The Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, are known for many things: bone-chilling winter weather, a vibrant bike culture, an abundance of lakes and regional cuisine that revolves around tater tots, canned soup and melted cheese.
Together, these bustling Minnesotan burgs situated on opposite sides of the Mississippi River can also claim bragging rights as having the two nicest — yes, a loaded word in Minnesota — urban park systems in the country per the Trust for Public Land (TPL)’s annual ParkScore rankings, an index that ranks park systems belonging to the 100 most populous American cities.
No strangers to dominating the ParkScore rankings (Minneapolis and St. Paul tied for the top spot in 2015), the Twin Cities both received “outstanding” 5.0 "park bench" ratings with Minneapolis leading St. Paul by a mere four points with an overall score of 86.5 out of 100 possible points. St. Paul actually triumphed over Minneapolis in the park access category — a whopping 96 percent of residents in Minnesota’s capitol city live within a 10-minute walk of a public park compared to Minneapolis’ 95 percent. However, Minneapolis parks boast a larger median size than those in St. Paul (6.5 acres versus 3.7 acres), a factor that helped Mill City triumph in the end.
Located in the Mississippi River, St. Paul's award-winning Raspberry Island Regional Park features a band shell and walking paths. (Photo: Richie Diesterheft/flickr)
The largest park in Minneapolis, a city where nearly 15 percent of its land is dedicated to its urban park system, is the 759-acre Theodore Wirth Park.
Minneapolis and St. Paul both received high marks — 20 points out of a possible 20 points — when it comes to park spending per resident. Minneapolis, boasting a population just shy of 400,000 denizens, spends an impressive $223.66 per resident on parks while St. Paul, home to roughly 290,681 lucky souls, spends $211.74 per park-going resident. Both cities also boast an above average number of basketball hoops, dog parks, playgrounds and recreation centers per resident.
Translation: Minneapolis and St. Paul are both absolutely fantastic places to frolic outside when not confined to enclosed glass tunnels.
Only one other city joined the Twin Cities with a perfect 5.0 park bench rating. Washington, D.C., a city that's national monument-heavy park system needs little to no introduction, scored third place with a total of 81 points.
Situated along the banks of the Mississippi near historic St. Anthony Falls, Mill Ruins Park is one of Minneapolis' most dramatic open spaces. (Photo: Dan/flickr)
Making its ParkScore debut is fourth place-ranking Arlington, Virginia, with a four-and-a-half park bench rating and a total score of 81 points. Also receiving four-and-a-half park benches are San Francisco (77.5 points); Portland, Oregon (76.5 points); New York City (76 points); Irvine, California (75 points); and Boston (74 points). Cincinnati and newbie Madison, Wisconsin, tied for 10th place with scores of 72.5. Cities ranging from Seattle to Sacramento to St. Petersburg all made the top 20.
The inclusion of Arlington in this year’s rankings is due to the fact that the index itself has gradually grown in size since its inaugural year, 2012, when San Francisco took first place and Minneapolis wasn’t even among the only 40 cities considered. Minneapolis took first the following year, 2013, when the index expanded to include America’s 50 most populous cities. In 2014, the index was expanded to 60 major cities; in 2015, it grew to 75 cities, allowing for St. Paul to enter the race.
“With three new park systems in both the Top 10 and Bottom 10, ParkScore looks different than ever before,” explains Peter Harnik, director of the TPL's Center for City Park Excellence, in a news release.
All the while, San Francisco, which recently launched and quickly scrapped a controversial fee-based reservation system for groups visiting the perennially popular Dolores Park, has remained within the top five. San Francisco boasts the best park access of any city with 99 percent of residents living with a 10-minute walk to a park.
Nothing to laugh at: Minnehaha Falls is the incredibly lovely centerpiece of a regional park of the same name in Minneapolis. (Photo: Anita Ritenour/flickr)
Just as many of the same cities have dominated the top of the index over the past five years, one city has the distinction of placing in last every single damned year.
Well, except for this year.
