Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

May your Thanksgiving be full of joy and companionship!

This cheery wintry/autumn scene is from Jacobus Park in Wauwatosa. The snow fell heavily on Saturday. While it was beautiful, I for one am thankful that the snow has largely melted and Thanksgiving Day tomorrow is expected to be milder yet.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Eschweilers to come down as Echelons rise: Photo essay

Followers of the Milwaukee County Grounds likely have already heard the sad news: At least two of the four historic Eschweiler buildings are to be "partially" demolished. The Mandel Group, which is in the midst of constructing their Echelon apartment complex in a ring around the site, has plans for all four. The former Administration building is to remain as a centerpiece to the Echelon development. The small engineering building may be converted into a single family home. The dormitory and dairy buildings are to be demolished down to the first floor. The remnants are to be re-purposed as "walled gardens."

There's more to the story, which was covered nicely and very thoroughly Striking An Imperfect Balance: Development, The Eschweilers & Monarch Butterflies .

I thought I'd add a few visuals to the story, so I went out yesterday and walked around the entire site to document the current situation:

The Eschweiler Administration building (left), which is to remain, and the northernmost apartment building under construction. View from Discovery Parkway.

The dairy building (background) has had its roof tiles removed. The interior is being gutted prior to deconstruction. The Administration building is on the right. New windows and roof tiles have already been installed.

The apartment building in the northwest corner of the site was the first to get underway and is the furthest along. View from the Monarch Trail.

Workers constructing one of the Echelon buildings (foreground) while other workers remove roof tiles from the Eschweiler dormitory building (background).

View looking southeast from the Monarch Trail of the Echelon complex (left) and the ABB building (right).

View looking northeast from the Monarch Trail of the Echelon complex.

Milkweed pod spreading its seeds on the Monarch Trail.

To see more photos of the County Grounds, go to my Flickr album

The Friends of the Monarch Trail and followers of the County Grounds have their eyes on another issue. The section of the grounds known as the east woods, which is located north of the power plant and Ronald McDonald House (see map below), has long been an area of concern as the last remaining segment that may or may not be preserved. I've written about it before, but there will be more to come.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

One Tree Hill, Auckland, New Zealand

Its Maori name is Maungakiekie, the mountain of the kiekie vine. I didn’t notice any vines growing there. In fact, what struck me at first was the nearly complete lack of vegetation other than the closely cropped grass even on its steepest slopes. The reason for this was just as obvious. Sheep dotted the grass throughout the park, widely dispersed in some areas, clumped into small herds in others.

I’m trying to recall ever seeing a similar scene in an urban park. But I can’t.

There are trees in the park, but the native one (pōhutukawa, in Maori) that gave the hill its English name is long gone, victim of an act of vandalism by a white settler in 1852. Most of the non-native pines planted to replace it didn’t survive. Maori activists attacked the last remaining pine with chainsaws in 2000 as a protest against perceived injustices by the government. So, One Tree Hill bears no tree.

With only two days to see as much of Auckland as possible, we drove most of the way up to the summit. With more time and better weather I would have enjoyed the hike. We walked the last quarter mile in a light drizzle, sheep ambling out of our way as we approached. The cloud cover hung little higher than the summit itself when we reached it, which, along with the rain, limited the 360° panoramic views of the city and its two harbors.

One Tree Hill Domain, as the park is officially known, is one of a pair of conjoined parks (Cornwall Park is the other) that are situated near the center of the Auckland metropolitan region and the isthmus on which it’s located. Despite the inclement weather we were among quite a throng on the summit. In fact, there were many people throughout the large twin park landscape. I imagine it’s very crowded on beautiful days.

One Tree Hill is the remnant of an ancient volcano, one of 48 in the Auckland Volcanic Field. As we walked back down we noted the popular fad of using loose lava rock as movable graffiti down among the soft contours of the long-dormant crater. Without a few tiny sheep at the bottom it would be difficult to appreciate the size of the rocks or the scale of the mountain. Though far from a wilderness, One Tree Hill is a highly satisfying urban park experience.

This post is the second in a series from Australia and New Zealand. To go to the first, click on Muriwai Beach.

To see more photos from Australia and New Zealand, go to my flickr album

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Dispatch from New Zealand: Muriwai Beach

We’d been traveling in exotic places for so long, in two different countries and in several time zones, that the days of the week blurred together. But it was easy to tell that today was Friday. As it is with many a large city, the weekend traffic at 4:30 pm clogged the freeway leading out of town. As Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, sits on an isthmus, the single route leading out into the countryside was predictably jammed.

An hour later, however, we were cruising along curving ridge top roads through a pastoral, peaceful countryside dotted with sheep and dairy farms. Finally, as we drew nearer the coast the road dropped into a luxuriant pine forest. Graeme, our host and guide, explained that the forest was a recent development. A hundred years ago the hilly landscape had been nothing but sand held in place by sand-tolerant dune grasses. A government program of progressive vegetation had proceeded gradually from nitrogen-fixing shrubs to today’s climax forest.

