Now is the time to leverage once in a generation federal dollars to increase equity and access for our parks.
Saint Paul’s Park system was ranked 2nd in the nation on May 27 by the Trust for Public Land’s annual ParkScore Index (up from a ranking of 3rd in 2020). This news came as the city began planning how to spend the “once in a generation” infusion of federal dollars through the American Rescue Plan (ARP). As budgets and capital projects begin rolling out, now is the time to reinvest in our neighborhood parks to assure access to dynamic parks in every neighborhood.
On April 18, Saint Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen and Vice President Rebecca Noecker laid out guiding principles for how to spend the federal funds. Their principles included prioritizing needs that no one else will meet – such as neighborhood parks, rec centers and libraries. These critical resources face millions of dollars in deferred maintenance as well as opportunities to meet changing community needs into the future.
“Deferred maintenance” is not a sexy sell for either public dollars or private philanthropy. Everyone loves the excitement of something new. After the ribbon cuttings and photo ops, Saint Paul is no different than cities across the country where maintenance budgets stay static (or are reduced), despite aging structures and changing community needs. Meanwhile, precious capital funds are largely earmarked for the most prestigious civic projects and new developments. Available funds do not begin to touch the backlog of needs. A neglected park decreases public safety, family support and property values faster than a great park can enhance them.
For example, only a small fraction of the more than $10M in necessary HVAC/Mechanical system replacements to address deferred maintenance and capture long-term operational savings of energy efficiency improvements in our park facilities can ever be accommodated by the Capital Improvement Budget. In fact, the capital budget is so tight that if your park swings need to be replaced this summer, there might not be the funds on hand.
Likewise, the 100 works by local and international artists that make up Minnesota’s second-largest (and most diverse) publicly-owned collection of outdoor art compete to be maintained on less than $8,000 per year.
Neighborhood parks and rec centers are where our residents grow up and grow old amidst beauty and health. From the tot lot, splash pads, swim lessons, concerts and art to gardens, trails, forests and lakes, parks help us create ourselves and our community. They are our back yards, public squares and nature escapes, regardless of where or in what kind of housing we live. Their trees literally make it easier to breathe in Saint Paul than in other cities. Our parks and rec centers are “brand new” to each first-time visitor and incoming resident. They are not “last year’s shiny objects” – they are vital to personal, family and cultural life. They are as meaningful on any given day to thousands of people as the moment they were opened.
What the new ParkScore ranking for Saint Paul makes clear is that we have built a world-class urban park system that is more accessible than most. Now we need to care for it at the level it requires – in every neighborhood. The new ranking reflects that 99% of Saint Paul residents – regardless of color or income level – are within a 10-minute walk of a park entrance (far exceeding the national average of 75%). Federal and private funds can get the facilities across our city back in top operation.
There is still much work ahead to realize Mayor Carter’s vision for a Saint Paul that works for ALL, but our parks are already a step ahead of the game. The new ParkScore data shows that Saint Paul neighborhoods where most people identify as people of color have access to 30 percent less park space per capita than residents in neighborhoods that are predominantly white. That statistical park land gap averages 44% across the country, highlighting that while we have much work to do in Saint Paul, recent investments in key neighborhoods are putting us steps ahead of other cities.
By leveraging both federal funds and private partnership, and following the guiding principles set out by Brendmoen and Noecker, Saint Paul can:
• Increase access to green space for neighborhoods of color;
• add or upgrade amenities that serve those neighborhoods, such as the Sepak Takraw (Southeast Asian kick volleyball) courts that the Saint Paul Parks Conservancy helped build at Marydale Park and the Duluth and Case Rec Center; and
• train more local workers to enhance and care for our park treasures.
Nonprofit champions for our parks like the Saint Paul Parks Conservancy (founded in 2008) are opening and expanding across the country as communities address aging infrastructure and reimagine public spaces for a new era. Private donations are critical to helping our parks meet new needs, but a one-time infusion of federal dollars is the only way to level the playing field for a system with 179 parks and 5,000 acres of land. The city can only be safer, more welcoming and healthier when every neighborhood is anchored by a truly great green space that welcomes, sustains and brings joy to its residents.