Ecocity Snapshots

Minneapolis: Learning from the Grand Rounds

Today’s Lake Harriet Band Shell reimagines one built on the site in 1891.
Written by Rick Pruetz

Excerpt from Prosperity Comes in Cycles

by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

Bicycle trails are good for business. They attract restaurants, brewpubs and retail shops catering to those who walk or pedal for fun, exercise, and health. When trails connect centers of employment, recreation, education, and culture, they also generate residential development aimed at people who increasingly prefer active transportation over fighting traffic. And when trails are extended and linked with one another, they expand tourism revenue from a growing breed of vacationers who want to get out of their cars and experience places at a more leisurely and enjoyable speed.

As trails succeed, they increase business activity, employment, wages, property value, income and, importantly, tax revenues in a self-reinforcing upward spiral. Specifically, trail improvements boost trail use which grows trail-adjacent businesses and property investments which, in turn, expand tax revenues and create public support for further trail improvements.

In the 1880s, Minneapolis launched the Grand Rounds, a 50-mile greenway linking parks, lakes, and recreational/cultural centers, forming the spine of what is now considered one of the best park systems in the nation. Building on that success, this city of 425,000 now has one of most extensive and heavily-used trail systems in the US and a reputation as a bike-friendly community with remarkably high percentages of commuting by bicycle. In return, Minneapolis and the entire Twin Cities Metro Area today enjoys a considerable economic benefit from believing in bicycles.

The Grand Rounds was the brainchild of Horace Cleveland, a pioneer landscape architect who articulated his goal of making “…the city itself a work of art…” (Cleveland 1888). On a more practical note, Cleveland observed that parkland enhances property values, defends against wildfires like the 1871 conflagration that destroyed Chicago and preserves natural spaces that are difficult to save once real estate speculation makes them unaffordable. It also helped that Minneapolis elites had a rivalry with adjacent St. Paul, which was already protecting the east banks of the Mississippi River. By 1891, the vision focused on the Grand Rounds, a greenbelt encircling the entire city and creating the organizational framework for a park system that now includes over 6,800 acres of green/blue space, 55 miles of parkways, 102 miles of Grand Rounds walking and biking paths, 22 lakes, 12 formal gardens, 49 recreation centers and 23 million visits per year. Today, experts often credit Minneapolis as having the best park system in the nation and the American Planning Association recognized the Round Rounds specifically as one of its Great Places in America (Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board 2019; Pruetz, 2012).

The Stone Arch Bridges offers a car-free, ultra-scenic crossing of the Mississippi River.

The Stone Arch Bridge is arguably the most dramatic link in the Grand Rounds. Originally built in 1883, it stands as the second oldest crossing of the Mississippi River still in use. In 1994, Minnesota Department of Transportation refurbished this engineering marvel and the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board now maintains the top as a bike and pedestrian trail. Cyclists often stop on the bridge to contemplate St. Anthony Falls and the remnants of structures built in the days when Minneapolis flour mills together with their canals and raceways constituted the largest water-powered industrial complex in the world (Pruetz 2012).

At the west end of Stone Arch Bridge, cyclists encounter Mill Ruins Park and Mill City Museum, located in a National Register building that was once the largest flour mill on earth. Here visitors can learn about Minneapolis’ industrial heyday and enjoy live music in the Charles Bell Ruin Courtyard. Throughout the historic mill district, the city is transforming study brick warehouses into unique residential, office and retail spaces. Cultural attractions are also gravitating to this area including the MacPhail Center for Music and the acclaimed Guthrie Theater, housed in a bright blue, distinctly non-historic structure designed by starchetect Jean Nouvel.

Minneapolis’s Historic Mill District has attracted cultural destinations like the Guthrie Theater.

Cyclists wanting to travel to entire Grand Rounds loop can pedal southeast through another cultural/educational complex formed by a part of the University of Minnesota located on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Heading further downstream, the path offers endless views of the river before veering southwest to pass Minnehaha Falls, immortalized in The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem. For good measure, Minnehaha Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, also features a slightly-shrunken replica of Longfellow’s House in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Further west, the trail meanders along Minnehaha Creek past Lake Hiawatha and Lake Nokomis, which features a beach with a floating swimming dock.

