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Successful city parks make diverse communities feel safe and welcome − this Minnesota park is an example

Dan Trudeau, Macalester College, The Conversation on

Published in Science & Technology News

What makes a city a good place to live? Practical features are important, such as well-maintained streets, good public transit and reliable trash collection. So are amenities that make cities attractive and interesting, such as museums and public parks. Access to green space is especially valuable for residents who may not be able to travel easily beyond city limits.

On May 22, 2024, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land released its annual ParkScore report which ranks U.S. cities based on the quality of their parks. Beyond tallying how many parks a city has, the rankings also consider the share of residents who live within 10 minutes’ walk of a park. This recognizes that in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, affluent white neighborhoods often have more parks than low-income areas and communities of color.

Access is important, but I believe making people feel included and welcome is equally important. If parks do this well, people will be more willing to use them.

I am an urban geographer and study how parks affect social interaction in diverse communities. My students and I are examining how people interact with the built environment of Phalen Regional Park in St. Paul, Minnesota, to understand what leads people to experience this park as a welcoming and inclusive space. I believe Phalen Park offers useful strategies that other cities can emulate.

Phalen Park is among St. Paul’s largest parks, covering 494 acres (2 square kilometers) – three times the size of Disneyland. It includes a 198-acre lake encircled by a trail, watercraft rentals, scenic views, a golf course, an amphitheater, sculptures, a playground and two pavilions for picnics, performances and other gatherings.

One important feature is St. Paul’s sole public beach with lifeguard services. Many low-income households around the park don’t have access to places where they can swim for free. Providing a safe place to swim helps reduce this inequity.

 

People in the Twin Cities use parks in a variety of ways. For example, Asian American park visitors are 2.5 times more likely than others to attend family events in parks, while Black park visitors are 1.75 times more likely than others to go fishing there. In surveys and interviews I have conducted, people from many social groups report that they use Phalen Park because there are so many things to do there and there are diverse groups of people in the park.

Community organizations use the park’s green spaces and shoreline for year-round public events and festivals. The park hosts cultural performances, community gatherings such as movie screenings, and regional events such as freshwater stewardship activities and dragon boat races.

These free events cater to many different age groups, attract diverse crowds and promote cultural learning and positive interracial encounters. Phalen Park is one of the most-visited parks in the Twin Cities, with an estimated 1.1 million visits in 2021.

There are many practical reasons for cities to invest in public parks. Studies have found that visiting green spaces reduces stress and that people who live within half a mile of a public park tend to get more exercise than those who lack access to safe places for walking, biking and recreation. Public parks provide spaces where people can gather for free, or sometimes for a nominal permit fee.

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