Jayne Miller sees parks as “the most democratic spaces in the United States,” places that can improve quality of life for people and for cities.
“Research shows if you have access to green space, even if you’re not in it, within 10 minutes your heart rate drops,” she says. “There is nothing, in my view, that provides the kind of impact globally for communities but also individually for people that parks do — everything from environmental sustainability to economic development for cities, to personal health and wellness for people.”
When she comes to Pittsburgh on Feb. 5 to be the new president and CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Miller and her partner Diana Sepac will make their home in Highland Park, the East End neighborhood dominated by the sprawling park of the same name. It’s a perfect choice for Miller, an avid cyclist who also loves hiking and cross-country skiing.
“I think what’s going on in Pittsburgh is really, really exciting,” Miller says. “Both professionally for me, given my experience, and where the Conservancy is right now — and also where Pittsburgh is right now — it felt like an incredible opportunity to put all that together.”
Miller, the superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, was recruited by the Conservancy board to succeed Meg Cheever, who retires in March. The two women met years ago at a City Parks Alliance conference in San Francisco and became friends.
Under Miller’s leadership, the Minneapolis system made noteworthy advances: For five of the past seven years, it was named the No. 1 park system in the country by the Trust for Public Land. When she arrived in Minneapolis seven years ago, the city’s 160 neighborhood parks were chronically underfunded, despite money from nonprofit foundations. Miller forged an agreement with the City of Minneapolis to provide an additional $250 million in funding over 20 years. She also established the Park and Recreation Board as a leader in racial and economic equity work.
“I can’t think of a better person I’d rather see leading the organization into its next phase,” Cheever says in the Conservancy’s latest newsletter. “Jayne has extensive professional experience to meet whatever challenges come our way. Jayne is also a real listener. … It is one of the things that makes me convinced she is a great choice for Pittsburgh.”
Daniel Booker, who chairs the Conservancy board, says the bar for selecting a leader was very high, based on Cheever’s $100 million park restoration programs. Going forward, he says in a statement, “Our goal is to achieve a more sustainable parks infrastructure, enhance operating performance and ensure equity across all city parks. Jayne’s expertise matches perfectly with our strategic vision.”
Miller hopes to consolidate some of the 20 agreements the Conservancy has with the City of Pittsburgh and, eventually, to allow the organization to manage all of the city parks.
“The work that the Conservancy has done has raised the quality and stature of the parks in Pittsburgh, and where the Conservancy is in Pittsburgh parks, the quality and level of service has been greater than the city has been able to provide,” says Miller, who has toured many of the parks during several visits.
Spending time outdoors comes naturally to Miller. She grew up in the Adirondack Mountains where her father, a veterinarian, would flood the family’s yard to make a skating rink for neighborhood kids. From her parents, she says, she learned the value of a strong work ethic and of recreation.
“About 20 years ago I figured out why I did what I do,” says Miller, whose first professional job was running aquatics and recreation programs for a YMCA in Nebraska. “I had some personal tragedies as a kid in my family, and what I believe saved me, besides strong parents, was recreation and being in the outdoors and what it provided to me personally.”
She pursued a career in parks after losing her father when she was 11 and her mother while a freshman in college. When her mother died, she transferred from Southern Connecticut State University to Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska, where she played basketball. The small liberal arts school and the natural environment helped her to heal. She went on to run programs for disabled persons and senior citizens in Manhattan, Kansas, and then pursued a master’s degree in recreation administration at the University of Maryland.
Before her appointment as superintendent in Minneapolis, Miller was director of the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, a five-county regional park system in southeast Michigan; she spent more than 22 years in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in city positions that included community services area administrator.
The nonprofit Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy was founded in December 1996 by a group of citizens worried about the deteriorating conditions of the city’s historic parks. The organization has raised more than $105 million and completed 17 major improvement projects. Today, says Miller, “the quality of care of the system is amazing.”
She’s proud to be leaving Minneapolis’ cherished parks in a strong financial position, and to have instituted best practices in environmental stewardship, project management and community engagement.
“In so many areas we’re strong,” she says, citing the years of “hard internal work first, and then building off that to make sure we’re including all Minneapolis residents and engaging them in our parks. … It’s part of the ethos of the city of Minneapolis, the park system. People live there because of the park system.”
The mother of 25-year-old twins — Zachary of Minneapolis and MacKenzie of Washington, D.C. — Miller has a goal of hiking the 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks with her son.
“I’m not sure I’m going to make it,” she says. “I’ll be honest with you, work takes quite a bit of my time. But doing physical activity helps to clear my brain and it’s something that’s really important to me.”