I always knew Minneapolis had a quality park system, but I had no idea it was renowned throughout the country. Also, I had no idea there was such a large number of parks, lakes, trails and just plain “open space” in Minneapolis. There are over 150 parks, 30 lakes and 50 miles of parkways in Minneapolis. It is obvious much credit is due to Frederick Law Olmsted and his park design principles, which are heavily included in the Minneapolis park system.
I believe all of Olmsted’s basic principles are apparent in the Minneapolis parks, and have been since the very beginnings of the city. One of the first things city officials did was set aside different areas of land specifically for parks. There were many benefits of doing this. First, it allowed the city to build houses around all the parks, making them all easily accessible. Also, it placed many different parks throughout the city, scattered but connected. This way, no matter where you live, there will be open space and “green relief” somewhere nearby.
Most of the parks in Minneapolis, especially the larger, more frequented ones, are connected by parkways. The Ground Rounds, as it is called in Minneapolis, consists of over 50 miles of parkways and open space. This is broken up into seven districts scattered throughout the city. They are referred to as the Downtown Riverfront, Mississippi River, Minnehaha, Chain of Lakes, Theodore Wirth, Victory Memorial and Northeast districts. Conveniently, these districts completely encompass the city and take advantage of the natural variety throughout. Each of these offers something different and unique for the public, as was one of Olmsted’s principles.
All of these districts offer many miles of pathways for walking, jogging or bicycling through different parks, all of which show off a variety of scenery. Some of these parks are so serene you don’t even feel like you’re in the big city while others lay out the beautiful Minneapolis skyline right in front of you. However, foot and bike are not the only ways to get around and enjoy nature in Minneapolis. The Chain of Lakes district contains five lakes, four of which are connected by canals. Because of these canals, you are able to explore over two miles of lakes on your boat or canoe. These lakes include Brownie Lake, Cedar Lake and the more well-known Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. Also in this district, although not connected, is Lake Harriet.
I think Olmsted’s belief that parks should be open to all and be provided by the government was very popular in early Minneapolis. In 1883, after a passed referendum, the Minneapolis Parks Board was born, and it immediately got to work. The board members believed they should purchase land for parks long before it would ever be needed, and that is exactly what they did. That same year, the board purchased land for what is now known as Loring Park, named after the then president of the board, Charles M. Loring. Later, in 1889, the board purchased land for Minnehaha Park.
The early nineteen hundreds was a huge growing period for many of the now popular parks in Minneapolis. Theodore Wirth, who has his own park and district named after him, was the superintendent of the board during these years, and he played a vital role in developing the parks into what they are today. Many of the lakes at that time were nothing more than swampy areas with constant flooding problems, almost comparable to New York’s pre-Central Park. Wirth drained the swampy areas and graded the lake’s banks to stop the flooding. Also, it is because of Wirth that the lakes in the Chain of Lakes district are so conveniently connected, as I mentioned before. In the summer of 1911, he oversaw the connecting of the two more popular lakes in that district, Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun.
Another one of Olmsted’s principles, which is very noticeable in the Minneapolis parks, is that city parks should offer a variety of activities for the public. This principle is no more apparent than in the Chain of Lakes district. Even though all are close and connected, each lake’s environment seems completely different from the next. Lake Harriet and its parks have more of a family feel, with the playgrounds and outdoor band shell. Lake Calhoun is definitely more for the sporty person. You don’t have to look hard to see sailboats, waterskiers or snowmobilers running wild on this lake. Lastly, there is Lake of the Isles. This park has more of a serene and casual feel. It is more often frequented by strollers, joggers or bicyclers and canoes on the lake.
As time changes, so do our cities and parks. During the latter half of the nineteenth century major changes were taking place in cities like Minneapolis. Many of these changes made it tough to mange and control park systems in larger cities. This is something a man named Alexander Garvin wanted to change. He believed Olmsted’s principles were all valid, but some things needed to change simply because time changes things.
One of Garvin’s more obvious ideas was that cities need to maintain and improve the parks that they already have. In 1994, the city began rehabilitating the very popular Minnehaha Park. Also, Loring Park underwent a huge rehabilitation project, headed up by the surrounding community. The park used to be the kind of place you wouldn’t want to walk through at night, now it is a fantastic place to take your family. Also, the price for property next to the park skyrocketed after the rehabilitation. New apartments that recently went up across the street are going for as much as $1,000 a month for a single bedroom. The Loring Park fish kill is a good example of the city maintaining its natural environment. This is necessary, for more than just fish, to ensure a normal and healthy population of a species within an environment. It eliminates overpopulation and helps to control diseases.
Another goal cities need to pursue is the acquisition and development of new land or open space. This can be done in many ways. Cities can reuse or renovate old buildings or slums. Also, cities could reclaim vacant territory, combine public space for multiple uses or start using open spaces more effectively. There are many examples of Minneapolis doing all of these. Old factories and warehouses have been turned into modern and classy condominiums. Bike trails have been put alongside major highways, like along I-94, or on top of old, unused railroad tracks.
Lastly, Garvin believed cities need to redesign certain facilities to make them more accessible. One example of this, although it could be considered acquiring or developing new land, would be the bridge by the Walker Art Center. This bridge connects the Walker Art Center to Loring Park and makes it much easier to move to and from. Because of the convenience, people can move more freely throughout the city and the two parks get visited much more often.
Although Garvin’s ideas really are quite simple, they are important for growing cities to take into consideration. I think Minneapolis has done a wonderful job of using his theories and it is no coincidence that they have one of the best park systems in America.