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Creating public parks 3.0: new demographics, new needs

The Twin Cities’ long tradition of innovation in public green space is continuing, and even ramping up, as park planners invent ways to meet today’s challenges.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent Jayne Miller
Photo by Bill Kelley

Few bikers on Minneapolis’ “Grand Rounds” know that more than 100 years ago landscape architect and park founder Horace Cleveland called parkways such as the 50-mile chain of lakes byway district he helped to create the “lungs of the city.” And Como Regional Park picnickers might not know that in the 1800s St. Paul officials purchased the 384-acre park for less than the cost of the average home today — raising $100,000 from bonds as an investment for future generations.

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Twin Cities park planners continue to be amazed at the farsighted vision of the civic-minded botanical pioneers who founded many of the Minneapolis and St. Paul parks that are still treasured a century later. But even if these forward-thinking founders had been able to see the early 21st century up close, they couldn’t have anticipated the contrasts, complexities, and opportunities that park leaders in both cities now face in managing and continuing to innovate in their side-by-side park systems.

“The complexity of offerings and services and demands that people now have are very different than when this system was being built,” says Jayne Miller, Minneapolis Park and Recration Board superintendent. “From a service and ‘being-innovative’ perspective, the physical attributes and assets that we have as a system are … phenomenal.”

As Miller and other Minneapolis and St. Paul park leaders oversee everything from grand city recreation areas to small neighborhood spaces — many of which meld urban and natural elements — they’re looking to a future impacted by changing demographics and park needs, ecological considerations, and new projects that carry forward their forebears’ vision.

Riverfront revival

The biggest way the two cities are now advancing this vision is in their distinct plans for park development and natural areas along 25 miles of Mississippi River corridor in Minneapolis and St. Paul. While many cities around the world are now looking at their riverfronts, the combined 25-mile Minneapolis/St. Paul corridor is the longest ever undertaken as a unit, says Bruce Chamberlain, Minneapolis assistant superintendent of planning.

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In developing its plan, called RiverFIRST, Minneapolis has consulted with St. Paul in planning for future generations, Miller says.

“To me the RiverFIRST project, the design competition and the efforts about really looking at the river differently and figuring out how to provide access, how to extend the park system the last five and a half miles of Minneapolis — it’s all really building on the vision of Cleveland and the work that was done about that future extension of the park system,” she says. “It really is, to me, taking the vision that created this system 100 years ago and saying, this is what we need to do in the future. In many ways it’s about reclaiming the river. It’s also about cherishing the history of the river in Minneapolis.”

St. Paul’s plan, called the Great River Passage, pertains to the part of the river around downtown St. Paul. It seeks to orient Saint Paul toward the river as it integrates new parks and natural areas and guides development along the Mississippi River in phases. One of its main objectives is to spur St. Paul tourism and new business.

Saint Paul Parks and Recreation director Michael Hahm
Photo by Bill Kelley
St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Michael Hahm

“What the Great River Passage does, uniquely for St. Paul, on 17 miles of the Mississippi River, is really lay out a 30- to 50-year span — the next phases for development in connection with the community that we’ll have with the river,” says Michael Hahm, St. Paul Parks and Recreation director.

“A great foundation of why we exist as a city is … the Mississippi River, and this process has really allowed us to take a long-term lens and look at what the next generation or generations of activity can look like along the Mississippi.”

New users, new uses

If they could meet today’s park users, the founders would notice that they look different and use the parks differently. A hundred years ago, most park-goers had European backgrounds and belonged to large families, while today’s smaller families, aging baby boomers, and diverse immigrant populations create a different picture, Miller said. Modern users play ball as their predecessors did, but they’re also likely to be involved in other activities and use the parks more often.

In both cities, changing demographics have led to a desire to build flexibility into park facilities and programs. Different cultural groups have different park interests and preferences, such as the tendency of many Hispanics to have large extended family picnics and the preference of Hmong and other park users to be separated from wild areas. Minneapolis will soon seek community input to accommodate some of these diverse needs at some existing Northeast Minneapolis parks, Chamberlain said.

“We have to think much more broadly and in a more sophisticated way about the users,” he says. “Each park — based on the demographics around that park — needs to be customized to the cultural microcosm that it’s serving,” he said. “And that might be very different from one park to another in a different part of the city.”  

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In St. Paul, park officials have responded to an increase in the population of young people over the past five years by increasing programs, even as the city has closed some of its park facilities, Hahm says. A large part of its offerings are after-school programs as well as a Mobile Rec program, in which park facilitators travel to parks that don’t have activity centers, and provide sports and other activities on a regular basis. “It’s really focusing on the programmatic aspects of what we’re doing and decoupling the services from the obligations that come from facilities.”

Rec center meets library

The city is also partnering in new ways with other institutions to provide the greatest possible integration of services and programs. One major example is the Payne Maryland Project, under construction on St. Paul’s East Side. The new facility will fully integrate the Arlington Recreation Center and the Arlington Hills Library. It also will house several other organizations.

