Making city parks more equitable

The first presenter was Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons, who shared progress on his department’s Racial Equity Action Plan. To define terms, he used an illustration. Three children of different heights wanted to watch a football game, but they were behind a fence. They were each given a stool, enabling the two tallest to see, but the smallest was still looking into the fence. That, he said was equality. Equity, however, meant stacking as many stools as necessary for each child to be able to watch the game. Conservatives would refer to this as equality of outcomes, vs. equality of opportunity. Simmons added it would be preferable to remove all fences so nobody would need stools.

A problem the city has had in the past has been conducting citywide surveys and then averaging the results. The broad-brush approach left many, who were unable or did not know how to give the city feedback, without services. It also left many people with services that weren’t relevant to their lifestyles. To fix this, the department has divided the city into service districts. The next step will be to get citizens in each district to lead the development of a neighborhood plan. Simmons said his department would collect citizen input, vet it, and then explain to the community why any suggestions were deemed unfeasible.

Parks and Rec will also be ramping up collaborations with schools. New investments include the creation of more summer camp locations, a camp at the WNC Nature Center for underserved children, a swimming camp at the Walton Street pool, and year-round swimming at the YWCA. The city will continue to work with the police and fire departments on activities, including the traditional Fire Camp. Future plans include adding bus stops at the nature center and soccer complex. The department is also convening youth focus groups to hear from that demographic what they want from Parks and Rec.

Simmons’ department is further helping with job development. He said the city was a great place to intern because it is involved in so many activities, from finance, to construction, to law. Students in middle and high school interning with the city get training in civics as well. The city, in turn, benefits from the student volunteers because it has difficulty staffing certain positions for which skills are not taught in school. Students who intern in those positions could be hired once they graduate.

Simmons and Councilor Julie Mayfield then had a side conversation about something that went so wrong at Aston Park they did not wish to mention details. Simmons only said progress is evolving, and it involved hiring an outside facilitator.

Councilor Sheneika Smith asked what had been done to address inequity at the city’s outdoor swimming camps. Last year, free swimming was supposed to be offered to low-income families, but no free slots were offered at the Grant Center, which serves three public housing developments. Adding insult to injury, the buildings were locked, so children had to play outside in the rain. Simmons said the city was balancing many factors. Offering available space was a good deed that wouldn’t go unpunished. This year, kids will have access to a building on rainy days, and the city continues to search for opportunities for free programming.

Smith then asked if the city might pay a stipend as an incentive for student involvement in city work. Simmons said that as a government agency, the city couldn’t pay children. It could, however encourage businesses to sponsor children. Smith asked if the city couldn’t get federal funding for student stipends. She seemed to recall a program from the Department of Labor that would allow it. Smith said he was open to any ideas and added the student intern program will require a dedicated staff person.

On climate resiliency, Amber Weaver from the city’s Office of Sustainability focused on the city’s waste reduction goal. Statistics gave Mayor Esther Manheimer pause to question if the city’s goal, to reduce solid waste 50% by 2035, should be revisited. The fact that the city was moving away from its goal was attributed to growth.

Ideas batted about included requiring apartment complexes to provide city recycling services and reaching a critical mass of feedstock for a composting program by accepting biomass from hospitals, grocery stores, and other businesses as well as residences. Weaver said pay-as-you-throw incentive programs should only be launched when solid waste fees cover the cost of service. Costs of service are now about $22 per household, and fees were $7.50 when Weaver started working for the city. She said council must also consider equity in charging poor people a greater share of their income for services.

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