The forest provides a wide variety of recreational opportunities as well as lumber for harvest. We passed trailheads for hiking and mountain biking and a gated off-road vehicle course. But the vast majority of weekenders, like us, pass through miles of forest in order to access the beach.

Barefoot, we stroll through the last seaward stand of stunted, salt-bleached trees. Twin dunes loom above us. They must be at least 30-40 ft. high. We stand aside as a motorbike buzzes through the soft sand and away onto the beach. It disappears before we get there. There is no one else around.

Dark, volcanic sand and pounding surf stretches away as far as we can see and vanishes in brilliant, foaming mist. Amazingly, as close as it is to Auckland, Muriwai boasts 50 km (over 31 miles) of unbroken, undeveloped beach along with protective dunes and forested lands. Graeme tells us that recently the government ceded control of these public lands to the indigenous Maori people. I marvel at this, trying to imagine the U.S. government giving back to Native Americans, say, for instance, North Carolina’s outer banks or Cape Cod National Seashore.

We dip our feet in the crashing Tasman Sea, which reaches Australia over 2,100 km away. Very cold. (Much like Lake Michigan.)

The beach is popular for surfing, fishing, dirt-biking (as we noticed), horseback riding, and bird-watching. There is a notable gannet colony at its southern end, too far for us to reach today. Swimming is discouraged, however, due to dangerous rip currents.

No worries. Wandering, sinking our toes in the soft, black sand, soaking up the warm southern hemisphere springtime sun, and basking in the stiff onshore breeze are sufficient to fill us with contentment. 

Lynn and I spent almost 2 weeks in Australia and New Zealand. This is the first of a series of dispatches and photo essays from our trip. 

To see more photos from Australia and New Zealand, go to my flickr album


Monday, September 21, 2015

Could Milwaukee be a “green” destination?

Milwaukee has earned the right to join the ranks of Earth-friendly cities

North Point Park
Shrieking in my ear, the alarm wrenched me from sleep. 3:00 a.m. I often wake up to see the sunrise but this was unprecedented. The big surprise, though, when I made it to North Point Park at 3:30 was the cheerfully chattering crowd already assembled.

After a brief orientation, 30 of us set off in the sultry night air to begin a 6-mile hike along Milwaukee’s lakefront. I was on my first Brew City Safari, an enterprise founded by Christian Matson-Alvirez. As we walked I asked him about his motivation and purpose.  

“I love Milwaukee,” he began, explaining that he enjoys exploring the city and sharing his inclination with like-minded people. Then he waxed eloquent about peace and tranquility. “It’s serene,” he says, “and you don’t have to leave the city to have this experience.”

His elegantly simple words and the passion in his eyes resonated profoundly. I felt as though he were reading my own thoughts.

We walked along the Oak Leaf Trail, through a tunnel of darkness lit only by a flashlight and a communal idea: Milwaukee is marvelous; let’s go for a hike and enjoy it!

Here was fresh evidence of an under-appreciated truth I’ve long felt needs wider telling. For all its challenges—some real, some a matter of perception—Milwaukee is a beautiful city with natural assets comparable to any and human assets that stand above most. In many ways Milwaukee is a farsighted ecological city and a model of sustainable urban living. Why don’t we believe this of ourselves and make more of it?

View towards downtown from Milwaukee River Greenway
Amid unrelenting reports of global climate change and environmental destruction it would be more than a good public relations strategy to elevate Milwaukee’s status as a progressive, environmentally conscious city. I believe Milwaukee can serve as a beacon of hope.

Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper
From the moment it was founded on the shore of Lake Michigan, geography and the environment have played a huge role in Milwaukee’s history. “Milwaukee is here because of its harbor and its three major rivers that run like arteries to the north, south and west,” says Cheryl Nenn, who serves as Milwaukee’s official Riverkeeper.

At first the rivers were for commerce and industry. However, their value as an amenity that improves the quality of life for its citizens was recognized far earlier than in most cities. In the early 20th century, visionary leaders like Charles Whitnall endowed Milwaukee with a park system that to this day is described in superlatives. Among its many qualities the most ingenious was an emphasis on preserving parkland along the rivers.

Menomonee River Parkway
Consequently, Milwaukee’s many river parkways form an “emerald necklace,” a term credited to the preeminent landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. While Olmsted himself designed three of Milwaukee’s parks—Lake, Riverside and Washington—his principle of linear and linked parks and parkways is his most important legacy. The concept of interconnected natural landscapes later became fundamental to contemporary ecology and conservation.  

