Racism’s Effects on Minneapolis’s Parks

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.

Minneapolis Skyline, From Boom Island Park

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.

A volunteer helps to clean up Mill Ruins Park in Downtown Minneapolis.

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.

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11 Responses to Racism’s Effects on Minneapolis’s Parks

  1. Tony Dodge April 2, 2018 at 10:34 am #

    I’m having trouble understanding who is ssserting what, here.

    I see Nakima’s statement, in quotes, (which I strongly agree with). but then there are many assertions made without attribution (regarding which variables are important, how the issue should be framed and measured etc etc) Are these assertions the opinion of the author? …best practices statements? Something else??

    I was hoping to understand more about this issue, but I come away really confused.

    Sorry, I am a novice regarding this issue, but I believe it to be very important.

    Thank you for one of the few pieces that seem to be available regarding this issue.

  2. Kirsten Delegard April 2, 2018 at 10:36 am #

    Excellent commentary. The Mapping Prejudice Project has looked at the way that racial covenants have restricted access to green space and parks in Minneapolis: http://editions.lib.umn.edu/openrivers/article/mapping-racial-covenants-in-twentieth-century-minneapolis/

    I think it’s important to make visible the structural racism that has determined investment in different public spaces.

    • Tony Dodge April 2, 2018 at 3:12 pm #

      Thank you for this!

  3. David Markle
    David Markle April 2, 2018 at 10:58 am #

    Specifics are needed. What to do?

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke April 2, 2018 at 11:04 am #

    “Does everyone feel comfortable in these spaces?”

    That’s one of the best questions you raise here. How can we shift park design to be more welcoming to more people? I actually think more basketball hoops and soccer fields are a good move. A great skate park would be good too.

    What are some other ideas?

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke April 3, 2018 at 8:56 am #

      One idea: reduce the subsidies for golf (!) in favor of sports and activities used by POC and younger people. I am saddened that they couldn’t even close the Hiawatha golf course, which is literally a sinkhole…

      • Charlie Casserly April 3, 2018 at 6:26 pm #

        I am very happy Hiawatha Golf Course will stay open for five more years. It is heavily used by people of color, for decades. Five high school teams use the course for practice. Hiawatha is not sinking, the Barr report said that. One needs years of data to prove that statement, which continues to be spoken by current and former park board commissioners in public statements.

  5. anon April 2, 2018 at 11:22 am #

    Thanks for the article. A few questions from a newbie: Are the racist statements being made by park-goers? Or by people who run the parks? If the latter, can someone provide some specifics of who said what? If the former, please elaborate. Are there groups of racists that are hanging out in the parks and being terrible?

    Regarding the safety concerns, is the problem unsafe equipment/facilities, or is it crime causing the safety issue? Or both? If it is crime, is the crime in the parks a separate problem than the crime in the surrounding neighborhoods? Is the Park Board responsible for crime fighting? Do we have dedicated park police? Should we? Some cites have park police. Thanks in advance.

  6. Justin H April 2, 2018 at 2:10 pm #

    As I understand it, MPRB has recently updated their long range planning and racial and economic equity is a focus area of the plan. Indeed, the MPRB has a whole page and plan for Racial Equity: https://www.minneapolisparks.org/about_us/racial_equity/

    Which isn’t to say that making a plan and putting up a web page is the same as actually fixing a problem, but it’s not nothing either.

    Some things, too, are not necessarily the purview of MPRB. Is it MPRB’s fault that racial covenants existed? MPRB also can’t invent new parkland in areas of the city that lack it.

  7. Marie April 3, 2018 at 9:48 am #

    Why leave out the work that has been done in the past two years? https://www.minneapolisparks.org/about_us/racial_equity/

  8. Jeanette C. April 3, 2018 at 10:40 am #

    Maya, I realize that you’re arguing for qualitative measures over quantitative, but I would refer you to a 2016 article in City Pages, “Look at the Stats, and the Minneapolis Park Board doesn’t seem very racist.” http://www.citypages.com/news/look-at-the-stats-and-the-minneapolis-parks-board-doesnt-seem-very-racist-8292245

    It points out that from a funding perspective, Northside parks have received much higher per capita allocations than south and southwest parks. Also, the former Park Board (their term ended in Dec. 2017) worked very hard to secure new funding to renovate neighborhood parks — over $11 million annually for 20 years — and they determined that spending will be prioritized using a racial equity lens (see Justin H.’s link above).

    The article also states that while the Park Board’s workforce is predominantly white, the percent of POC increased a bit over the time Jayne Miller was superintendent. Part of the issue is that turnover is low in good, unionized jobs. Jobs are currently open for a number of temporary and permanent positions, though; have a look at the MPRB website.

    Clearly, our society continues to suffer from historic and structural racism on many levels. As the city changes, we all need open minds to understand residents’ experiences with parks (and transportation, housing, etc.) to understand how they can be improved. It’s critical to ask questions and raise issues, but simple assertions of racism won’t cut it. In recent years, the MPRB has worked hard to be professional and responsive through its planning process — for example, soccer fields have replaced several baseball diamonds in the south area thanks to community engagement and public investment. An expensive new swimming pool is opening in Phillips this week, and a great deal of work is on-going to creating new riverfront green space “Above the Falls” north of downtown. Recreation and Northside planning processes (that include Community Advisory Committees and other outreach) are also currently underway. You can sign up for updates on the MPRB website.

    Yes, keep an eye on your new Park Board. Watch how they spend money — remember that property taxes influence who can afford to live in the city. And if you have ideas about how better to respond to diverse and changing needs, I’d strongly encourage you to reach out to your MPRB commissioner.

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