The Chain of Lakes are the most visited parks in the Twin Cities, with an estimated 8 million annual visitors. These parks represent an incredible achievement in urban social infrastructure. It took remarkable leadership to ensure that public parks and not private homes encircle the lakes of Minneapolis. This has paid dividends to our community for more than a century and contributes to Minneapolis consistently ranking among the top U.S. cities for its park system.
Despite these achievements, these crown jewels of the Minneapolis park system remain incomplete. In contrast to the rest of the Chain of Lakes, it is not possible to make a complete circuit of the shores of Cedar Lake on park trails. This is because there is a less-than-half-a-mile stretch of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) owned shoreline on the southeast edge of Cedar Lake that lacks a pedestrian path and has been de-facto privatized by homeowners.
Many people are not aware that the MPRB owns all of the Cedar Lake shoreline. This is because a handful of private residences along the southeast section of Cedar lake were granted revocable “encroachment licenses” by the MPRB over 50 years ago. These licenses allow private use of the public lakeshore.
Encroachment licenses are relatively common. While granting private use of public land should always be carefully considered, some encroachment licenses do little to diminish the value of a park to its users. For example, many encroachment licenses have been granted to homeowners for the construction of driveways onto MPRB-owned parkways.
On the other hand, the encroachment licenses granted along the southeast section of Cedar Lake Park have had a significant negative impact. Privately maintained landscaping and hardscaping on park property has made it unwelcoming and infeasible for members of the public to enjoy the beauty of this lakefront park property.
Symbolic of inequity in park access
The MPRB is currently developing its Parks for All Comprehensive Plan, of which goal number one includes fostering equity in park access. The issuance and continued honoring of encroachment licenses in Cedar Lake Park is symbolic of the larger problem of inequity in park access in Minneapolis. The neighborhood on the southeast section of Cedar Lake is marred by a history of racially restrictive covenants forbidding non-white ownership. This practice contributed to rising segregation in Minneapolis. Though racially restrictive covenants were outlawed in Minnesota in 1953 and nationwide in 1968, Minneapolis still has some of the country’s worst racial disparities in homeownership and wealth.
When the first encroachment licenses were issued to properties along the southeast section of Cedar Lake Park, the harms caused by such covenants in the neighborhood were fresh. Today, the properties benefiting from these longstanding encroachment licenses on Cedar Lake Park remain some of the most exclusive in the city. If the MPRB is serious about achieving its Parks for All vision, the inequity embodied by granting and upholding these licenses must be corrected. Rescinding these encroachment licenses and building infrastructure to allow all people access to this parkland is a necessary step toward equity. This is not a new agenda; it simply follows guidance set forth more than two decades ago.
Trail and bridge should be installed
The MPRB is in the research and development phase for the creation of a new master plan to guide the next 20 years of priorities and policies for Cedar Lake Park. The new master plan should follow the never-enacted advice of the 1997 Chain of Lakes Comprehensive Plan and install a pedestrian trail on the park’s land between South Beach and Burnham Road. Drawing inspiration from the Brownie Lake Area Plan, a pedestrian bridge should be built over the mouth of the Kennilworth channel, directly connecting southeast Cedar Lake Park with existing trails in northeast Cedar Lake Park. This would provide much improved access to all parts of Cedar Lake Park, including unique forested trails that provide a taste of nature in the heart of the city. Pairing the construction of a pedestrian trail with shoreline restoration and native plantings would be a win-win for nature and people.
The chain of lakes parks are the crown jewels of the Minneapolis park system. It is time for the MPRB to complete them so that all people may enjoy their glistening splendor now and for centuries to come.
Andrew Tilman, Ph.D., is an ecologist and lifelong lover of Minneapolis parks. You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @tilman_andrew.
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