The irreplaceable natural features of what is now known as an Earth-friendly, “green” or Eco-city have been in place here in Milwaukee for over a century. Today, however, acreage of open green space is not enough for a city to be so designated.

I recently visited Portland, OR, which figures prominently in most lists of Earth-friendly cities. I came away with three primary impressions. First, the allure is real and the commitment to better the environment is evident; most visible in their mass transit system and dedicated, well-used bicycle lanes. Milwaukee is comparable in size but public transit is probably our highest hurdle when it comes to sustainability.  

Second, Portland has its share of problems. I saw people who appeared to be homeless hunkered down in several inner city pocket parks. I was cautioned against going into certain sections of the city, especially at night. Portland’s poverty rate is somewhat lower but Milwaukee’s median income is higher.

Most importantly, my visit to Portland convinced me anew that Milwaukee has the potential to compete in this arena. Our most intractable challenges are social. Poverty and racial segregation can never be dismissed. But mostly what Portland has over Milwaukee is a belief in itself as an Earth-friendly city. That belief—which attracts visitors like me and also helps attract and retain a like-minded population—is neither insignificant nor easy to replicate.

Lake Michigan shoreline at Doctor’s Park & Schlitz Audubon Nature Center
But we could be in their shoes. Grassroots groups like Brew City Safari, along with far more established programs, prove that we are doing the right things. Although often still considered a rust-belt city, Milwaukee has made great strides.

There are many progressive initiatives and good-news stories that suggest Milwaukee is more Earth-friendly than rust-belt. Here are five of those stories, some of which have attracted national attention.

Revitalization of the Menomonee Valley

Thirty years ago, the Menomonee Valley epitomized degraded rust-belt deindustrialization. Today, thanks to the collaborative efforts of government and private-sector leadership, the valley is a nationally recognized model of integrated economic and environmental revitalization. Guided by sustainable policies and practices, new industries are moving back in amongst beautifully restored parkland and some of the most popular entertainment venues in Wisconsin.

Three Bridges Park, Menomonee Valley
Milwaukee also is poised to replicate its successful strategies in two other blighted areas: the Harbor District and the 30th Street Corridor.

Urban Ecology Center

When the Urban Ecology Center, an innovative grassroots model of urban environmental education, opened there in 1991, Riverside Park was shunned by neighbors. Its Olmsted-designed features were all but obliterated by decay.

Since that time the Urban Ecology Center has opened three branches, collectively serving more than 92,000 visitors with year-round programming. Naturalists and environmental educators who want to emulate its example travel to Milwaukee from around the country. 

Ken Leinbach, founder and Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center (above), in front of the Riverside Park Branch. “The fact that Milwaukee has two iconic enterprises—the Urban Ecology Center and Growing Power—that grew from the ground up shows the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in the city,” says Leinbach.

Riverside Park not only has been transformed into a lovely and safe outdoor learning laboratory, but has expanded. The 40-acre Rotary Centennial Arboretum opened in 2013 on reclaimed post-industrial land.

Urban Agriculture

Alice’s Garden, located in Johnson’s Park
Community gardening is not new, but today’s “foodie,” organic and locavore movements have made urban agriculture trendy. Milwaukee’s Victory Garden Initiative is an updated version of a World War I wartime necessity, while Alice’s Garden, with its emphasis on youth empowerment, cultural development and sustainable practices, takes the traditional community garden to a higher level.

Hydroponics lab at Growing Power
Milwaukee has actually been ahead of the curve on urban agriculture since 1993 when Will Allen established Growing Power. In addition to producing high-quality, fresh and affordable food for inner city neighborhoods, Growing Power has become a national leader in urban agriculture through its educational and technical assistance programs.

Will Allen with three young apprentice farmers
Allen was honored with a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” in 2008. “I’ve been in almost every city in America and lots of cities outside the country,” he told me. “I feel that Milwaukee is the urban agricultural capitol not only of the country but of the world, because of all of the good things that are going on and all the organizations that participate in urban agriculture and sustainable living.”

River restoration and preservation

Milwaukee’s rivers continue to be defining features. After a century and a half of abuse—when they were dammed, lined with concrete and reduced to open sewers—the last forty years have seen a complete reversal. Water quality has markedly improved thanks to grassroots efforts of watchdog groups like Milwaukee Riverkeeper and mammoth infrastructure projects managed by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD).

A widespread appreciation for the natural qualities of rivers has replaced the conventional utilitarian mindset. This shift is best symbolized by Milwaukee’s Downtown Riverwalk, which literally reorients businesses and visitors toward the water.

Milwaukee River Greenway
The removal of the North Avenue dam in 1997 created an opportunity to develop the Milwaukee River Greenway and Overlay District. The Greenway unifies a diverse mix of public parks and private natural areas and has become an exemplary place to experience urban nature. The hard-fought Overlay District protects eight miles of river, more than 840 acres of riparian habitat, and the “viewshed” that enables visitors to have a virtual wilderness experience within minutes of Downtown.

