Engaging community is focus of parks equity planning

Date: Thursday, March 12, 2020

A person places stickers on a board asking for feedback on park activities.When Anoka County started planning a new segment of the Rum River Regional Trail and exploring alternatives to an existing trail crossing on a busy county road, parks planners asked important questions:

  • Who is or will be living near this trail and crossing, and how can we engage them to plan for facilities they will want to use?

  • Are there voices we don’t typically hear in the planning process, and how might we ensure that we hear them?

These questions are at the heart of a new equity analysis required of counties, cities, and special park districts that plan and operate regional parks and trails in the seven-county metro area.

The analysis requires park agencies to show how they engaged the public in developing park and trail master plans, or amending those plans, as well as the outcomes of the engagement. It ensures that questions of who benefits and who is affected by the development of a regional recreational resource will be included in all regional park and trail master planning efforts.

Meeting people where they gather, rather than expecting them to come to you

In the case of the Rum River Regional Trail master plan amendment, the Anoka County Parks Department looked at the demographics of the City of St. Francis, Anoka County, and Isanti County to determine underserved populations to target for engagement as they developed trail plans. The identified groups included older adults, people living below the poverty line, students unable to drive, and populations of color.

The county’s engagement included strategies to “go to the people.” That meant participating in local community events, visiting senior centers, and holding pop-up events at the local library and a grocery store.

Tables and posters asking for input on park features.“We worked with the cultural resources liaison at St. Francis High School and were invited to attend the Spring Gathering of Families event, part of the school’s Native American education program,” said Jeff Perry, Anoka County Parks director. “We talked about the trail project and solicited feedback.”

Perry said they chose the grocery store because of the diversity of the population that uses it — “everybody buys groceries,” he noted — and made the input process simple and respectful of shoppers’ time.

The county also used more conventional outreach methods, including a website to gather feedback on the proposed trail plans and social media posts. They consulted extensively with local governments and agencies with jurisdiction along the Rum River as well.

One of the outcomes was an overwhelming affirmation of the proposal to build an underpass and eliminate the current roadway crossing. Another was a compromise to make a portion of an alternative trail alignment an on-street bikeway, rather than seeking easements for an off-road trail through a relatively new housing development.

“This kind of engagement definitely takes more time, and we have a relatively small staff,” Perry said. “But I believe that the payoff is far greater than the time spent. We’re here to listen to the people and hear what they want and need. It’s about the people we serve. I have no issue with spending more staff time in this area.”

Met Council models equitable engagement process

“One of the strengths of the equity analysis is that in developing it we modeled a collaborative process with our key stakeholders — the park operating agencies — that is similar to what will lead to success as they conduct the analysis for their park and trail plans,” said Darcie Vandegrift, Met Council researcher. Steps in our process included:

  • Holding a series of workshops with park agency directors to learn about their recent and current equity work.

  • Having one-on-one conversations with planning staff at all 10 regional park implementing agencies to learn about their values, their desired areas for growth, and the challenges they face.

  • Conducting a parallel process with the Equity Advisory Committee and Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission to hear their vision of what an equitable parks and trails system would look like, and what questions we ought to be encouraging parks agencies to ask as they plan park facilities.

  • Taking all of the data gathered and fashioning the draft equity analysis.

  • Bringing it back to all the stakeholder groups for feedback, and incorporating changes as needed.

“It was a very inclusive process for the 10 park operating agencies,” affirmed Perry. “We attended numerous meetings and had input at various points in the process. I think the outcome was attainable and reasonable.”

The Met Council’s Equity Advisory Committee, Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission, Community Development Director, and Council members all reviewed and approved the parks equity analysis in recent months; it goes into effect in June 2020. The analysis is part of a larger suite of tools the Met Council and the park agencies use to advance equity in the regional parks system:

  • Equity Toolkit, to increase equity in ongoing regional parks funding decisions.

  • Equity Grant Program pilot, to fund projects that strengthen equitable usage of regional parks and trails by all our region’s residents. The first year of implementation focused on capital projects.

  • Programming and public engagement, including our regional parks ambassador program and the agencies’ operations and programming, to connect more people to the parks system.

Our regional development framework, Thrive MSP 2040, commits the Met Council to advancing equity in the region through its policies and investments. Equity connects all residents to opportunity and creates viable housing, transportation, and recreation options for people of all races, ethnicities, incomes, and abilities so that all communities share the opportunities and challenges of growth and change.

The Met Council oversees the acquisition and development of regional parks and trails in the seven-county metro area.

Regional parks and trails planning

Posted In: Parks

Upcoming Events