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Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the people and places that bring meaning to our lives. At Goric, we’d like to recognize the holiday by expressing our appreciation for the work of five city park departments, which have excelled in making their park systems accessible places for recreation, quiet refuge, and play.

In May, The Trust for Public Land released their 2017 rankings of the best park systems. Their list covers the 100 most populous U.S. cities and captures many of the metrics we find important: park access, the amount of city land devoted to parks, and investment, including the availability of  playgrounds, dog-leash parks, basketball hoops, and other public amenities.

Topping this year’s list were Minneapolis, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. We’d also like to throw in our hat for a little guy who came in at number 9: Madison, Wisconsin. (The city boasts the most playgrounds per resident of any city in the country). So before sitting down for this year’s feast, we pause to honor the hard work and dedication of our friends at some of the nation’s best city park departments.

The individuals at these organizations are crucial to ensuring the preservation of beautiful natural acreages, the delivery of exceptional recreational and community programs, and what has become, in some cases, near universal access to high-quality playgrounds in the country’s most densely populated cities. We recognize that the work of these departments extends well beyond the stewardship of public land. It is thanks to the Chicago Park District, for instance. that my son did his first somersault, took his first tentative strokes in a swimming pool, cast a fishing line, and is now attending a park-managed preschool program at a cost affordable to our family.

We owe these professionals a deep debt of gratitude.


Loring Park, MInneapolis | photo via Creative Commons/Doug Kerr

Minneapolis/St. Paul
For the second year in a row, Minneapolis and St. Paul, respectively, ranked first and second on the 2017 ParkScore Index. One feature that sets the Twin Cities apart is the amount of parkland they have relative to their population: Minneapolis comes in at 12.4 acres per 1000 residents, and St. Paul is at 16.6 acres per 1000 residents – both among the highest in the country. Just living in Minneapolis gives you a 95 percent chance of being within a ten-minute walk from a park.

But those aren’t the only reasons the Twin Cities earned top marks. The cities are among the nation’s top spenders on parks and recreation relative to cost of living. Many of these parks have easy access to lakes and cycling trails, and are loaded with amenities: St. Paul has the highest number of ball diamonds and pickle ball courts per resident of any city in the nation; Minneapolis is right behind.

Jayne Miller, superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, is committed to pushing for an even stronger park presence in all areas of the city.

Here’s what she had to say in a 2016 news release: “We are working continuously to improve our parks, with a focus on the most racially diverse and economically challenged areas of the city. During the last five years, we have invested significantly in parks throughout the city but especially in north and upper south Minneapolis with new community centers, athletic fields and the first natural swimming pool in North America. With the support of the city and the citizens of Minneapolis, we recently approved a monumental funding plan that will provide an additional $11 million annually into our neighborhood parks.”

Dolores Park, San Francisco | photo via 415 Magazine

San Francisco
All of San Francisco residents live within a ten minute walk of a park. That’s an impressive feat in itself. It’s even more compelling considering the city has roughly 220 parks, which constitute about 20 percent of the area of San Francisco, and include gems like Golden Gate Park, the green median along Sunset Boulevard, SOMA West Skate and Dog Park, Tunnel Top Park, and the newly renovated Hilltop Park.

Investment and planning have been critical to helping San Francisco become the most park accessible in the country. The Trust reports that during Mayor Edwin Lee’s tenure, San Francisco has invested $355 million in parks and open space. For his upcoming two-year budget, he has proposed $84.4 million in capital projects for the Recreation and Park Department, maintaining record levels of investment in the city’s parks and open spaces. The $84 million investment in capital projects is an 81 percent increase from 2015.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department has been optimizing recreational uses for parkland and acquiring new land for park development. In recent years, San Francisco has added the Golden Gate Park CommUNITY Garden, Interior Greenbelt, Geneva Community Garden, Noe Valley Town Square, 17th and Folsom Streets Park, Francisco Reservoir, and India Basin, to the list of new parks.

In a public statement on behalf of the Trust for Public Land, Adrian Benepe, urban parks director, credits the city’s longtime dedication and planning as being instrumental to the fulfillment of the 10-minute milestone. “Most city residents won’t walk more than 10 minutes to get to shopping, transit, or parks, so close-to-home access to parks is vital for public health, clean environments, and thriving, equitable communities. This is an enormous achievement.”

The U.S. National Arboretum | photo via washington.org

Washington, D.C.
When you can claim the National Mall as part your city’s park system, you have a solid legacy on which to build. Some of the credit for DC’s number four spot undoubtedly lies with Pierre L’Enfant, the city’s first urban planner, who made public gardens central to the city’s design.

Few other cities can match the city’s public gardens and parks, which include U.S. National Arboretum, the landscaped gardens of Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill, Rock Creek Park, the Victory Garden on the grounds of the National Museum of American History, the Hirshhorn Museum’s Sculpture Garden, and many more. The DC Department of Parks and Recreation has done much to preserve the rich landscape history that seeps through the city’s pores.

Madison Avenue Central Park | photo via pinterest/Derby Kansas

Madison, Wisconsin
With 173 playgrounds to its credit, the modest-sized university town has more playgrounds per resident than any other city in the country. The city’s parks division, Madison Parks, also has an impressive track record of activating its parkland with community-wide events: hayrides, holiday lightings, bird outings, and much more. So double kudos.

A field guide to Madison-area playgrounds highlights several of the standouts, among them Vilas Park, which offers two distinctive play areas, one with an iconic sculptural play structure in the form of the Old Woman’s shoe, and the second with a number of exciting gymnastic elements. Those more adventurous at heart might try wandering up and down the slopes of an abandoned sandstone quarry at Glenwood Children’s Park. Through his lightly touched design, landscape architect Jens Jensen turned the park’s ravine into an enchanted forest, where children can explore the secrets of the woods and build their own tree forts. There are many more great playgrounds—Elmside Circle Park, Four Corners Park, and the busy Kid’s Crossing, just to name a few. Keep up the great work, Madison!