Kinnickinnic River channel
Nothing kills a river as thoroughly as confining it in a concrete channel. In the 1990s, the MMSD systematically began removing ill-conceived and outdated flood management channels to restore waterways to more natural conditions. Major portions of Lincoln Creek, a tributary of the Milwaukee River, and the Menomonee River already have been rehabilitated. A multi-year project of the MMSD that began in 2012 is tackling the Kinnickinnic River channel. What has been a dangerous drainage ditch will be restored with a naturalized streambed, meandering watercourse and native vegetation. 

Restored section of Kinnickinnic River
The MMSD, in partnership with the Conservation Fund, also has quietly purchased over 3,000 acres of open land in the three watersheds. This “Greenseams” program is intended to prevent future flooding. Significantly, it also preserves land for wildlife and recreation.

Water City

Remember Milwaukee’s marketing slogan, “A great place on a great lake?” Today a far more ambitious and worthwhile initiative promotes Milwaukee as a “water hub” for freshwater research, expertise and technology.

Global Water Center & Reed St. Yards in Menomonee Valley
The Water Council, formed in 2007 by business leaders, educators and scientists, touts a formidable record of achievements and resources intended to put Milwaukee on the world map. In 2013 the Global Water Center opened as an incubator for emerging water-related businesses. Milwaukee is one of only 13 cities in the world that have been designated by the UN as a Global Compact City for the quality of its efforts.

Milwaukee Water Commons' water celebration at Bradford Beach
A more grassroots, community-oriented effort also has begun to promote Milwaukee as a “Water City.” The Milwaukee Water Commons holds town hall meetings, partners with diverse community organizations to promote sustainability, and hosts celebrations highlighting the importance of water as essential to all life.

McKinley Beach and a view of downtown Milwaukee at sunrise
The sun rose over Lake Michigan when our stalwart band of hikers reached Milwaukee’s popular beaches. I turned to see the city bathed in the warm glow of dawning light, reflecting on how this one small action fits into the larger picture.

Kevin Shafer at the site of a restored section of the Kinnickinnic River
Kevin Shafer, the executive director of MMSD who has overseen major regional infrastructure projects, put it into this perspective:  “It’s not just the government—it’s everyone. It gets down to that individual person being more aware of what’s going on, what they can do to foster this effort, for all of us to become more sustainable.”

Sunrise over Lake Michigan
Much is happening on both levels, from infrastructure improvements and land reclamation to simple hikes along the lakefront. We walk because we love Milwaukee and it is beautiful. Milwaukee can be the good-news story of urban development and sustainability. What we need now is to believe it.

To see more photographs of many of the Milwaukee area parks and natural areas go to Flickr.

An edited version of this story first appeared in my Milwaukee Magazine column online on Sept. 16, 2015. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rally on river to protest oil trains

On Sunday, Sept. 13 a protest was held on the water at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers. The protest was held to raise awareness about trains that carry crude oil through Milwaukee. The oil is dangerously volatile and derailments elsewhere have cause explosions and deaths.

The Milwaukee Common Council has held meetings to explore the issue and attempt to develop readiness for the potentially catastrophic consequences of a derailment. To learn more about the issue go to Citizens Acting for Rail Safety.

The biggest concern is for the safety of the thousands of people who live within the blast zone, which extends a half mile on both sides of the railroad. However, another major concern is for the effect a spill would have on the environment and especially rivers. This bridge across the mouth of the Menomonee River in downtown Milwaukee is just one of 34 bridge crossings of waterways in the Milwaukee area. Many of the bridges are old and in need of replacement.

To see more photos from the event, go to my flickr album.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Free Day at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, which is located on Lake Michigan in the northeast corner of Milwaukee County, is always a treat to visit. Yesterday was an especially good day, however, because admission was free to all thanks to the support of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation.

I spent a couple hours there and ended up wishing I could have stayed longer. It was a beautiful day and droves of people were taking advantage of the special event.

Activities included live animal displays, invasive species and poison ivy identification and guided tours of all parts of the diverse landscape. A master gardener was on hand to answer questions.

The day's special activities were scheduled to coincide with what's known as a "bio-blitz." This intensive inventory of all the species that can be identified in a 24-hour period had begun the day before. The BioBlitz was a joint effort between Schlitz Audubon Nature Center and the Milwaukee Public Museum.

The live trap (below) holds what I was told was a Blanding's turtle, which is endangered throughout much of its range. Score one for the nature center, the BioBlitz and the species! (Once officially counted the turtle will be released.)

Families who came for the day were invited to explore woodlands, fields and ponds - with the expert help of Audubon staff members - for their own informal inventories.

The best thing about the day, for this explorer of urban wilderness, was the beauty of nature itself.