After a bike ride around Lake Harriet and a pit stop for ice cream, Joy Minge, 7, and her friends stopped at the new playground there.

"I like Minneapolis parks a lot," she said. "I like these parks because they have really fun slides, and I've noticed a lot of these really challenging, fun climbing things."

She wasn't the only one with high praise for the city's parks Wednesday. The Trust for Public Land declared Minneapolis and the Twin Cities the nation's best big city for public parks, followed by New York, Boston and Sacramento, Calif.

Jayne Miller, superintendent for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, said the work the board has done over the years earned the award.

"The city was built around the park system, not the other way around," she said. "We are unique from the standpoint that the park system was built as an economic driver for the city."

Recent Park Board projects include the East Phillips Park Cultural and Community Center and new synthetic turf fields; Theodore Wirth Park new beach, boardwalk, playground and picnic area, and the Phillips Community Center renovation.

"This is an honor not for the Park Board but for the citizens of Minneapolis because they're the ones 130 years ago who established an independent park board," said John Erwin, president of the Park and Recreation Board. "Because they valued parks and understood they greatly enhance lives."

Minneapolis, the 48th largest city, wasn't ranked in 2012, but was included this year when the index was expanded to the 50 most populous cities in the United States. Minneapolis parks officials said that although St. Paul, the 66th largest city, was not rated by Park­Score, Trust for Public Land analysts determined that if the two cities had been evaluated as a single municipality, it still would have ranked first.

Easy access

Minneapolis ranked high in several categories, including park access, size, and services and investment. The nonprofit trust said that 94 percent of Minneapolis residents live within 10 minutes of a park.

That proximity brought Michael Taylor, 44, and his son, Nathan, 5, out to Lake Nokomis on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. As Nathan wove his bike back and forth on the path along the lake, his dad jogged behind him. The pair visit the park daily to ride and run.

"It's clean, it's safe. I mean they're always mowing the grass and everything here, trying to keep it up. And you see a lot of police driving around the park, which is very comforting," Michael said. "Also it's the right distance for people who run and ride and train and things like that."

Friendly challenge from NYC

New York City, which tied for third last year, came in second. Mayor Michael Bloomberg jokingly warned, "Look out, Minneapolis — we may be Number 2, but not for long."

Erwin wasn't worried. "New York has a ways to come before they can meet Minneapolis," he said. "It's our intention to continue the expansion of the park system the way we always have."

Mary Molumby, 55, has been taking advantage of Lake Nokomis her entire life. She grew up swimming and playing there and was walking her golden retriever there on Wednesday.

"This was always the hangout," she said. "When you got older, you came to this beach … [Today,] there's just kind of something for everyone."

Molumby continues to visit the park because it's well-kept, safe and she likes to see all of the families in the summer.

Community builder

At Lake Harriet, moms Laura Stegenga and Tazia Brunetti sat together on a bench watching the kids on the playground. The two agree that parks are neighborhood centers, creating and strengthening relationships in the community. The title, they said, is well deserved.

"I'm not surprised at all," said Stegenga. "If we're thinking about hanging out with friends, one of the first things we think of is going to the parks."

At Powderhorn Park, Erin Dosh walked her black lab mix, Kenzie, along the lake. To her, Powderhorn is "the king" of Minneapolis parks. It's the perfect distance from home and the perfect length walk.

"I think it's totally a no-brainer," Dosh, 35, said. "I've been all over the place and nowhere has parks with the frequency that we do. If you just walk down a street, you will end up at a park."

Founded in 1972, the Trust for Public Land describes itself as "the leading nonprofit working to conserve land for people."

Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report. Lydia Coutré • 612-673-4654