A view of the Minneapolis skyline from Pine Knob. This 25 acre site overlooks the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. (Trust for Public Land)

A view of the Minneapolis skyline from Pine Knob. This 25 acre site overlooks the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. (Trust for Public Land)

Minneapolis was rated the big American city with the best park system for the third straight year, according to the Trust for Public Land’s fifth annual ParkScore® index. Minneapolis edged out St. Paul for the top spot among the 100 largest U.S. cities. The Twin Cities tied for first last year.

Ninety-five percent of Minneapolis residents live within a ten-minute walk of a park (about one-half mile [0.8 km]), the trust’s key measure. Minneapolis also scored high on the trust’s other two metrics—park size and facilities investment. Its parks are of fairly impressive size and cover 15 percent of the city, and Minneapolis spends $224 per resident for parks. It also scored highly in the availability of four popular park amenities: basketball hoops, off-leash dog parks, playgrounds, and recreation and senior centers. People in Minneapolis also enjoyed equal access to parks regardless of age or income.

Among the cities ranked, none surpasses San Francisco for park accessibility: 99 percent of that city’s residents live within a ten-minute walk. Charlotte, North Carolina, has the largest parks, with a median size of 16 acres (6.5 ha).


Boyd Park in St. Paul, Minnesota. St. Paul finished in second place in this year’s Trust for Public Land ParkScore index of the 100 biggest U.S. cities. (Teresa Boardman)

Many of these cities make the top ten regularly and continue to benefit from the creation of attractive parks at their inception, notes Adrian Benepe, senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land and director of city park development. But there are newcomers to the list as well this year since the cities surveyed rose from the 75 to 100 largest. The newcomers are Arlington, Virginia; Irvine, California; and Madison, Wisconsin.

New York City’s slide from a first-place tie in 2014 to seventh place this year points to how competitive the rankings have become. Despite devoting more and more land to parks and spending 14 percent more per resident in just the past year, New York lost ground to cities on the list whose scores rose even faster and to high-performing newcomers like St. Paul.

Irvine Park in St. Paul. (Teresa Boardman)

Irvine Park in St. Paul. (Teresa Boardman)

Minneapolis and St. Paul—which ranked first and second, respectively—have parks that are alike in many ways. Both have parks dating back to the mid–19th century. Many parks in the Twin Cities feature lakes, and both have both neighborhood and regional parks within their borders. These are larger parks with natural features rather than physical amenities and lend themselves to birdwatching and hiking. Both cities have a Ground Round, a bikeway that links some of the major regional parks in the city.

Owing to the Grand Round, “You can bike all day long and never be on a street,” says Caren Dewar, executive director of ULI Minneapolis and its district council.

“Our residents like to be outdoors. We are year-round outdoor people and we love our parks,” says Jenna Fletcher of the Minneapolis Trust for Public Land.

Says Dewar, “There’s a tremendous amount of citizen support here for our parks. . . . You don’t have to have money to have access to a beautiful lake or to have a picnic.”

TopParkSystems“It’s incredibly diverse,” says Dewar of her neighborhood park. She and her husband often walk down to the lake. “You hear languages from all over the world,” she says.

Local park agencies “are really responding to changing demographics and thinking about how parks can provide access to new populations,” Fletcher says. Last year, she says, a St. Paul regional park added an area for the local Hmong community to play an ancestral game called Tuj Lub.

Why does the Trust for Public Land publish an annual index? It “puts parks front and center in conversations about cities,” says Benape, who calls parks “a centerpiece of cities” and “a key indicator of the livability of a city.”

The rankings, he adds, are also a way for people “to know how well their parks are doing” and a motivator to staying high on the list or to improving their ranking. In some cities, he says, the park score has become an issue in a political race.

A number of cities near the bottom may have had beautiful parks in their historic core, like Louisville, Kentucky, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, notes Benape, but grew by annexing suburbs and other areas where parks were scarce.

Still, a number of cities have found ingenious ways to create parks, he adds. Louisville turned an old industrial area into a waterfront park. Santa Fe, New Mexico, did the same thing with an abandoned railyard. Dallas built a park on a deck over a freeway. A strategy that cities have pursued to add parks when they have run out of space is to take underused schoolyards and convert them into full-service, 365-days-a-year playgrounds for both the community and students.

Benape says when cities at the bottom of the list ask the trust, “’What can we do, we have no money and we have no land?’ we point to these examples.”

ULI senior resident fellow Ed McMahon complimented the ParkScore index for steadily growing more comprehensive and sophisticated in data collection.

But he noted, “It’s hard to always compare apples with apples.” He pointed out that three cities near the bottom—Charlotte, Indianapolis and Louisville—encompass their entire metropolitan area, including many suburbs where parks are scarce. Metropolitan governments, he says, are at a disadvantage as far as parks and skew the rankings.

For more information on cities enhancing liability through investments in parks and open space, sign up for updates on the 10-Minute Walk Campaign or follow #10MinWalk. The 10-Minute Walk Campaign, a national movement led by the Urban Land Institute, The Trust for Public Land, and the National Recreation and Park Association, is promoting the bold idea that everyone living in urban America should live within a 10-minute walk of a park.