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.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

An urban hike along Milwaukee's lakefront with Brew City Safari

Brew City Safari was founded by Christian Matson-Alvirez three years ago. I love its tag line: "Explore. Imagine. Get lost." Its mission--to take people on hikes in Milwaukee--appears simple at first blush. Advertise a time, location and route and the people who show up take a hike.

I only just learned about it last week. Coincidentally, the next scheduled hike was the following Sunday (which was this past Sunday). I immediately decided to go, even though the time was a challenging one: 3:30 a.m. The route, however, was definitely appealing: a six-mile loop around Milwaukee's lakefront.

Followers of this blog will find it unsurprising that I was an immediate convert. Talking with Christian during the hike, hearing him wax eloquent about his love of Milwaukee and urban hiking, was like plumbing my own thought process. If you find this idea as intriguing as I did, check out the schedule of hikes on the website. There is usually one per month.

Here are a few photos from our hike.

Our meetup location at North Point Park. Official guides wore glow-in-the-dark ringlets for identification.

Poet Robert Burns in Burns Commons, at the intersection of Farwell and Prospect. Turns out Christian loves the arts as well as Milwaukee. How cool is that!

I knew there was a statue of Solomon Juneau in Juneau Park, which is only sensible, right? But we discovered Leif the Discoverer there as well. As far as I know he never made it to Wisconsin. Go figure.

Still in the dark, we looped around the Milwaukee Art Museum. By the time we reached McKinley Marina the glow of pre-dawn lit up the harbor.

Looking back over McKinley Beach towards downtown just before sunrise.

And north towards North Point and Bradford Beach.

The sun made its appearance as we hiked along Bradford Beach.

We were not the only people out to witness the dawn. At the north end of the beach we spied a group of revelers cavorting in the dawn light.

The dawn light proved fleeting as a new bank of cloud cover approached. We walked up the closed ravine road and made out way back to our starting point through Lake Park. 

The next hike is Sept. 6, a Sunday afternoon stroll through the south side with special guest tour guide Adam Carr. Details on the website.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Friends of Hank Aaron hit a home run!

The annual fundraising Run/Walk organized by the Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail was held on Saturday. The weather was great, attendance and spirits were high. I played my habitual role as photographer (which gets me out of running!) and I got a few shots to share.

The course began at Miller Park and went down Canal Street as far as 32nd St. This is the view from the 35th St. viaduct of Canal St. early in the pack.

The course looped back through Three Bridges Park.

The Milwaukee Bucks' drumming corps was on hand at the Valley Passage Bridge to charge up the crowd for the final leg.

I managed to catch quite a few runners and walkers as they crossed the Valley Passage Bridge, including Mayor Barrett (left).

Pam, one of the volunteers added cheer to those crossing the bridge with her mascot, "Honk Aaron" the goose.

To see many more photos go to my flickr album. To learn more about the Hank Aaron State Trail, click here.

Full disclosure: I am a board member of Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail. And happy to do it!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Wildlife Conservation Conference this week

I've been asked to pass on the following information for anyone who might be interested in attending:


E-Team, before the Fourth's festivities take hold, be sure to check out the
fabulous line-up of scientists, advocates, journalists and policy experts
coming together to examine the science vs. politics "tug of war" affecting
our precious natural resources, in particular, our state's wildlife. 

You'll hear:

.    Former NRB chairman Dave Clausen, DVM, address the growing CWD risk
facing WI's deer herd;
.    WLCV's Kerry Schuman and Wisconsin Democracy Now's Matt Rothschild
present "Follow the Money Trail;"
.    Retired Senator Dale Schultz and Serigraph, Inc. chairman John
Torinus, Sr. discuss current realities of partisan politics shaping wildlife
.    Dr. Ivonne Cassaigne on "What GPS Tells Us about What Mountain Lions
and Jaguars Eat"
.    A "Calling the Watchdogs" media roundtable;
.    Many other impressive scientific and advocate panel presentations
focused on issues relating to Public Trust resources, public lands and
consensus building.

