No simple solution to funding equity for Mpls parks


In a MSR story published this past summer (“Organizers find ‘huge disparities’ in Mpls parks funding,” Aug. 13, 2009), community organizers and members of Sustainable Progress through Engaging Active Citizens (SPEAC) spoke of a broken promise between the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) and the community surrounding Peavey Park in the South Minneapolis Phillips neighborhood. Recently, the MSR spoke with MPRB Commissioner at Large Annie Young, and Commissioner Scott Vreeland of District 3 (which includes Peavey Park) to address these concerns. 

This promise, made eight years ago, SPEAC members maintained, included a park building that has yet to be built. The story compared apparently unequal funding between Peavey and Linden Hills parks and raised the issue of how fairly parks are funded between neighborhoods of varying income levels throughout the city.

Park funding history

In a commentary submitted to MSR in response to SPEAC (“Financial cutbacks delayed Peavey Park improvements,” Aug. 27), then-MPRB member Mary Merrill Anderson blamed funding cuts for any lack of attention to Peavey Park.

However, Commissioners Young and Vreeland say that making sure parks have equitable services involves several different issues in addition to cuts in funding. Looking at the history of park funding sheds some light on how current inequities developed.

During the 1930s, land around lakes and rivers was the first to be developed by using the “Elwell law” passed by the State in 1911, allowing the taking or taxing of property owned by well-to-do families in the area to be used for land acquisition. Theodore Wirth Park is a prime example of using this law to build a park. One effect of this practice was to concentrate park land in more well-to-do neighborhoods.

During the 1960s, in an attempt to offer park and recreation services to all neighborhoods, the park board veered from the Elwell approach to a system in which the intent was to have a park located within a radius of approximately every six city blocks. Parks began to develop partnerships with the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), each having a different agreement that could include sharing a playground, gym, or other common spaces. Twenty-seven such partnerships exist today.

The park board currently uses a city-wide approach to funding that examines the needs of each neighborhood and generates a plan based on those needs. As for comparing Peavey and Linden Hills parks, Vreeland says, “It’s important to compare apples and apples, and how much is spent in a recreation center is a function of many different things.”

Powderhorn Park, for example, may get as much as $350,000 per year because of its size and the geographic area it serves, Vreeland explains, while Longfellow, a much smaller park with more limited hours of operation, may only receive $40,000. Although the Elwell law is rarely used for park funding currently, parks still receive additional funding if they are connected to a parkway or lake.

Young says, “There’s a lot of different money for regional parks. We get federal money…[and] historic legacy money. We have money that comes from the State; some is local government aid. There are very few pots of money, of all our pots of money, that are for urban parks.”

Under the Obama administration, Young explains, there is consideration to reinstate a program called UPAR (Urban Park and Recreation), consisting of grants specifically tied to urban parks.

Peavey’s challenges

As earlier reported in the MSR, Linden Hills has over 40 programs while Peavey has only four. Besides funding source complexities, park commissioners say a neighborhood’s level of community organizing, its population, available programming space, and transportation are all considerations in the distribution of dollars.

Although both SPEAC and Minneapolis City Council Member Robert Lilligren (in his response to Merrill Anderson’s commentary, “Do our parks serve Mpls with equity?” MSR, September 10) state that high concentrations of youth, poverty and people of color should make providing services a higher priority, park commissioners say the population itself creates a challenge.

In Southeast and Southwest Minneapolis, Young says, “They have sports councils…recreational activities councils – lots of activism because of active parenting families, which we know is a problem in poor communities where we have so many single-parent households.”

Another factor is that the partnership that existed between Peavey Park and MPS changed with the sale of Four Winds public school to Hope Academy Charter School. When the building was owned by MPS, their agreement with the park included shared use of the gym. Since Hope Academy’s community and services have grown over the years, sharing space is a less likely possibility. However, the pastor of a church in the area is willing to share their gym.

Vreeland says that much of the question of equity rests on community organizing. “If the need is to keep kids active around Peavey, we’ve put together all these sports teams, [but] we don’t have enough coaches. If the SPEAC folks can organized and get us coaches, that would be a win-win for everybody.”

Vreeland says that this collaboration is already in effect and reaping results. He says that even since our story last summer, “I think there’s been some real improvements, more kids being involved and people paying attention to what are the issues.”

Park Board Commissioner Vreeland, Merrill Anderson, and Council Member Lilligren all express support for the work of Al Bangora of the Phillips Community Service Area in his community organizing efforts.

What is being done?

“The SPEAC folks’…basic premise is that the Phillips neighborhood is not a priority,” Vreeland says. “It actually has been the highest priority for the park board.”

To substantiate this claim, Vreeland points to MPRB’s investment in a premiere soccer and lacrosse field in the Phillips neighborhood where Latino and Hmong youth’s participation in soccer is rapidly growing.

The park board has additionally spent $4.1 million in the Phillips neighborhood to build a new recreation center, the first built in the city in a few years. They have also committed $1.5 million to develop the Club Youthline next to Peavey Park geared toward serving teens.

As for the “broken promise,” Vreeland says no such promise was made. “I have many parks and many master plans that haven’t been built… The SPEAC folks are saying [that] because we’ve had this plan, [it] means there’s an obligation to complete that plan.” Funding for the plan, he says, was mainly non-park board funding that never came to fruition.

Equity Analysis report?

In his commentary, Council Member Lilligren asks park board commissioners, “Do you support a Racial Equity Impact Analysis?”

Commissioner Young responds, “What good will it do you to have an equity analysis? …These are not easy issues that are solved, and certainly not by studies that end up on shelves that don’t do anybody any good. I’d rather try to figure out how to do the programming and try to get services.”

When making decisions regarding funding, Young says, “I happen to be a proponent of sustainability. And in sustainability there’s what’s called the three Es, which are economics and environment and equity. And when I make decisions I try to think of those three areas.

“There are a lot of situations where…it is the poor pitted against the rich for placement of things,” Young says, “but there are other ways to fight it than doing an assessment… It’s not rocket science. It’s kind of like, it’s America. Do we really want to talk about it? Isn’t it about capitalism?”

“The big question is, ‘Is it racism that’s driving this?’ Vreeland says. “How are folks looking at things and making decisions about what’s fair and unfair… Look at the history,” he advises, “but more importantly, look at the future of how we allocate resources, and what we need to do is continue working on a comprehensive plan.”

As for actually achieving park equity, Young says, “We can each try. We can each do our thing every day… Does it solve the issue? Maybe, maybe not.”


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