The next district of the Grand Rounds winds through and around a chain of lakes that are hugely popular for boating, canoeing, windsurfing, kayaking and sail boating as well as swimming in summer and ice skating in winter. At the south end of the chain, Lake Harriet features a fancifully-designed band shell reminiscent of a predecessor built in 1891 (Koutsky 2016).

Between Bde Maka Ska Lake and Lake of the Isles, the Grand Rounds Trail intersects the Midtown Greenway, an example of how Minneapolis uses bicycle infrastructure for economic development and alternative transportation as well as recreation and health. Often referred to as a ‘bicycle freeway’, the Midtown Greenway links with trails extending into the western suburbs and uses primarily grade-separated infrastructure into downtown Minneapolis, connecting with the eastern as well as the western loop of the Grand Rounds and several intersecting lanes and paths including the Hiawatha Trails and the paths along the Mississippi River. The Midtown Greenway has sparked more than $750 million in new housing development including the Midtown Exchange, a redeveloped 1.2 million square-foot, former Sears distribution center. The Midtown Greenway also attracts office and retail construction such as MoZaic, a mixed use building featuring a ramp and pedestrian bridge connecting with the trail. Annually accommodating over 1.5 million users, the Midtown Greenway was inducted into the Rail Trail Hall of Fame in 2015 (Stark 2015; Urban Land Institute 2016).

As of 2016, Minneapolis had over 200 miles of bikeways. Cyclists of all stripes have responded, with bicycle commuting alone increasing by more than 186 percent between 1990 and 2014. Proximity to bike trails boosts the value of median home values here. The League of American Bicyclists has rated the city as a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly Community and ranks Minnesota as the second most bike friendly state in the nation (League of American Bicyclists 2019; Urban Land Institute 2016).

Today’s Lake Harriet Band Shell reimagines one built on the site in 1891.

The bicycle infrastructure of Minneapolis is ably supported by a regional network of over 40 trails with a combined length of more than 400 miles including the trail system along the Mississippi River that is part of the 10-state, 3000-mile long Great River Road complex (Rails-to-Trails Conservancy 2019). At the western edge of the region, the 73-mile Luce Line Trail passes or crosses more than a dozen lakes before connecting with the Grand Rounds in Minneapolis. Together, trails in the seven-county metro area were estimated to experience almost 86 million person days of walking, bicycling, running and inline skating in 2008, generating over $487 million in trail spending, or roughly one quarter of the $2 billion of spending generated by these four activities throughout all of Minnesota (Venegas 2009).

In the 1890s, Minneapolis planned the Grand Rounds and within ten years built over 40 miles of bicycle paths, including trails along Harriet Lake and Minnehaha Creek. By 1903, 30,000 bicycles were licensed in the city. As in most US cities, cars gradually overran Minneapolis in the middle of the 20th Century. But since the 1970s, people here have been rediscovering the health, recreational and mobility advantages of bicycling (Minneapolis 2011). In turn, the city has been supplying bicycling infrastructure to both meet and stimulate demand, often building on the award-winning foundation of the Grand Rounds plan developed over 125 years ago. Consequently, Minneapolis is now consistently in the top tier of bicycle friendly cities in the nation and profiting from the resulting economic impact.


Cleveland. 1888. From “The Aesthetic Development of the United Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis” (Minneapolis: AC Bausman), as quoted in Daniel J. Nadenicek (1993), “Nature in the City: Horace Cleveland’s Aesthetic,” Landscape and Urban Planning 26:5-15.

Koutsky, L. 2016. The History of Lake Harriet Park’s Architecture. Southwest Journal. Accessed 11-24-19 at

League of American Bicyclists. 2019. Award Database. Accessed 11-25-19 at

Minneapolis. 2011. Minneapolis Bicycle Master Plan. Accessed 12-25-19 at

Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board. 2019. Parks and Destinations. Accessed 11-23-19 at

Pruetz, R. 2012. Lasting Value: Open Space Planning and Preservation Successes. Chicago: American Planning Association.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. 2019. Trail: Minnesota. Accessed 11-25-19 at

Stark, L. 2015. Minnesota’s Midtown Greenway: Trail of the Month. Accessed 11-251-9 at

Urban Land Institute. 2016. Active Transportation and Real Estate: The Next Frontier. Accessed 11-25-19 at

Venegas, E. Economic Impact of Recreational Trail Use in Different Regions of Minnesota. Access 11-25-19 at

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.