Twin Cities' Parks Ranked the Best — Again

It seems unlikely that one of the coldest metropolitan areas in the United States would also have the best parks, but two Minnesota cities have taken their chilly climate in stride.

The Trust for Public Land just ranked Minneapolis and St. Paul number 1 and number 2 in a list of the the best U.S. cities for parks.

TPL, a national nonprofit that advocates for preserving green space for Americans, created its list by evaluating the 100 most populous U.S. cities on a number of metrics, including park access gauged by how many residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park; park size and investment; and popular amenities, including dog parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers.

In this robust network of parks in the Twin Cities, two stand out: the Grand Rounds in Minneapolis and Rice Park in St. Paul, recognized as Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association in 2009 and 2011, respectively.

Many of the qualities APA looks for when choosing Great Public Spaces are reflected in the TPL criteria, including whether the park is safe, welcoming, and accommodating for all users. The excellence of both parks can be seen as a reflection of the commitment of Minneapolis and St. Paul to providing its citizens with public areas where the community can gather and celebrate local culture.

The Grand Rounds Scenic Byway in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Flickr user Doug Kerr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Grand Rounds

Though the 50 miles of the Grand Rounds are only a part of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's 6,400 acres of trails, lakes, parks, and recreation facilities, it is also the nation's only urban-based National Scenic Byway. The parkways and paths are divided into seven segments and together form a nearly complete loop through Minneapolis as they connect 14 natural lakes, three creeks, two waterfalls, and the Mississippi River.

But Minneapolis doesn't settle for "almost" — a major initiative to construct the Missing Link, a three-mile-long segment that will complete noted landscape architect Horace Cleveland's plan and make The Grand Rounds a complete loop around the city, began in April 2015.

Grand Rounds Scenic Byway in Minneapolis, September 2015. Photo by Flickr user Ron Cogswell (CC BY 2.0).

The Grand Rounds are the pinnacle of park access. They connect all four major quadrants of Minneapolis — north, east, south and west. They also connect residential areas with neighborhood commercial areas and city's downtown business district. The linear and connective design of the Grand Rounds makes it close and easily accessible throughout the city and ensures all residents and visitors can use the system.

Because of careful planning and strategic land acquisitions, all the waterfront and rights-of-way around the lakes, creeks and river segments are in public ownership. But access isn't just about physical access — there are no user fees.

Rice Park is bordered by historic buildings, museums, and music halls, offering an old-world European charm to downtown St. Paul. The central feature is a fountain designed by a Wisconsin artist in 1965. Photo courtesy St. Paul Parks and Recreation.

Rice Park

Instead of weaving through the cityscape, Rice Park is a counterpoint to St. Paul's busy surroundings. Its period lamps, statuary, benches, center fountain, and adjacent national landmark buildings lend a old-world European charm to the 1.6-acre parcel of space. The area immediately surrounding park has seen nearly $63 million in development, a huge amount of public investment that reflects the city's commitment to park land. It is quite accessible, with mixed-use, transit-oriented development involving light rail under way nearby and several bus routes within walking distance of many major institutions and venues.

Rice Park is bordered by historic buildings, museums, and music halls, offering an old-world European charm to downtown St. Paul. The central feature is a fountain designed by a Wisconsin artist in 1965. Photo courtesy St. Paul Parks and Recreation.

By the 1960s the park and surrounding buildings fell into a period of neglect. Rice Park underwent two major renovations in 1965 and 2000, and the area surrounding the park has seen nearly $63 million in revitalization.

The park is replete with amenities. The 1980 park renovations include replacement of benches and paths, while 2000 renovation included redesign of fountain area, providing access in accordance with Americans with Disabilities Act. It is a prime location for parades, marches, and festivals, including St. Paul's annual Winter Carnival, oldest and largest winter festival in the country.

Community involvement has proven tantamount to the park's success. The park is maintained by city and Rice Park Association, a citizen group, and activists during the 1970s and 1980s save Federal Courts Building from demolition. But Rice Park has some quieter residents as well — in the form of bronze statues of Charles Schulz's Peanuts characters and nationally famous St. Paul residents, including F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Minneapolis and St. Paul's commitments to great parks shine through in the Grand Rounds and Rice Park. Though the cities boast famously chilly climates, they have embraced the great outdoors in these urban spaces. Congratulations to the Twin Cities — and their most iconic parks — for the recognition.

About the Author

Samantha Schipani is APA's Great Places in America communications intern.

Top image: Grand Rounds Scenic Byway. Photo by Flickr user Nathan Moe (CC BY-ND 2.0).

July 28, 2016

By Samantha Schipani