I read the City of Parks by David C. Smith shortly after moving to the Twin Cities. I had visited a few of the parks, but was fascinated by the rich history that encompassed the Minneapolis park system. Until reading the book, I did not know that an independent board of elected representatives ran the park system instead of a city department. It was not easy however to get the park board established.
The Board of Trade in 1877 pushed the legislature for a system of parks to be governed by an independent Board of Commissioners but failed with a 7-9 vote by City Council. They continued to persist and established the Park Board in 1883 after a city referendum was approved with a 58% vote. This push back followed the board throughout their 135 years of existence, but has not stopped them from development a first class park system.
The Trust for Public Lands has ranked Minneapolis the #1 park system in America for several years. The Park Score created by TPL combines the acreage of land, funding, amenities, access and barriers to parks to come up with an overall score. Despite the physical barriers of the Mississippi River, interstate system, and railroad tracks they were given a score of 39 out of 40 for access. This reflects the cities long dedication to acquire parks throughout the city in order to provide access to everyone. Park Board President Wilbur Decker in 1911 stated the goal of the Board was to "establish beauty spots and places of recreation within easy walking distances to every home." This goal has not been forgotten as planning projects often include an analysis of a quarter mile walking radius for residential units to a park. The goal of the Trust for Public Lands is to provide a park within a 10 minute walk of every American.
The Board has come full circle with their focus. In the late 1880's a shift occurred from parks on the Mississippi River to acquiring land for a "Chain of Lakes." By the 1990's, a century later, they returned their focus back to the Mississippi River and have begun a renewed effort to provide residents access to the entire length of river. Another example is Gateway Park. The park was created in 1915 with a $100,000 pavilion and fountain as an attempt to rid the area of seedy characters that frequented the saloons nearby. Instead, it became a place for unemployed men to gather and was demolished in 1953 along with other historic buildings deemed beyond help. The park exists today, but is a sliver of what it once was. You can find it on the east side of Hennepin Avenue just as you cross over the bridge. The Board has plans to revitalize the remainder of the Gateway Park, adding seating, landscaping, and even a coffee bar.
Almost none of the original parks would be recognizable now to residents that frequented them in the beginning. All the lakes were once swampy marshes that no one wanted to go to. Thanks to an immense dredging campaign, they became a connected chain of highly sought after property. Many parks (such as Hawthorne Park) were demolished thanks to an aggressive campaign to build highways and interstates thorough the city. Even in the last several years the changes have been great. The riverfront is a place packed with visitors and residents on a daily basis, instead of the polluted mess it once was. With all these changes that have already occurred, it will be interesting to see what the next 100 years of parks will bring.