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Charlie Zelle

We all live for those moments where Minnesota radiates its natural beauty: the utter silence of a first heavy snowfall as it blankets everything in white, a crisp fall day with trees of crimson and gold, summer’s explosion of color and long days. But spring is the season of renewal and opportunity.

I’ve been reflecting on that because the way that many of us experience our state’s beauty is through our regional park system, and in one sense the way that we view those parks is entering a season of renewal.

More than 45 years ago the Minnesota Legislature asked the Met Council to work with local park districts to create a regional park system. Today we work closely with 10 park agencies that develop, maintain, and operate 56 parks and park reserves and more than 400 miles of interconnected trails. We help with funding, planning, and technical support to our parks partners.

Promoting the system and expanding access

This summer, we’re looking with our partner park agencies at how to promote the overall system, to expand access to even more Minnesotans. Each park offers a variety of opportunities, whether it’s walking through one of the Twin Cities area’s last remaining oak savannas in Anoka County, learning to paddle board, biking, hiking or birdwatching. We want to ensure that everyone knows about these incredible opportunities.

We also want our parks to be accessible and welcoming to everyone. Our region is becoming more diverse. In the next 20 years the percentage of people of color in the seven-county metro area will increase from 27% to 40%. Our parks and the activities they offer need to adapt to welcome new people.

That could mean bringing tuj lub courts to more parks to serve Hmong people who have been competing with spinning tops for thousands of years. It could also mean adapting park policies and rules to meet the traditions and needs of different communities. We continue to study and plan for parks that serve a more diverse Twin Cities region.

Deepening our understanding

It’s also important to remember where we’re from to be welcoming to everyone, so we’re engaged in work with our parks partners to deepen our understanding of how history and culture plays a part in our visitor’s experiences with our parks and trails. Currently we’re designing a long-term study to examine how the past creates barriers even today, to inform how we make parks more welcoming and relevant to future generations.

The same natural beauty and resources that draw us to parks today, also drew people to these areas in the past. Understanding how indigenous people lived on and related to these lands, documenting when and where Europeans first came to the region, and looking at the story of how we have been shaped by the land is the subject of an important, ongoing historical and cultural study the Met Council is undertaking.

We’re on the cusp of summer, the weather is nice, and the mosquitoes aren’t too bad yet. The parks offer us all the opportunity to recognize that we live in a special place, deeply rooted in the past and branching towards a brighter future.

Charlie Zelle is the chair of the Metropolitan Council.

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