2016 Finalist 

This project has been selected as a finalist in the Community Action category:

sun ray nature-smart library

Project Summary

The Sun Ray Nature-Smart Library project, developed in partnership with the Children & Nature Network, is a new environmental learning program that has transformed Saint Paul’s Sun Ray Library into a community hub for nature learning and recreation. The project brought together community organizations, youth leaders and project partners to build and sustain urban greening efforts and educational outreach in the Conway Park neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Through the project, local leadership became aware of the importance of green space to the community, Conway Park has increased its tree canopy, the library grounds now boast a thriving pollinator garden, and the Sun Ray Library has outreach tools for environmental education and engagement with youth and families. 

Because of this project’s community involvement, there is a continuing commitment by city departments and community organizations to subsequent phases of tree planting and pollinator garden support, as well as momentum toward an overall master plan for Conway Park. Beyond its local impact, the project has proven to be a viable national model for engaging diverse urban communities in library-based greening and educational efforts.

Project Website


Project Partners

  • City of Saint Paul Department of Parks and Recreation
  • Children & Nature Network
  • Urban Roots
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
  • Wells Fargo
  • National Geographic
  • Lawal Scott Erickson Architects Inc.
  • Plum Landing: WGBH/PBS Kids
  • Sun Ray Young Mentor’s Group
  • St. Thomas University

How did the project partners work together?

The City of Saint Paul’s Sun Ray Library worked with the Children & Nature Network to convene more than 60 civic, business, education and youth leaders as well as residents of the Library’s Conway Park neighborhood for a series of community meetings. The purpose of these meetings was to generate ideas for transforming the Sun Ray Library and adjacent Conway Park into a nature-rich community hub. Cross-sector partners (listed above) worked to turn the community’s ideas into actionable strategies for increasing and enhancing the site’s green spaces and outdoor amenities to serve as a place for families and children to gather, learn, explore and engage with nature. Each partner played a critical role in the creation of the Sun Ray Nature-Smart Library, which actively promotes literacy and environmental education tailored specifically for the surrounding community. The University of Saint Thomas implemented the first phase of the Sun Ray pollinator garden, now used for community-wide education about the importance of pollinators. The City of Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Department increased tree canopy in Conway Park with tree species that would provide food and habitat for birds, providing additional opportunities for wildlife outreach and education. Other local and national partners have supported the project through a variety of methods that all are intensively enhancing the nature connection and environmental awareness in this culturally rich and economically challenged neighborhood.

How is the project groundbreaking?

"By creating libraries with integrated natural spaces, we create a center for developing kids’ intelligence, curiosity and imagination,” comments Richard Louv, co-founder of Children & Nature Network and best-selling author of Last Child in the Woods. “Books nurture learning and inner imagination, while play in nature engages the sense of curiosity and exploration critical to healthy brain development. Putting both of these essential childhood experiences in one place is a simple idea, but one that could have profound effects on whole neighborhoods.”

Injecting a community environmental action plan into the local library’s literacy and community outreach programming is the element that makes this project particularly unique and innovative.

The Sun Ray Library is becoming a community hub for environmental awareness that:

  • promotes literacy among all age groups,
  • engages children’s curiosity about nature,
  • provides family resources for outdoor exploration in nature,
  • fosters youth development and leadership around conservation and habitat restoration efforts,
  • creates a community committed to environmental stewardship.

What are the project goals?

The primary goals of the Sun Ray Nature-Smart Library Project are to:

  • increase community engagement with nature,
  • increase children and families’ awareness of critical environmental issues,
  • engage young adults in environmental stewardship and leadership, and
  • to pilot innovative nature-based learning and engagement strategies for wider replication in Saint Paul and nationally.

Currently, Conway Park is greatly under-utilized by local community residents, and the community is lacking ways to engage with nature. In response to this situation, urban greening events took place in the summer of 2015 to enhance Conway Park and to create a park that is more inviting for exploration of nature and expands opportunities for local residents to engage in environmental and conservation activities. Increasingly, young people are spending less time outdoors at the very time when the future of our earth’s environment has never been more critical. In an effort to increase awareness of nature and environment, Sun Ray Library programming has been developed that will promote both literacy and environmental education through fun, hands-on activities for children, youth, and families. These include Nature Adventure Backpacks with nature-based books and accompanying activities that can be checked out from the library by families and used for Family Story Time by library staff.

What are the project outcomes?

Youth and Family Activities

  • 18 Nature Adventure Backpacks on different themes with a variety of environmental tools, activities and fiction and non-fiction books are being checked out by children and families for nature-based education and engagement.
  • 48 Environmental Youth Activities that address 12 themes are being used by library staff.
  • Five “Story Walks” (story pages on stakes throughout park) are inspiring families to read from the library doors along the park trail to further develop the connection between outdoor and indoor spaces.

Youth Leadership

  • Ten young leaders attended a 2-day leadership training to develop a plan for a Natural Leaders Legacy Camp regional training where 50 youth will be trained as Twin City Natural Leaders.
  • In partnership with Wilderness Inquiry participants enjoyed an outdoor activity right in the heart of the city.
  • Participants toured the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR) center in St. Paul, learning about local stewardship projects.

Urban Greening

  • 28 trees were planted in the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Department Conway Park.
  • A pollinator garden was installed and is now being maintained on Sun Ray Public Library land in partnership with University of Saint Thomas, Wells Fargo, and Urban Roots

Partnership Engagement

  • Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Department has agreed to subsequent phases of tree and native plant greening efforts to continue to enhance Conway Park.

Replication and Scale

  • The National League of Cities and the Children & Nature Network have partnered in an initiative Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN where the Sun Ray Nature-Smart Library model has been presented as a key strategy to 16 city teams led by mayor’s offices.

Event Details

Thursday, May 25, 2017
5:00 - 5:45 p.m. Registration & reception
5:45 - 8:00 p.m. Dinner & program
8:00 - 9:00 p.m. Dessert & reception 

Nicollet Island Pavilion
40 Power Street
Minneapolis, MN 55401

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Presenting Sponsors

Environmental Lay Group

Great River Energy

Reception sponsor

25th Anniversary Sponsors


Community Action

Critical Collaborator

Stoel Rives LLP

Emerging Leader


Energy and Climate

The Weidt Group

Natural Resources

Sustainable Business

Supporting Sponsors

Minnesota Power

partner SPONSORs

In-kind sponsors


CliftonLarsonAllen LLP

Consulate General of Canada

Rochester Public Utilities

Associate Sponsors

Bremer Bank
G & K Services
Nova Consulting
Smith Partners