The sun rose above the tree line as I drove down the deserted park road and along a large, perfectly calm lake matted around its edges with floating vegetation. It was lovely and peaceful, with a familiar solitude that reminded me of our own Milwaukee River Greenway, a similar natural refuge surrounded by an invisible city. Then I heard a low, guttural rumbling, which grew suddenly into an earsplitting roar as a jet appeared over the tree line opposite the dawn as if rising to meet the sun.
This was not unexpected. I had arrived in Saint Paul the day before the City Parks Alliance biannual national conference was to begin there. I immediately opened a map on my phone to look for a likely green spot and latched onto Fort Snelling State Park. Nestled below the flight path of Minneapolis—Saint Paul International Airport, it clearly lay in the river bottom at the confluence of the region’s two major waterways, the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.
Looking for remote sections of the park, I drove to a dead end in the shadow of the freeway bridge I’d driven over to get there. Along the way I saw exactly one fisherman. From the boat ramp at the end of the road another was setting off down the river. I stepped into the woods. How often, I thought, have I had this experience in Milwaukee parks? Being essentially alone in the most densely populated part of a state. Footprints in the sandy riverbank, however, proved to be an omen for an imminent surprise.
Long story short, within an hour I found myself on a wide, hard-packed earth trail around Pike Island being passed on both sides by joggers and dog-walkers. Although the island, accessible by a single footbridge, appeared to be the most remote part of the park, it was proving to be far more popular than I had imagined. By nine o’clock the now numerous fishermen were joined by a diverse army of people out enjoying the paths and beaches that circled the island. Welcome to Saint Paul, I thought. What a fitting introduction to a conference about city parks.
My early morning foray was the beginning of four days that would take me to parks all around the metro area and down the Mississippi River in a voyageur canoe. It was my first City Parks Alliance conference and it turns out that touring the host city’s exemplary parks was a featured conference activity. It is also no coincidence that parks in the Twin Cities are especially exemplary. In its annual ParkScore the Trust for Public Land ranks Minneapolis and Saint Paul numbers one and two, respectively.
The reasons for those exceptional rankings, which include metrics such as acreage of parkland, per capita spending on parks, and accessibility, were clearly evident from the tours, as well as on the beaming faces of the parks professionals and volunteers who staffed the convention center and guided the tours. But a single moment on the stage of the convention hall really drove home the significance of those scores and the importance that parks can have to the vitality of cities. At a luncheon panel discussion, when introduced as the leaders of the first and second ranked cities in the country, the two mayors of Minneapolis and Saint Paul fist-bumped with pride.
That’s what I want to see in Milwaukee, I thought: the mayor and the county executive expressing similar pride in our parks. On a national stage. We have great parks…. We have a Great Lake…!
The conference, called Greater and Greener, brings together park officials, community leaders, government agencies and members of non-profit organizations like my own, Preserve Our Parks, among others. This year the 1,000 plus attendees included representatives from over 200 cities, 40 states and 11 countries. The conference furthers the mission of the City Parks Alliance to “engage, educate and nurture a broad-based constituency to support the creation, revitalization and sustainability of parks and green spaces that contribute to more vibrant and equitable cities.”
That last phrase stood out boldly at this conference. I fully expected to enjoy a conference about the role of parklands in health and wellness, sustainability and urban vitality. What took me very pleasantly by surprise was the unequivocal emphasis on justice. From the opening plenary, “Creating Equitable Cities,” to breakout sessions on homelessness, transportation, inclusiveness and gentrification, it was demonstrably clear that equity was front and center. Parks are more than wildlife habitats, ball fields, gardens and playgrounds. They are barometers for the state of our culture. How we treat our parks—and the communities they serve—is no less than a measure of our humanity.
I was joined in Saint Paul by a strong Milwaukee contingent, with representatives of the City, County, Sewerage District, and Urban Ecology Center. Kevin Shafer, MMSD Executive Director, participated in a plenary panel discussion called Parks and Water, which highlighted the growing awareness nationwide that water utilities can be important partners for parks organizations. Shafer’s presence on the panel testifies to his leadership, Milwaukee’s importance as a model for interagency cooperation and the MMSD’s progressive land management strategies. As Shafer put it, engineers like himself need to shift from a world of “straight lines and pipes” to one that embraces the growing need for urban green space and community engagement in land use planning.
Milwaukee’s contributions to urban parks and equitable cities have garnered national attention in another arena, too, I learned. I’m a long-time admirer of the Urban Ecology Center and its efforts to connect inner city children with nature. But even I was surprised when I met someone from California who brought up the center in conversation unprompted and went on to mention the names of UEC staff members with whom he’d been in contact.
While I’m quick to agree that Milwaukee has a lot going for it, we also can learn from other cities, which was a major motivation for attending the conference. In fact, I wasn’t there long before I learned one of the key factors that have led Minneapolis to its position as top-ranked city. On the bus to my very first tour I sat next to a Minneapolis park official who glowed with pride as she told me that for 130 years they have had an independent park district, something that has helped minimize political squabbles over funding park improvements.
I mulled that idea over as I stepped into an 8-person voyageur canoe in Hidden Falls Regional Park. Then I was caught up in the adventure. For over 3 hours our small flotilla paddled down the Mississippi River, grand in scale even here, a thousand miles from the Gulf of Mexico. For most of the way we couldn’t tell we were wedged between two major cities. That kind of urban wilderness experience, one that I treasure in Milwaukee, is priceless. As we finally pulled up to shore at Harriet Island Regional Park, the Saint Paul skyline loomed atop the bluff across the river.
Two separate tours took me to Como Regional Park, Saint Paul’s most popular. With four million visitors a year it is on a par with Yellowstone, we were told. The 300-acre, all-purpose park includes a large lake, picnic areas, athletic fields, conservatory, Japanese garden, golf course, water park, and zoo. Oh, and an amusement park. Whew! No wonder it’s so popular. Imagine if Milwaukee had put the Boerner Botanical Gardens, Cool Waters, Brown Deer Golf Course, the Domes, Washington Park bandshell, Veterans Park lagoon, the Rock Sports Complex, Milwaukee County Zoo and the State Fair Midway all in one park. That would be a busy place!
Embedded within all of those recreational venues is the Como Woodland Outdoor Classroom. This 19-acre jewel boasts eight native plant communities and serves as the, yes, outdoor classroom for hundreds of Saint Paul school children. Milwaukee compares well with its three Urban Ecology Center locations.
My single Minneapolis excursion was to Minnehaha Regional Park. The required viewing of its eponymous falls made it easy to see why it attracts presidents—like Lyndon Johnson and Barak Obama—as well as commoners from all over the country. We visited formal gardens and historic houses before descending into wilder territory to hike along Minnehaha Creek to the Mississippi—billed as the “hidden trail.” Like some of Milwaukee’s nature trails, this one wasn’t hidden at all, merely overlooked. A small fraction of park visitors, we were told, make their way down the occasionally rocky path to reach the river.
Before leaving Saint Paul I went back to Fort Snelling and Pike Island to watch the sunset over the Mississippi. The sun blazed on the water, then dipped below the tree line, throwing long shadows. A boat motored softly upriver. Teenagers lounged in hammocks strung between riverside trees. Up and down the beaches on both sides of the river people stood, or sat, singly or in family groups, fishing silently. A small fraction of the three million people who live in the Twin Cities were out enjoying this peaceful setting. I was happy to be among them.