Milwaukee County Parks Pledge Greater Racial Equity 'To Make Sure We're Serving'

Jul 23, 2020

Milwaukee County leaders are promising greater racial equity in county operations. That includes the Parks Department, which has more than 150 properties. At least one county supervisor says she plans to hold the department to its pledge.

At Dineen Park, 6901 W. Vienna Ave., on the northwest side of Milwaukee, a major renovation has been going on in recent years. Already with the financial help of the Milwaukee Bucks, the basketball courts have been upgraded. 

A younger adult who gave his name as Jdari was shooting baskets the other day. He says the fixing of the courts has made playing more fun.

"When they did this, you saw many more familiar faces coming. It was like seeing childhood memories, everybody's back around. So, the fact they got courts that are actually playable is a good thing,” Jdari said while shooting a layup.

The renovated basketball courts at Dineen Park.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

He says the good feelings extend to the whole area.  "There's a lot of things you can focus on negatively. But, for the most part, you stay optimistic, and stuff like this allows the community to have a positive outlook. You know what I'm saying?” Jdari told WUWM.

Many more changes are underway at Dineen. In a joint project with the city of Milwaukee, the baseball field and disc golf course are being rebuilt. When completed, perhaps by next year, there will also be improvements to walking paths and a playground, and a major new effort to control stormwater.

It's not the only improvement planned for Milwaukee County parks in mostly Black neighborhoods. County Parks Executive Director Guy Smith says his department is committed to racial equity "and really wanting to make sure we're investing in our under-served communities."

This playground at Indigenous People's Park in Milwaukee is scheduled to be replaced by one with a rubber ground cover.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Smith says take, for example, the 113 playgrounds in the county parks. He mentions three on Milwaukee's north side.

"We applied a racial equity tool. So, for example, this year, we're going to start building playgrounds at Indigenous People's Park, Rose Park, and one of the playgrounds at Washington Park. It wasn't just the age of the playground, it was making sure it was in good shape, youth nearby, an underserved population. We want to make sure we're serving,” Smith said.

For this fiscal year, he says the county is trying to apply the tool — based on a UW-Madison-designed health and equity framework — to all capital projects. But he says financial woes facing the county, partly brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, will limit what the park system can do in the coming months.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Felesia Martin at Dineen Park.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Milwaukee County Supervisor Felesia Martin, who's Black, says if she has her way, any slowdown in parks improvements won't disproportionately hit Black and Latino neighborhoods.

"I'm not concerned about that because I will be sounding the alarm, and I will keep my foot on the gas when it comes to racial equity across all aspects of the county, not just parks,” Martin said, during a recent interview at Dineen Park.

Martin is on the County Board's Parks Committee. Her district includes Dineen and several other parks. Martin says part of her passion comes from wanting to provide more healthy options for people.

"We know that green spaces can contribute to good, healthy outcomes, as families and communities, take part in exercising in the park, walking in our park. Just being among trees in the park helps decrease your stress level. I don't know how you feel, but when I walk into a park that's beautifully groomed, I can just feel the stress level going down,” Martin said.

The lagoon at Dineen Park.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Martin says another thing she wants people from all backgrounds to experience is more wildlife, including sandhill cranes.

"I don't know if you're familiar with [Wisconsin naturalist] Aldo Leopold and [his book] A Sand County Almanac — [and its description of] all the wildlife in Wisconsin. That takes place right here in Dineen Park!” Matin exclaimed. She continued, “What better way to be inspired and relax and to think about our future and reimagine Milwaukee as a whole. That's what I like about Dineen Park. The hopefulness of it all."

The Milwaukee County park system — in the midst of a budget squeeze and coronavirus-related shutdowns that could last a while — recently asked more volunteers and private institutions to help keep the optimism going.