And that city would be Fresno, California, which, in 2016, received an overall score of 29 points, edging out Fort Wayne, Indiana, which holds the non-honor of making its ParkScore debut in dead last with a score of 28.5 points out of 100 possible points.
Even though Fresno only moved up because another city’s park system scored worse, the TPL notes that there have been improvements made to the city’s park system since 2012. “Fresno is not at the bottom now, which is great for the city,” Harnik explains to the Fresno Bee. “We think Fresno is gaining ground. The fact that the playground number went up, the fact that the dog-park number went up … is good news. And you’re working on a new park downtown.”
“While this report tells us where we’ve been, we’re encouraged by where we’re going,” adds Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. “We’re hopeful more positive news in the future.”
Established in 1849, Rice Park, in downtown St. Paul, is the city's oldest park. (Photo: Richie Diesterheft/flickr)
In addition to Fort Wayne, Indiana’s most populous city, Indianapolis, also placed in “needs major improvement” one park bench territory with a total score of 30 points.
Two of North Carolina’s largest cities, Charlotte and Winston-Salem, ranked in the bottom 10 alongside Oklahoma City; Louisville, Kentucky; Jacksonville, Florida; Hialeah, Florida and Mesa, Arizona.
It’s worth noting that Charlotte, despite tying with Indianapolis for 95th place, boasts the largest median park size (15.9 acres) of any of the cities on the list. Other urban park systems in North Carolina fared a bit better with Raleigh claiming 36th place, and Durham going head-to-head with Los Angeles, Anaheim, California and Columbus, Ohio, in a four-way tie for 65th place. Greensboro tied in 69th place with Toledo, Ohio.
Cities that fall squarely in the middle of the ParkScore index with two-and-a-half park bench ratings include Baltimore, Phoenix, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Nashville and Orlando, Florida.
Minneapolis' de facto Central Park, Loring Park, is centered around a trail-wrapped lake of the same name. (Photo: Dan Wick/flickr)
While it’s true that a low ParkScore may yield a fair amount of hand-wringing for park officials in the cities that place on the bottom half of the list, the TPL sees the rankings — described as “the most comprehensive rating system ever developed to measure how well the 100 most populous U.S. cities are meeting their residents’ need for parks” — as a tool that poorly-ranked cities can use to help better themselves in key areas and, in turn, move up the list.
The ParkScore methodology is based on three key criteria. Park Access uses advanced GIS mapping technology to determine how far a city’s residents must walk to access the nearest public green space. Park Size takes into consideration both the median size of a unit within an individual park system and the total amount of land within a city that’s dedicated to parks.
Finally, the Facilities and Investment category combines both a city's park spending per resident and the availability of a quartet of aforementioned park amenities: dog parks, playgrounds, basketball hoops and recreation/senior centers.
Complete with a band shell and babbling brook, Mears Park is considered a little patch of paradise in downtown St. Paul. (Photo: Greg Gjerdingen/flickr)
A city’s overall ParkScore is based on points awarded within each of these three major categories. The "quality" of a park system does not play into the rankings as that is an attribute that cannot be measured objectively. But as the TPL points out, all three factors — accessibility, size, services/investment — together make for a top-quality park system.
Furthermore, bonus points are not given to park systems with unusual/singular features. However, if they were, Minneapolis would no doubt garner a decent handful with its elf doors (Demming Heights Park), humungous water-spraying cherry stems (Minneapolis Sculpture Garden), Bob Dylan-inspiring water towers (Prospect Park), iconic waterfalls (Minnehaha Park) and long-abandoned flour mills (Mill Ruins Park).
So, how’d your city’s park system, if it’s one of the 100 to appear in the index, rank? Better or worse than you expected? Where was there room for improvement?
Although the two East Coast cities that I've lived in as an adult place within the top 10, I’d be mighty curious to see how my hometown of Tacoma, Washington, the 106th most populous city in the U.S., stacks up. Guess I’ll have to wait until next year to find out provided, of course, that the Trust for Public Land expands the index once again.