Some of Minneapolis’ racial inequities tie back to the park system’s relationship with developers in the 1900s, according to new research by the University of Minnesota.
The Minneapolis park board historically partnered with real estate developers to build parks in neighborhoods with racial covenants, which legally prevented non-white people from buying or occupying the land. As a result, white neighborhoods with racial covenants had significantly more parks. From 1910 to 1955, when covenants were used in Minneapolis, 73% of new park areas had at least one racial covenant within a block of the park, the study found.
The researchers used the existing “Mapping Prejudice” project to look at the overlap between parks and racial covenants.
“I started just sort of playing with mapping and spatial overlays and noticed really quickly that if you look at where racial covenants were added in Minneapolis, and you look at the parks that were added during the same time period, they were added to the park system during the same time period, you could see that there was a really close spatial overlap and that made me want to ask why,” said Rebecca Walker, one of the study’s authors and a Ph.D. candidate studying urban planning.
The paper examines two developments, Nokomis Terrace and Walton Hills, and noticed that developers worked with local government to secure public investments in green amenities, like gardens and public parks, while implementing racial covenants in their development.
In 1909, Edmund Walton purchased land near the Lake of the Isles consisting of six city blocks that contained 115 lots and a parcel of swampy land. He sold the swampy land to the park board, and in 1913, the park opened the Cedar-Isles Canal, known as the Kenilworth Canal.
His property was advertised as desirable for white residents, and he highlighted the park amenities and natural landscape while advertising the location.
“This research shows that disparities in Minneapolis’ park system weren’t an accident — parks, race and real estate have always been deeply intertwined,” said Walker.
This interactive website shows examples of other park acquisitions and explains four ways parks became disproportionately located in segregated white neighborhoods – including development after a new park opening, actively requesting a new park and agreeing to pay for it in tax assessment, donating land to the park board (for free or at discounted prices) and designating land for a park in initial development plans.
“These developers weren’t kind of opportunistically siting their developments near parks. They were actually actively lobbying the park board to create parks they were donating or selling land right near their developments. And then advertising it too as a selling point,” said Hannah Ramer, one of the study’s authors and a post-doctoral researcher of geography.
The research also found that areas with racial covenants now have higher tree canopy cover, more park acreage and cooler temperatures. All of those things can contribute to better health outcomes and therefore racial inequities because of the correlation with redlining.
“There are really direct connections between those environmental variables and health. One of the deadliest natural disasters in the U.S., more so than hurricanes, tornadoes, and flooding combined, is exposure to extreme heat. In Minneapolis, if you live in a neighborhood that had a racial covenant, you are much less likely to be exposed to that kind of dangerous heat today that can have really serious health implications,” Walker said.
Several studies show positive health benefits of living near urban parks and green spaces.
A Danish study from 2019 reported that children who grow up in greener surroundings are less likely to develop a mental disorder later in life. Another study suggests that spending around 20 minutes in an urban park enhances people’s sense of happiness — whether or not they are exercising while in the park.
A systematic review and meta-analysis of 143 previous studies conducted in 20 countries showed that living near nature reduces the risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, preterm birth and premature death.
Parks placement throughout the city also affects the wealth gap, specifically the gap between Black and white homeownership and income. Because of the racial covenants, the investments in urban nature only benefitted white homeowners.
“If we think about home ownership as one of the primary vehicles to building wealth over time, we can see that the investment of these green amenities is actively contributing to the racial wealth gap when it’s co-located with these covenants,” Ramer said.
What’s being done to correct the past?
The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board is aware of the inequities within its system.
“We recognize that there are connections between redlining, racial covenants and park development,” said Jennifer Ringold, the deputy superintendent of the park board.
In 2016, the Minneapolis City Council and park board approved a significant cash appropriation for parks. The 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan established funding to come into parks for 20 years – with an equity element.
“(We were) wanting to make sure that we were prioritizing parks that had been underinvested in as we started this new program,” Ringold said.
The system uses a point scale to determine which park will be the first in line for funding, using factors like crime and safety, poverty levels, population size of youth and the current conditions of the park.
The 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan increased the park board’s existing capital improvement program budget by around $10 million, Ringold said. The board’s more recent Racial Equity Action Plan lays out goals for 2023-26, and several items aim to find out what’s behind inequities within the park system.
“I would love to say, and I think any local government would love to say, that they’ve already been able to identify and point to everything that leads to inequity within their system. But those are things we continue to uncover and explore as we get more sophisticated in understanding how different systems result in inequities,” Ringold said.
For example, the board will look into the Elwell Law, which was an acquisition and development practice from 1911 to the early 1960s. Ringold said the law resulted in properties closer to the parks having higher assessment values.
“That’s in part where the most recent paper from the U of M is of interest to us as well because it really speaks to whether or not there were specific development models, whether it be assessments that would’ve been approved by neighbors in terms of whether or not an improvement happened in a park or relationships between developers and donations of parks,” she said. “These are things that we are curious about and wanting to understand so we don’t replicate them in the future.”
The board is hoping to find out which parks used the law for acquisition and what disparities it led to. It will also look if there were parts of the city where it was used more and if that resulted in inequalities in the level of assets.
While the researchers are happy with the park board’s 20-year Neighborhood Park Plan and its equity emphasis, they believe it’s not enough on its own. Many community members worry that as the park board starts to make these investments in new green spaces, rising property values may force people out of those areas and it may become gentrified.
“The park board is taking steps in the right direction, but their power to address it is limited if those in new investments can’t be coupled with affordable housing policy,” Ramer said.
“It has to be combined with affordable housing policy so that the people in those neighborhoods aren’t displaced and are able to use the amenities that are being invested in,” Walker added.