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Sure the Twin Cities rank among the nation’s best park systems, but not for all

Parks in communities of color and low-income residents are smaller and serve more people than parks in higher-income, primarily white neighborhoods.

North Commons Park, Minneapolis
North Commons Park, Minneapolis
Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

The recent news that the Twin Cities ranked among the top in the nation for park systems — second for St. Paul and fifth for Minneapolis — is wonderful. But the honor also comes with an important finding that we must acknowledge and address.

Minneapolis and St. Paul score well in terms of resident access to a park within a 10-minute walk from home on TPL’s annual ParkScore® index. But, in 2021, Trust for Public Land (TPL) added new equity measures to ParkScore®, providing a more complete sense of the disparities driving who does — and doesn’t — have access to parks.

Though both cities score high in park access, both Minneapolis and St. Paul score lower compared to other cities on these more detailed park equity measurements.

In Minneapolis, neighborhoods of color have 60% less park space than primarily white neighborhoods and low-income neighborhoods have 65% less park space than high-income neighborhoods. In St. Paul, neighborhoods of color have 32% less park space than primarily white neighborhoods and low-income neighborhoods have 32% less park space than high-income neighborhoods.

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In other words, parks in communities of color and low-income residents are smaller and serve more people than parks in higher-income, primarily white neighborhoods.

For context, neighborhoods of color in top-ranked Washington, D.C., have 17% less park space and low-income communities have 7% less park space than their big city counterparts.

We understand that the size of parks isn’t everything. There are lovely small parks, and insufficient large parks.

But taken as a whole, park size does often matter. Compared to large parks, smaller parks often get crowded easier. They’re often less picturesque. They typically have fewer natural features, fewer trees and fewer amenities overall.

Research demonstrates the benefits of parks are wide-ranging.

Access to parks is associated with greater mental health and well-being. We must work so those benefits are enjoyed by all Minnesotans, not just some.

Trust for Public Land is partnering with community leaders and local park agencies to change that, focusing on neighborhoods where safe, vibrant and welcoming parks are needed most. We are excited to support Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board leadership around a community driven idea to re-create North Commons Park in the Willard Hay neighborhood of Minneapolis.

Sometimes, we roll up our sleeves with community leaders, park agencies and philanthropic partners to ensure a community’s dream for a new or renovated park comes to life sooner rather than later. Midway Peace Park and Central Village Park, both in St. Paul, are recent examples. Nationally, since 1972 TPL has created more than 5,000 parks, trails, schoolyards and special natural areas around the nation, and connected more than 9 million people to the outdoors.

So, let’s look at this year’s Park Score® ranking as both cause for celebration and action. Let’s consider it a challenge to do much better serving Minnesotans in areas where parks are scarce or inadequate in terms of size, quality, use or safety.

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To get that work done, reach out to your federal, state, and local elected officials about the need to increase public funding for local parks and trails. Let’s actively promote local funding initiatives for park investment like the 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan (NPP20) measure in Minneapolis. Reach out to state elected leaders to ask them to support reauthorization of state lottery proceeds for the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, a vital source of state funding over the years for local parks in historically underserved communities.

Susan Schmidt
Susan Schmidt
Finally, let’s make full use of federal grants that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith and Reps. Betty McCollum and Ilhan Omar were recently championing in Minnesota. These grants are intended for new or renovated parks and trails in neighborhoods long overlooked. That announcement was made at Midway Peace Park, which TPL helped create in partnership with the community, the city of St. Paul, and donors.

With adequate public investment we can realize community dreams for safe, welcoming parks and make Minnesota a happier, healthier and more equitable state. But the very first step in solving the Twin Cities’ park equity problem is to admit that we have one.

Susan Schmidt is the Minnesota state director, and Midwest regional vice president, for Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that partners with the communities it serves to connect everyone to the benefits and joys of the outdoors.