With its chain of lakes and acres of open space, Minneapolis has a nationally lauded park system. But as of 2015, its smaller neighborhood parks faced a capital investment backlog of more than $100 million, a shortfall that translated to aging structures, walkways full of potholes, and soccer fields that had been ground into mud.

A closed tennis court in Folwell Park.

Vina Kay, the executive director of the Minnesota-based advocacy organization Voices for Racial Justice, says one can see an ugly pattern in which parks are in the worst shape. “If you were to go on a visual tour, you would see that some parks are more run-down than others and that those parks are most often in low-income communities of color,” Kay says.  In response, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board recently developed what its members hope is a more equitable system of park priorities.

Residents feel comfortable

Last year, a team of landscape architects, planners, and data analysts, among others, spent months wading through census numbers and neighborhood-scale maps to get a detailed view of where better parks were most needed.

A playground in Folwell Park, one of the largest parks in North Minneapolis.

They crafted a funding formula based on a scoring system that weighs a number of factors, including safety and life span of equipment, neighborhood crime rates—an indicator of whether residents feel comfortable even going to their local park—and demographics, particularly whether a park is located in a racially concentrated area of poverty.

Adam Regn Arvidson, FASLA, the park board’s director of strategic planning, participated in the working group. He says the demographic criteria were driven by outreach and codified by a city ordinance agreeing to boost neighborhood park funding by $11 million annually over 20 years. “The one thing we heard from the community loud and clear was that almost everyone would support additional funding, but they wanted to make sure that the funding we got didn’t continue to perpetuate racial and economic disparities,” he says.

The group determined that neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of the population had a family income of less than 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold—and where 50 percent or more of residents were people of color—would receive the highest score in that category, thus bumping up their funding priority.

A bench in Fairview Park, also in North Minneapolis.

Many of the top numbers in that category appeared in North and South Minneapolis, where local government had historically clustered public housing and built freeways that slashed property values. Including the demographic criteria in the formula was intuitive, but a park management analyst, Linden Weiswerda, also part of the working group, says that other metrics required more critical thinking, such as crime rates. “We decided not to use total crime because we were really interested in perceived risk,” he says.

High-profile crimes against people

He explains that high-profile crimes against people, such as assault, are more likely than, say, auto theft to influence “whether you believe it’s safe for your kids to ride their bike around.” The formula calls for neighborhoods with more than 10 crimes “against persons” per 1,000 residents to receive the highest score. For Kay, of Voices for Racial Justice, the metric’s creation is a hopeful start.

But she cautions against relying solely on a “clear-cut, analytical, almost mathematical system” for addressing something as complex as structural racism. Trust for the park board has worn thin among Minneapolis’s communities of color over the years. This spring, the local NAACP called for a boycott of all board meetings and park activities because of what its members see as discrimination in the organization’s hiring structure.

“I have sat at tables with park board staff who have really come a long way in their commitment to racial equity…and they’ve put themselves in vulnerable positions to do that,” Kay says. “At the same time, in a system that’s Adam Regn Arvidson, it’s not fast enough.”