    DON'T MISS OUT!  Register today:
(On-line registration takes 10 seconds; Walk-ins Welcome Also) 

A Collaboration of UW's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (science
portion), Midwest Environmental Advocates, and Friends of Wisconsin's Wolves

15 - 16 July, 2015
Ho-Chunk Convention Center
S3214 County Hwy BD
Baraboo, WI 53913
See here for Conference Program:

Sponsors of this Initiative include:
.    University of Wisconsin, Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies-
(Science program of conference)
.    Midwest Environmental Advocates
.    Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf
.    Ho-Chunk Nation
.    Forest County Potawatomi
.    Sandy Lake Band of Mississippi Chippewa
.    Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
.    Little River Band of Ottawa Indians
.    Menominee Nation
.    Bois Forte Band of Chippewa
.    Grand Portage Band of the Chippewa
.    Red Lake Band of Chippewa Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior
.    Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission
.    Bois Forte Band of Chippewa
.    1855 Treaty Authority
.    Endangered Species Coalition 
.    EarthRoots
.    Ottawa Valley chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
.    Coyote Watch
.    NRDC National Resources Defense Council
.    National Wolfwatcher Coalition
.    Humane Society of the United States
.    Sierra Club
.    Center for Biological Diversity
.    Panthera
.    Wisconsin Puppy Mill Project
.    Project Coyote
.    WI Wolf Front
.    Malcolm R. MacPherson, Ph.D.
.    Wisconsin Federated Humane Societies.
.    Howling for Wolves
.    Keep Michigan Wolves Protected
.    Wisconsin Black Bear Education Center
.    Wildlife Public Trust and Coexistence
.    Jackpine Coalition
.    State Trails Council
.    Friends of WI State Parks
.    TrapFree Wisconsin
.    Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center
.    Operation Wolf
.    Dane County Humane Society
.    4 Lakes Wildlife Center

For more information contact:

Jodi Habush Sinykin
Of Counsel, Midwest Environmental Advocates
PO Box 171000
Milwaukee, WI 53217


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

O’Donnell Park power play generates legislative fireworks

When the story below was first published in my Milwaukee Magazine column it was intended to be what it will still sound like: a plea for reason in an unreasonable time, for transparency in an increasingly secretive government, and for the democratic process in a state that seemed to be veering toward tyranny.

I haven’t changed the story, but in the past 24 hours the story has acquired a new ending. Therefore I’ve added an epilogue. I’m also adding the following quote as a dedication:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”  ~ Thomas Jefferson

From where I stood on the plaza at O’Donnell Park, the explosions lighting up the sky over the Milwaukee Art Museum were spectacular. When people learn of the stunningly blatant power play that would undermine the democratic process, I believe that the incensed voters of Wisconsin—and Milwaukee in particular—will light up their legislators’ inboxes and phone lines like roman candles.

But it may not play out that way. If it doesn’t, it will be because the people were deliberately kept in the dark as yet another stealthy, anti-democratic amendment was slipped into the governor’s proposed budget bill.

On Friday, as people flocked to Milwaukee’s lakefront legislators approved, without public knowledge or input, an amendment to the budget bill (pages 23 and 24) that would endow the Milwaukee County executive with near absolute power to—among other things—sell public lands and eliminate checks and balances provided by the County Board. It says:

“Repeal the current law provision stating that the county board may only approve or reject the contract as negotiated by the county executive.”

Relating specifically, and only, to O’Donnell Park, the amendment says:

“Modify the current law provision regarding the duties and powers of the county executive in counties with a population of 750,000 or more to authorize the county board to continue to exercise authority related to the acquisition of property with regard to land that is zoned as a park on or after the effective date of the biennial budget act, other than land zoned as a park in the City of Milwaukee that is located within the area west of Lincoln Memorial Drive, south of East Mason Street, east of North Van Buren Street, and north of East Clybourn Avenue.”

