The recently released ParkScore Index from the Trust for Public Land (TPL), which shows Minneapolis and St. Paul's national ranking among urban park systems dropping from their usual top spots, is the result in part of a misguided effort to quantify inequity and a surprising lack of understanding of Minneapolis and St. Paul park history ("Fresh data show the disparities in access to parks," June 7).
TPL has attempted to quantify inequity in park access by measuring proximity of different racial, ethnic and economic communities to parks by acreage. That might be a successful indicator in some communities but is inadequate for Minneapolis and St. Paul. It ignores the fundamental distinction between "natural" and "built" park environments or amenities.
Perhaps TPL had to tinker with its ranking criteria or Minneapolis and St. Paul would always be at the top because of the water acreage both cities count as parks. Perhaps that has given Minneapolis and St. Paul an unfair advantage. And, as organizations everywhere, TPL is trying to come to terms with inequities and how they are measured and corrected. For that it deserves applause.
But those measurements can't ignore history — and they can't be addressed without understanding it.
Minneapolis and St. Paul both include bodies of water in park acreage. But both cities have also preserved nearly all waterfront as public property. Park managers in both cities deserve thanks for preserving those bodies of water and maintaining open access for all. We can dip our toes in lakes and rivers instead of straining to catch a glimpse of them between mansions. Ironically, if those lakes hadn't been acquired as parks, Minneapolis and St. Paul would score vastly better in TPL's equity ranking.
Unfortunately, lakes and rivers can't be shifted around the city as demographics change. Minneapolis tried to spread the water wealth years ago by digging a pond in Van Cleve Park, damming Shingle Creek to create a reservoir (and swimming pool) at Weber Park, maintaining Oak Lake, and preserving what was salvageable of Bassett's Creek through Wirth Park to the city limits. The Park and Recreation Board even built a fountain in flat, dry Logan Park to make up for its lack of distinctive natural features.
Swimming beaches are provided on several of the lakes that skew TPL's attempted equity acreage measurements, but water parks at Northeast and North Commons and pools at Weber Park and the Phillips Aquatic Center serve thousands who don't live near lakes. Small acreage, huge public benefit. Invisible to TPL's equity measures. The same is true for other park and recreational amenities where efforts have been made to compensate for what nature didn't provide, while preserving and protecting what it did.
Finally, TPL's equity score suggests no realistic avenue for improvement. We can't create more lakes or wide-open spaces without displacing significant communities. The displacement of communities for freeways in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the 1950s and '60s taught lessons that shouldn't be forgotten when we look at adding parkland.
The only "park" solution to TPL's equity demerits in Minneapolis and St. Paul is to create huge new parks or privatize some lake shore. No city could build enough neighborhood parks to balance the "acreage" weight of our lakes in TPL's calculations — especially because nearly 99% of Minneapolitans already live within a short walk of a park.
The only other way to improve TPL's acreage-based score would be to have a much higher or lower population of people who now, in TPL's estimation, have access to fewer park acres. That's silly. Cities are like living organisms that change and grow over time. Minneapolis and St. Paul certainly have.
The nonwhite populations of the cities didn't surpass 1% until about 1960, by which time both cities had nearly all the park land that they now own. Since then, expansion of parks has come by acquiring abandoned or unused industrial and railroad land, adding small neighborhood parks, and developing new neighborhood park amenities. Even many of those efforts preceded rapid growth of minority populations through immigration, domestic and foreign, and resettlement of refugees from Africa, Asia and Central America. Based purely on numbers, TPL would view our cities more favorably if refugees hadn't.
Minneapolis and St. Paul continue to evolve and both park systems must continue to adapt to changing populations — as I think they are. That process is aided by TPL's efforts to create more parks through fundraising and advocacy. It is not aided by use of irrelevant or misleading statistics.
David C. Smith is the author of "City of Parks: The Story of Minneapolis Parks." He maintains a blog at minneapolisparkhistory.com.