Visits to parks in the Twin Cities metro are way up. Visits to regional parks topped 58 million in 2017 — a 22 percent increase since 2016 — with a lot of that increased use happening during winter, fall, and spring. That said, the makeup of park-goers in the 7-county metro area doesn’t reflect the diverse population that lives there. According to a 2015 study by the Metropolitan Council, a disproportionate number of people of color aren’t accessing local parks. The regional agency’s goal is to change that.
Enter Amanda Lovelee, the Met Council’s new parks ambassador for the Regional Parks System, which is made up of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Three Rivers Park District, the cities of Bloomington and St. Paul, and the counties of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Ramsey, Scott, and Washington.
Lovelee is an artist with a history of thinking about unique ways to spur civic engagement. In her new position, she is tasked with, in her own words “bringing parks to people.”
MinnPost: So, what exactly does a park ambassador do?
Amanda Lovelee: What’s exciting about this position is that it’s really open! I’m starting with relationships. There are 3 different cities [Minneapolis Parks and Rec Board, St Paul, and Bloomington] and 7 counties that own and operate regional parks. I’m getting to know staff, learning the work they are already doing to improve access, and figuring out how to partner with them. I’m really focused on listening right now.
MP: Before this, you served as the city artist for St. Paul for six years. How did that prepare you for this job?
AL: A lot of work that I was doing was around community engagement and trying to creatively think about how we engage participants across the board. One the projects was a popsicle truck called Pop-up Meeting. I found there are a lot of barriers to keep people from going to, say, a 7 p.m. city planning meeting — things like transportation, childcare, and English language. The Pop-up Meeting is a popsicle truck that goes where people are. It gives out popsicles and gathers feedback on city planning projects. It’s now in its fourth year.
MP: You’ve talked about using the public spaces of parks to promote equity.
AL: The main goal of this position is to bring parks to people and to make sure that everyone has access. How lucky are we to live in the Twin Cities that have such a great park system? There’s so much research on the value of connection to nature and the health benefits of living near a park. The different outdoor recreation agencies I’ve talked to are excited for public land to be public and for everybody to have access. I’m asking recreational agencies where they see the disconnect in connecting parks and people. One of the disconnects is awareness that these parks exist, that they’re open and free to everybody. One thing I’ve been thinking about is how to raise awareness and truly invite everybody.
MP: What ideas have you heard so far that parks are already doing?
AL: For example, there was a 2015 research study saying that people really want to have access to a flushing toilet at a park. So Dakota County Parks started photographing the bathrooms and the handicapped parking spots at all of their parks. People can look at their website and say “oh, there’s fishing here; there are trails so we can go on a walk, and oh, there’s a flushing toilet with a handicapped stall and an area to change your child.” In this case, they weren’t building new infrastructure, they were just raising awareness of what was already there. I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s so easy.
MP: Easy is good. What else?
AL: St Paul did a camping program for first-time campers that invited to people to camp inside a gym. They slowly ended up going out and teaching them how to start a fire, how to pop a tent, and ended with a camping trip outside. Three Rivers Park [run by Hennepin and Carver counties] now has a toolshed of camping equipment that you can check out so you don’t need to own all the supplies. So, lots of different ways to invite people to try things they hadn’t traditionally tried.
Also, we know from that 2015 study that larger families that are people of color might want to have a large family picnic but there weren’t enough amenities. So it might be a matter of putting in more picnic tables to accommodate preferences for larger groups.
MP: So, what’s next for you?
AL: The most important thing at the moment is listening and learning what’s happening.