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Elizabeth Dunbar, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published June 05 2013

Minneapolis parks No. 1 in nation, says conservation group

ST. PAUL – The city of lakes long known for its park system now has a new designation to brag about: the best city for parks in the United States.

The Trust for Public Land on Wednesday said Minneapolis ranked first in a national analysis of data on everything from park size to the number of playgrounds.

“We’re thrilled,” said Jayne Miller, superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. “It’s affirming to get this kind of recognition nationally.”

The conservation group evaluated the nation’s 50 largest cities on five factors:

• The percentage of residents living within a half- mile of a park.

• Average park size.

• The percentage of the city’s land area dedicated to parks.

• The number of playgrounds per capita.

• The amount of park spending per capita.

Minneapolis did well in all five categories, said Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land. St. Paul’s population was too small to be included in the analysis, but Harnik said analysts added the St. Paul data to the data for Minneapolis and concluded the Twin Cities will still be No. 1.

That may come as a surprise to other cities, he said.

“(The Twin Cities) have so many things going against them in terms of the long, difficult winters and being in the center of the Midwest,” Harnik said. “Your people are setting a very high bar, and it’s encouraging to all of us to see that success.”

Twin Cities residents use the weather as an excuse to go out and enjoy the parks, said Susan Schmidt, state director for the Trust for Public Land.

“We celebrate it,” she said. “We get out in every season.”

The data show that 94 percent of Minneapolis residents live within a half-mile of a park, and 15 percent of the city’s land area is parkland.

Despite scoring well in the spending category, the amount of property tax money flowing into the general Minneapolis parks budget is $10 million less than it was a decade ago, Miller said. At the same time, she said it has become more expensive to maintain the parks.

“Part of our challenge is, how do we continue to be a good and very strong park system within declining resources?” Miller said.

Relying more on private investment is part of the strategy, she said. For example, the redevelopment of the Mississippi Riverfront, which included park land, used $300 million in public money, compared to more than $1 billion in private investment over the last 30 years, she said.

A similar strategy is in play for the next phase of park development along the Mississippi, a project called RiverFirst.

“From the early founders of this system through today, people in this community recognize that not only is this an incredible system, but it is a huge driver of economic development for the city,” Miller said.

The city has also been tapping parks money from the state’s Legacy Amendment, which raises a portion of sales tax money for parks and trails throughout the state. But that money can only be used for regional parks, leaving officials struggling for money to maintain neighborhood parks.

Schmidt said she hopes those parks will be helped by plans to improve access between the new Central Corridor light rail line and parks that already exist in neighborhoods.

But the Twin Cities also need to keep adding park land, she said.

“The reason we have all these great park systems is because 150 years ago, leaders created the Como parks and the Chain of Lakes and the river gorge for all of us to enjoy today,” she said. “Now leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul are talking about investing first and foremost in the downtowns, particularly downtown Minneapolis, and if we don’t green it up a little bit and make it an attractive downtown that’s connected to the Mississippi River, we sort of miss the boat.”

Minneapolis has proposed creating a two-block green space just a few blocks away from where the new Minnesota Vikings stadium will sit.

Overall, Schmidt said Twin Cities residents should be proud of their parks and appreciate their role in promoting healthy communities.

“I think sometimes we take it for granted,” she said. “Parks are more than just the place to run, walk or bike.”