Minneapolis Parks Foundation Executive Director Tom Evers, third from left, led a "Mills, Falls, and Stories Revealed" tour for Greater & Greener attendees. Photo courtesy Minneapolis Parks Foundation

Minneapolis Parks Foundation Executive Director Tom Evers, third from left, led a "Mills, Falls, and Stories Revealed" tour for Greater & Greener attendees. Photo courtesy Minneapolis Parks Foundation

Greater & Greener Conference comes to Twin Cities

Updated: August 18, 2017 - 1:37 pm

Urban parks conference showcases local parks

A conference of the world’s urban park leaders recently brought Twin Cities parks into the limelight.

More than 1,000 officials from more than a dozen countries came to Minneapolis and St. Paul July 29–Aug. 2 as part of the Greater and Greener Conference, an urban parks conference that travels to a North American city every two years.

Jayne Miller, superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, played a major role in bringing the gathering to Minnesota. Since 2013, Miller has been connecting with officials to prepare the Twin Cities to show off the best of its nearly 160 neighborhood parks, its regional system and upcoming park initiatives.

“That four years went by really fast,” she said. “This is really where the high-level thinking is done, at this conference.”

The Greater and Greener Conference, which is organized by the City Parks Alliance, draws park leaders from a wide array of industries, from municipalities and government posts to nonprofits and landscape architecture firms. Miller estimates the conference hosted guests from approximately 40 states and 17 countries, from a mayor from Albania to Korean officials. While it has an international audience, it primarily brings in leaders from North America.

Over five days, attendees go on dozens of tours, take part in workshops and host panels. Unlike a typical industry conference, participants of the conference get to experience parks firsthand.

For example, Tom Evers, executive director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, led a walking tour of future project sites in Northeast Minneapolis and Nicollet Island. The foundation is a philanthropic partner to the Park Board and supports initiatives like RiverFirst, a series of future riverfront improvements and destination park sites.

Evers said the “place-based” conference allows urban leaders to understand how unique park facilities operate face-to-face.

“It allows people to get out and see it in practice,” he said.

Miller, who now serves on the board of the City Parks Alliance, said guests were log rolling at Minneapolis lakes and bicycling through the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway System. She noted that the board’s implementation of street outreach staff, who engage at-risk youth, and its approach to proactively creating safe space for protests were of interest to attendees.

“People were blown away by the system of parks that we have,” she said.

Instead of meeting rooms and lectures, many of the events feature staff in the community who have a passion for the work, Evers said.

“We live in the system, we love the system and sometimes we take it for granted,” Evers said. “It reminds you of how much you have.”

While Minneapolis officials get to brag about their parks, they’re also soaking in all the work others are doing in their field around the world.

Evers noted an initiative from the mayor of Philadelphia to raise $500 million for park and library improvements through a soda tax. He said he learned about larger financing systems, engaging communities more equitably and finding solutions for climate challenges like flash flooding. He was particularly inspired by the story of speaker Sabina Ali of Toronto, an organizer who turned a neighborhood park into a thriving community through a market and new amenities, he added.

This year’s keynote speakers were Glenn Harris, the president of the new Race Forward, a social justice nonprofit, and Lykke Leonardsen, the program director for the City of Copenhagen’s Resilient and Sustainable City Solutions.

The Park Board and St. Paul’s Parks & Recreation Department co-hosted the conference. Both cities are known as some of the top cities in the world for parks. The Trust for Public Land has named the Minneapolis park system the country’s best for the past five years. St. Paul has typically trailed just behind Minneapolis or tied for the top honor.

“It was a true partnership between the City of St. Paul and the [Park Board],” Evers said.

The Greater and Greener Conference was in San Francisco in 2015. It will move to Denver in 2019, Philadelphia in 2021 and Seattle in 2023.

Miller said the diverse range of host cities give the conference an opportunity to showcase what cities are doing to take charge of different challenges, from the very livable and rapidly growing Denver to the historic Philadelphia.