Bringing home the gold: Cleveland Metroparks honored as nation's top park system

The 2021 Summer Olympics may be a memory, but Cleveland Metroparks is standing proudly atop the recreational field as the nation’s best park system.

Earlier this week, Cleveland Metroparks won the 2021 National Gold Medal “Best in Nation” Award for Excellence in Parks and Recreation Management.

Announced at the 2021 National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) conference in Nashville, Tennessee, the award marks the highest national honor in the parks and recreation field. The park system was notified in May that it was a finalist for the honor.

Along with boasting an enormous green footprint, Cleveland Metroparks over the last three years has built or rehabbed 27 miles of trails, enhancing direct connectivity to 49 communities.“This award talks about our strategic plan and vision and our ability to execute it,” says
Cleveland Metroparks CEO Brian Zimmerman. "We’re thrilled to be recognized among our national peers as the top park system in the country and bring the gold medal home to our communities in Northeast Ohio.”

Cleveland Metroparks received the accolade on Tuesday, Sep. 21, part of a “whirlwind ceremony” that Zimmerman believes is validation for the park system’s century-long service history. Cleveland Metroparks has nabbed five golds in the program’s lifetime—most recently in 2016.

The competition, managed and governed by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration (AAPRA) in partnership with the NRPA, honors public park and recreation agencies and state park systems in the U.S. that demonstrate excellence through long-range planning, resource management, volunteerism, environmental stewardship, program and professional development, and agency recognition.

Applications are separated into six classes, with Cleveland Metroparks garnering the top spot in the Class 1 category, representing the largest park systems nationwide based upon population served.

For this year’s competition, the nature lover’s hangout stood alongside fellow park systems in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Virginia Beach. The Gold Medal program is one of the highest professional awards available to parks and recreation agencies nationwide and involves a rigorous qualification and judging process.

“I hope Clevelanders recognize that the system started 104 years ago is there for them on a daily basis,” Zimmerman says. “Whether to help with their mental health, to destress, or lose weight, there’s an opportunity for everyone to connect with nature at our 24,000-plus acres.”

Along with boasting an enormous green footprint, Cleveland Metroparks over the last three years has built or rehabbed 27 miles of trails, enhancing direct connectivity to 49 communities.

A 2018 Trust for Public Land study revealed that Cleveland Metroparks generates an annual regional economic impact of $873 million by heightening property values, reducing stormwater runoff, improving local health and wellness, and generating tourism. The recent medal announcement arrives after a record-breaking year for the Metroparks, which welcomed 19.7 million recreational visitors in 2020.

Cleveland Metroparks mobile app received a “Best in Tech” nod from Greater Cleveland Partnership.In addition to taking home the “Best in Nation” gold this year, the park system also became a 15-time winner of the NorthCoast 99, honoring the best places for top talent in Northeast Ohio. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Metroparks mobile app received a “Best in Tech” nod from Greater Cleveland Partnership.

Furthering its communal bonafides, the system also collected an Innovation in Social Equity award for the Re-Connecting Cleveland TIGER Trails project. Consisting of five separate trails, the project links more than 66,000 area residents to employment, schools, shopping districts, parks. and recreation facilities.

The remainder of 2021 is packed with activity at Cleveland Metroparks, including the conclusion of the annual Asian Lantern Festival and the opening of Merwin’s Wharf. Zimmerman says he is excited about both the present and future of a green environment bringing good vibes to millions of regional residents.

“All of Northeast Ohio should be proud of our Emerald Necklace and what we have accomplished together for the betterment of our region,” he says. “We’re humbled by the national recognition, and thankful to bring home that national gold medal.”

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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