A politically charged push is taking shape, with millions of dollars at stake, to break down barriers that are making Twin Cities parks and trails feel to some like white people’s preserves.

The Metropolitan Council’s initiative to move toward racial equity in metro-area parks — closing the gap in park usage between whites and people of color — has raised suspicions best captured two years ago, when a suburban member of the council publicly asked: “Will [Theodore] Wirth Park get all the money because it’s next to north Minneapolis? I mean, how does this play out?”

As details have jelled this spring, no such funding shift from the suburbs to the cities is being proposed. But the council seems determined to take a more forceful role in local decisions made on parks, using equity as a lens — and dollars as one of the tools.

Met Council staffers said last week that state parks are devoting nearly six times as big a share of their state Legacy funding compared to metro parks to programs aimed at drawing visitors. They suggest pushing the metro area’s 3 percent that’s devoted to park use closer to the state’s 17 percent and will sit down and discuss that issue with local parks leaders next month.

That’s a pool of money amounting to nearly $100 million over the past five years for the state and the metro area each, so a shift of that magnitude would cause repercussions. But all sides agree that a heightened focus on eliminating racial disparities has already begun to bring changes.

“This was fiercely fought by some of the agencies last year,” said Met Council Member Gary Cunningham of Minneapolis, who heads a key council committee overseeing the matter.

But “all transformation comes after some conflict,” he said, adding that local parks officials “are waking up. They are stepping up to the plate. They got the message. … Now they’re doing things to try to address the issues.”

He said that there has been progress, for instance, in creating trail connections between racially diverse and white-dominated neighborhoods. “They are thinking about this,” he said.

Nationwide issue

The issue of equitable use of parks is gaining strength all across the nation, even in states such as California and Texas that are far more diverse than the Twin Cities.

In Arizona, Tucson is 44 percent Latino, yet Saguaro National Park on its outskirts draws just 2 percent of its 650,000 annual visitors from that city. This spring, a first-ever coalition of more than 30 civil rights, conservation and other groups is using the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service to better diversify staff and visitors at the national parks.

Met Council staffers, who oversee $32 million in annual parks funding across the metro, are proposing a more active role for the agency. That includes the power to reach in and alter local jurisdictions’ priorities for projects — the kind of power that Dakota County has called a threat to “usurp the authority of local elected officials.”

The main evidence of park disparities in the Twin Cities metro area remains a 2008 survey of the racial and ethnic makeup of visitors to major regional parks and trails, such as the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis or St. Paul’s Como Park.

While blacks make up nearly 7 percent of the metro area’s population, they account for less than 3 percent of regional park and trail users. Percentages for Hispanics look much the same.

An update scheduled for later this year could show different figures. But people of color in leadership positions report that as they visit the parks, they feel the issue continues to be relevant.

“The Elm Creeks and Highlands, the gems of our system” feel to visiting minorities “very white upper class,” according to Anthony Taylor, a black member of the Met Council’s parks commission.

Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega told his colleagues not long ago: “The reality is, when I go to a regional park or a county park, unless there’s a special event by a group, the diversity is not there in terms of usage.”

Taylor is underwhelmed by the compromise strategies he sees emerging so far. At the presentation of a racial equity strategy document last week, he told colleagues: “This is much softer than I was expecting.”

‘Want to do the right thing’

Local parks officials, on the other hand, are not happy with how they feel they’re often depicted. Jonathan Vlaming, associate superintendent for planning for the suburban Hennepin County-based Three Rivers Park District, last week directed the attention of the Met Council’s parks advisory group to a huge initiative to furnish recreational trails to diverse inner-ring suburbs.

“There’s a misperception that we haven’t been doing anything,” he said. “We have been doing things. Things have changed. The assumption that there is absolutely no progress is not fair to minority populations and not fair to agencies. …

“We’re not fighting this by any means. We want to do the right thing. We’re looking for help.”

Forty years ago this summer, the Hmong began arriving in St. Paul, making one East Side census tract the most intense neighborhood concentration of Hmong in the entire United States. Now Ramsey County will set aside a portion of Keller Park for a traditional Hmong top-spinning game called tuj lub (too-loo). A county parks spokesperson refers to it as “a place to call their own, where they don’t have to feel they’re impinging on other people’s spaces.”

Focus group interviews seeking to pinpoint why minorities don’t turn up in parks unearthed several issues, including a picnic table problem that’s often singled out as a classic cross-cultural dilemma.

Taylor, for one, is tired of hearing that “really big” picnic tables to accommodate multigenerational immigrant families are the key to racially integrating Twin Cities parks. Much more is needed, he said, and focus groups bear it out: People of color spoke of feeling unsafe, unwelcome and often just plain unaware of what’s available.

The good news, Taylor said, is that Minnesota is winning attention due to the Met Council’s adding equity as a pillar of its long-range planning, and other initiatives such as the state Health Department’s focus on “structural racism” as a root cause of health disparities.

“As I travel nationally I hear people talking about looking at what is happening in the Twin Cities on equity — which is amazing,” he said.