the issue doesn't need to be urban vs. suburban.
The consensus of Monday's joint session was to cautiously green-light a move by the Met Council staff to pursue more detailed suggestions.
"I think you're in the right ZIP code here," said Steve Chavez, who represents a diverse district in northern Dakota County. "But the devil's in the details."