It was a coincidence that I spent that same evening at O’Donnell Park. It was no coincidence that the wording of the amendment, once the characteristically opaque legalistic jargon is deciphered, is clearly tailored to allow the Milwaukee County executive to sell O’Donnell Park. It is tailored also to circumvent the will of the County Board, which voted down the controversial sale last December.

If it succeeds, as is likely without public outcry, it also circumvents the will of the people. The evidence was plain to me as I wandered through the sea of cheerful and convivial revelers that spilled across every level of O’Donnell Park.

When I arrived around 6:00 p.m., the park was already filling up. Families and organizations had staked out prime viewing locations. Picnicking groups were encamped all along the parapet facing the museum and the lake. The entire south section of the park, in front of Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, had been literally fenced off for a private party sponsored by U.S. Bank, the primary sponsor of the night’s fireworks.

Casual inquiries revealed how few among the multitude knew that there had been an attempt to sell the park, let alone how breathtakingly close it came to succeeding (the vote opposing the sale was nine opposed, eight in favor). When it was being debated, one of the arguments made in favor of the proposal to sell the park to Northwestern Mutual was how few people used it.

Gesturing widely, a young Hispanic man named Wilbur Monti, who works at the BloodCenter of Wisconsin, told me to “look at all the families. This is more like a park than a business or a garage,” adding, “We need this park. We need more parks.”

I watched vendor Nancy Finch blow bubbles at the park while working at a cart she’s run for 36 years. O’Donnell is one of her regular stations. I asked how business was going. She replied, “It’ll pick up as soon as it gets dark.”

Sure enough, excitement grew as the light dimmed. Glowing eyeglasses and necklaces were donned, light sabers were wielded, many of which were newly purchased from Finch’s cart. The stream of people entering the park became a flood. By the time the first rockets rose above the spreading wings of the Calatrava and burst into cascading flame, the plaza was completely packed. No one was thinking about the fate of the park.

Should the budget bill pass with the current provision regarding the powers of the county executive intact, even the iconic wings of the Calatrava may not be able to protect O’Donnell Park. Following the December vote not to sell to Northwestern Mutual, the Milwaukee Art Museum has been in negotiations with the County Board.

It certainly seems that County Executive Chris Abele would like the sale of O’Donnell to proceed as previously planned. The provision in the budget appears to be designed to let him have his way. The powers that the provision would grant go far beyond one issue, however.

James Goulee, executive director of The Park People of Milwaukee, is pulling no punches. As he said in a statement on Tuesday:

“This past weekend the people of America celebrated our victory over British tyranny. With Independence came the ability to form a representative government—of the people, by the people and for the people. To ensure we wouldn’t again be exposed to tyrannical rule, our forefathers enshrined a system of government with checks and balances to, in fact, represent all the people…Unfortunately, we are now being exposed to a new tyrannical threat.

“Hidden away in the Wisconsin State budget is scheme that would endow Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele with the ability to sell, lease, or otherwise dispose of County assets without review or voting by our elected County Board.

“Public input, as well as checks and balances, are vital at every level of government. The most-distressing concern of The Park People—if this stealth provision is tacked on with the budget—is that we, the people, will lose the right we now have, to oppose the sale of park land and other contractual decisions concerning county governance.”

County Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic put it succinctly: "Unilateral control — that is way too much power for one person and I don't care who they are."

As the fireworks reached its deafening climax, I reflected on Independence Day and unilateral power. I couldn’t reconcile the two.


A measure of democracy seems to have been salvaged today. As has been reported, the Senate declined to grant Abele sole authority over the future of O'Donnell Park.” That’s good news and I’m grateful not only for everyone who may have helped light up their legislators but also the many concerned people who worked to get the word out so quickly.

The future of O’Donnell Park is far from certain, however. I offer my photographs of the park and the many people who enjoy it as testimony to its value. To see more of them, go to my flickr album.