“I think what’s unique about the Payne Maryland Project isn’t the fact that there’s communication and coordination between the programs,” Hahm says. “It’s that we’re doing it under one roof and that we’re approaching it in a fully integrated way, versus running separate programs and a condominium relationship in a building.”

Like many park projects, the Payne Maryland Project is a public/private partnership. Since the foundation of the parks, private developers have played a role in funding a portion of the greenspace to benefit the properties around it, Hahm said.

According to Brad Meyer, Saint Paul Parks Media Relations/Public Service Manager, “Access to green space, quality programs and facilities, and serving as catalyst to private sector investment is what Saint Paul Parks and Recreation is all about.”

Public matters

The park founders’ creation of parks offering full public access to the lakes — in contrast with the limited public access on lakes such as Minnetonka — shows a different interface with development, Chamberlain says.

“Obviously the forefathers of our city and our region understood that someday it would be a powerful thing to have the lakes in Minneapolis be public; for them to be front yards rather than someone’s backyard — public spaces rather than private. The power of that [understanding] is something we are able to enjoy all the time, [and] it’s making Minneapolis a centerpiece of what I think everyone wants to accomplish around the country from a park design standpoint.”

With its link between park and development, and its historical, cultural, and architectural elements, Minneapolis’s park system is distinctly urban, Chamberlain points out.

Greening the green spaces

The park systems are urban but in recent years they’ve also become more natural. Many parks maintain a so-called “active” part, usually mowed grass where users can picnic and play sports, but increasingly they also have a natural part offering native plantings, rainwater gardens, and other features, Miller notes.

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“In the last 30 or 40 years that has been a real movement in parks and recreation, and in the country, as people are looking for more natural areas,” she says. “People want to have spaces that allow wildlife to live and grow, spaces for migratory birds natural spawning areas for fish. Those are things that weren’t thought of before.”

In order to understand how to invest in and improve the ecology of not only Minneapolis’ parks but the landscape of the entire city, Minneapolis is preparing to introduce an ecological system plan, Chamberlain says. Park officials want to know the city parks are ecologically interconnected by factors  like the heat-island effect, storm water, flyways for birds and greenways for wildlife. Partnering with the city and watershed districts, the park board also plans to show city residents how they can contribute to ecological goals.

“One of our intentions in doing this is to make smart investments that will serve an ecological function; but our hope is also that by doing a project like this [we give] the community the ability to see the landscape in a new way, to think about how what they do in their yards fits into this broader ecological system,” Chamberlain says.

Urban farms and park life

Along with ecology, Minneapolis and St. Paul park leaders are focusing on urban agriculture in a new way. As part of a community urban agriculture vision, St. Paul is working with a community group on a unique 13-acre project in the Frogtown area called Frogtown Farm. The proposed site will be a community resource center and site for demonstration and education programs, green enterprise programs as well as recreational spaces. (Read some of our earlier coverage of the project here.)

Though still in the discussion phase, the project is exciting for how it could benefit the surrounding community and provide much needed greenspace, Hahm says. It’s also a chance to apply new ideas.  “It’s a great opportunity to take some of what folks have done on private and public land and in other parts of the country and the world and try to bring them to life as we add parkland in Frogtown.”

Minneapolis also is looking more closely at urban agriculture as it assesses park use and future growth, Chamberlain says. The park board currently maintains several teaching gardens.

harriet pavilion
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Minneapolis’ old Lake Harriet Pavilion, photographed in 1905

“The level of use in our parks is intense. I think that when the parks were established … there probably was not envisioned the level of use that we’re currently experiencing. That’s one area we have to be smarter about in the way we design and operate parks — to accommodate that level of use. It’s that kind of model that we’re looking at for the Urban Ag plan: understanding how community gardens fit in to our park system, understanding the range of recreational programming related to urban agriculture and how that fits into the system.”

The Central Corridor factor

Other spaces that don’t necessarily fit the traditional idea of a park will bring green to the Central Corridor — the light rail transit line on University Avenue. In St. Paul green spaces will be developed near transit stops and other areas of the line.

“I don’t think it’s critical that we relate it to what is a park and what isn’t a park. What’s critical is we develop great public spaces there and parks certainly are great public spaces,” Hahm says.

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However the spaces are described, they can be drivers of private investment, Meyer points out. “Our department is a natural steward for promoting access to green space, but we feel having green space isn’t just a driver of aesthetic beauty in an area, it is also a driver of additional private investment,” he says. “Planners obviously recognize this, and know that businesses and residents like living and working near green space, so having these areas along the corridor will only serve as a catalyst for additional private investment.”

These parks that don’t quite fit inside the definition of a park, and other features, activities, and programs not even imagined 100 years ago, would probably win the approval of Horace Cleveland, Charles Loring, and the other park founders who broke boundaries as they broke ground for the Twin Cities’ parks. Looking toward the next century, park planners continue to innovate and develop the living structures that are the legacy of these visionary men and women.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Susan Klemond’s last article for The Line was a report on the Three Ring Gardens Project in St. Paul.