ST. PAUL -- The Trust for Public Land has released its ninth annual ranking of cities with the best parks systems in the country, and the winner is a Midwesterner accustomed to accolades for its green spaces, even during a pandemic.
Minneapolis, which fell to third place in the ParkScore Index last year, is again on top, reclaiming the first place mantle it held in 2018 and for several years continuously before that.
Washington, D.C. took second place this year in the ranking of the 100 largest U.S. cities, St. Paul dropped a spot to third and Arlington, Va. is in fourth place.
The four cities have shared top billing for the past four years.
The ParkScore Index is intended to provide incentive for friendly competition between cities while celebrating municipalities that invest in their green spaces and make it a goal to maintain a park or natural area within a 10-minute walk of every resident.
In the index, St. Paul actually beats Minneapolis by a hair when it comes to the percentage of residents who live near parks — 99% to 98%, respectively.
Trust for Public Land officials acknowledged that nationally, city leaders may feel hard-pressed to keep all those parks goals in mind in the coming budget cycle, given plummeting sales tax revenues and other hits to their bottom-line.
After the last recession in 2007-2008, municipalities nationwide slashed their parks budgets by 20 percent, delaying major projects and new parks acquisitions by several years.
“I can’t think of a better resource to have close to home, to clear the head and get exercise and recreation in a socially distant way,” said Susan Schmidt, state director of Minnesota and the Northwoods of Wisconsin and Michigan. “Investment is critical, or people won’t go there if they don’t feel safe or have amenities to access. There’s going to be pressure out there in the next year or two, and you can rest assured Trust for Public Land is going to be a loud voice speaking up for the importance of parks and natural areas close to home.”
Park amenities suffer during pandemic
During the pandemic, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have shuttered many of their parks amenities as a health precaution, while actually expanding outdoor recreation areas by closing some 40 miles of streets to cars and opening them to pedestrians and cyclists. Trails and natural areas also remain open.
For the index, the Twin Cities nearly tied when it comes to the pre-pandemic availability of six parks amenities: recreation and senior centers, basketball hoops, park restrooms, splash pads, playgrounds and dog parks.
Minneapolis beat St. Paul by little more than a single point when amenities were scored, though St. Paul retained top billing for available bathrooms.
Minneapolis, which has its own elected parks board with taxation powers, spends more money on its parks than St. Paul per capita ($319 compared to $219 per resident). It also averages larger parks than the capital city (5.7 acres compares to 3.2 acres), thanks in large part to Minneapolis’ more-than-century-old Grand Rounds.
“Minneapolis has a lot more flexibility, having a park district,” said Charlie McCabe, a city parks researcher for the Trust for Public Land.