Minneapolis, a perennial contender for the nation's best urban park system, lost its crown to Washington, D.C., and fell to third in the Trust for Public Land's 2021 ParkScore Index. St. Paul, which ranked third last year, rose to second.
ParkScore evaluates a park system's access, acreage, spending and amenities to determine how well America's top 100 cities are serving their residents. In Minneapolis, 98% of people live within a 10-minute walk to a park. In St. Paul, it's 99%.
Still, there are disparities. ParkScore found that in census block groups with the highest concentration of people of color, the nearest parks tended to be smaller and more crowded.
Minority neighborhoods have access to 58% less park space per capita than white neighborhoods in Minneapolis, a larger disparity than the national gap of 44%. In St. Paul, people of color have 30% less park space than their white counterparts.
"The movement in the ranks this year isn't due to anything that the Minneapolis Parks and Rec Board did or did not do in the last 12 months," said Linda Hwang, the trust's director of strategy and innovation. "These new measures really reflect historic redlining and racially restrictive covenants going all the way back to the turn of the century."
The equity data only goes so far, said Susan Schmidt, the trust's Minnesota state director. It doesn't capture how safe people feel at their neighborhood park, whether the trash is picked up or other indicators of quality.
While the cities have a shared history of discriminatory land use practices, Schmidt, who lives in St. Paul, speculated that the capital city may have pulled ahead of Minneapolis simply because of nature's distribution of its resources.
With Como Lake in the west, Lake Phalen in the east and Battle Creek in the city's southeast corner, the creation of large regional parks occurred more evenly.
"It's nice to rally around something positive, especially with the addition of the metrics around equity, to have that in a year where our score goes up," said St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Michael Hahm.
Hahm was pleased with the findings of the new equity data that recognized recent investments that help make St. Paul's parks work for all, though he said there is still more to do.
Washington, D.C., benefits from city, state and federal parks that are both widespread and enormous, meant to impress foreign dignitaries and show off the nation's assets.
"Congratulations Washington, D.C. and St. Paul! We are honored to be among the top-ranked park systems and are proud that 98% of Minneapolis residents are within a 10-minute walk of a park," said Al Bangoura, superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
"The equity rating reaffirms what we've known and are committed to doing, which is investing in areas of the city that have been underserved."
Besting D.C.'s first-place ranking remains a challenge for St. Paul, said Hahm. Upcoming additions to the city's park offerings including the grand opening of Midway Peace Park in June and four outdoor spaces within the Highland Bridge development.
In 2016, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board passed a 20-year Neighborhood Park Plan to address underfunding of city parks, particularly those in historically marginalized neighborhoods.
Now, it uses racial- and economic-equity criteria to guide its capital projects and programs.
Nevertheless, buying more land for new parks in rapidly developing cities with long-established zoning maps has proved challenging for park systems across the country.
Hwang said that nationwide, cities are getting creative with joint-use agreements to open neighborhood schoolyards to the public after school hours, and rehabilitating old rail lines, parking lots and malls.
Staff writer Zoë Jackson contributed to this report.
Susan Du • 612-673-4028