To quote law professor and recent mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds, Minneapolis has “the best parks system for white people.” To some, the implication that Minneapolis parks do not adequately serve people of color may sound like a surprising claim for a city whose identity is based in part around its lakes and green spaces, and one that has consistently topped lists for urban parks systems. Based on factors such as park size, number of basketball hoops, and even percent of residents within walking distance of a park, the city scores very well and even won the number-one ranking in a 2017 report by the Trust for Public Land. However, Minneapolis is a place where inequality between white residents and people of color is drastic, where black residents are three times more likely than whites to live below the poverty line, and where the richest residents have a life expectancy that is eight years longer than that of the poorest residents. It is clear that this city has to do something differently, and some of that change has to happen within the parks system. We need to re-evaluate the ways we think about what ‘good’ city parks are, and who they serve.
Protesters at Minneapolis park board meetings in 2016 and beyond reported that discrimination in hiring, promotions, and leadership are all problems within the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB). Black residents also face unequal funding for neighborhood parks, safety concerns, and racist remarks toward visitors. These experiences do have a real impact on people’s lives, and studies prove that discrimination, prejudice, and hostility cause people avoid these spaces where they feel unwelcome.
All of this brings up the question: why is Minneapolis lauded for its “magnificent” park system when so many of the city’s residents don’t get to benefit from it? In part, it is an issue of scale. On a generalized, city-wide scale, the parks are great, but if we take this broad view that does not distinguish between the experiences of different communities, it is easy to turn a blind eye to the inequality that exists here. However, in order to fully answer the question, we must also re-evaluate the way we think about what makes a “good” park system. It is essential that we look past a simple quantitative analysis– how many parks are there? What percentage of residents live near them? How many basketball hoops do they have? These questions seek to know not how good our parks are, but where they are and what they are—and that is not enough.
Many of the issues at stake here are based in things that are harder to measure in terms of spatial location. Personal experiences, like feeling unsafe or dealing with racist comments, even when experienced by a multitude of people, are not captured by broad, quantitative measures, such as those used in the studies that gave Minneapolis a #1 Parks system rating.
Instead, we must go about this in a way that more closely resembles the complex and interconnected aspects of the societies in which we live. Measuring park access and other factors all depend how we frame the question. If we ask, are parks evenly spread throughout the city? the answer is more or less, yes. If we ask, Does everyone feel comfortable in these spaces? Who created them? Who controls them? How are they funded? Then we find a deeper understanding of the problems we face. These types of questions are inherently more complicated, and naturally much harder to measure and explain. Struggling to come up with answers to these questions is better than failing to ask them in the first place.
If the goal is to congratulate ourselves on doing well on factors that only tell a small part of the story of our urban park system, then we can be satisfied with the way this city currently thinks about parks. However, if the goal is to have a park system that is, in a word, “great,” then we’ve got a lot of work to do. It follows that real, systemic change is necessary. Moving forward, understanding the experiences in parks of people of color, especially black Minneapolis residents, and incorporating them into policy changes is essential. As a city we must change our mindset to remember that this city is made up of real people with lived experiences—not just numbers. We must hold the park board accountable to ensure they are doing their job for all residents, and elect more people of color to the MPRB. Minneapolis cannot claim the title of #1 parks system until it really is true for people of all races and ethnicities.