Thursday, June 16, 2011

Wauwatosa’s innovation: Marketing parkways?

This is adapted from my recent column, Wild Wauwatosa. I wrote it in response to current events in the city where I live, but the issues and principles are hardly unique to this location.

What‘s in a name? First came Innovation Drive, in Wauwatosa’s Research Park. Then the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee touted its planned engineering campus on the Milwaukee County Grounds as Innovation Park. The Crowne Plaza Hotel, on Innovation Dr., even adopted the moniker for its restaurant. Now officials have decided to brand the entire city of Wauwatosa as “Innovation Parkway,” based on the observation that it is interlaced with Olmsted-inspired Milwaukee County parkways.

View west across the Innovation Park site, one of the most spectacular locations in Wauwatosa.

The brand is being rolled out with the companion slogan “great opportunities at a great location.” The intent is to encourage economic development by promoting the city’s central location in the Milwaukee region and its accessibility with an emphasis on the proximity of the parkways.

I’m in favor of economic development. Of course. Especially in the current economic climate, who would question the need to attract business and create jobs? I’m also – no surprise here – in favor of parks, parkways, and open green space. What’s in a name? I call this blog Urban Wilderness in order to promote the idea that regular contact with nature is essential for a healthy life.

View southeast from UWM’s planned Innovation Park site showing Medical Complex towers.
The Milwaukee County Parks and parkway system provide beauty, serenity, and recreational opportunities within the urban region, making Wauwatosa and Milwaukee County especially attractive places to live. I hope that it is this inherent value of parkways that the architects of Wauwatosa’s new identity had in mind and that all new development will respect the integrity of those lands.

A short stroll along the Oak Leaf Trail on a pleasant evening is enough to convince anyone that people all over the county love the parkways. Wauwatosa officials and their newly created Community Development Authority should not be surprised if many of their constituents view this campaign with a measure of skepticism. Real estate developments notoriously are named after natural features that have been diminished or destroyed. The term “park” itself long has been coopted, its meaning subverted in oxymoronic combinations like Industrial Park and Business Park. How farfetched is the fear that “Innovation Parkway” will likewise disregard the meaning of parkway, or that public parkland will be lost to commercial development? Examples of this are as near and recent as Aurora’s Hospice Care Center on Honey Creek Parkway and the “Research Park,” which sits on land that really did look like a park not so long ago. Cookie cutter suburban subdivisions all over the country sport names like “Rolling Meadows,” “Tall Pines,” and the particularly egregious subcategory of “The Preserve at…[fill in the blank.]”

Wauwatosa’s new identity and marketing campaign won’t necessarily have this destructive effect on the parkways, nor should it. But if economic development is allowed to trump land preservation and the public’s enjoyment of nature then the danger is as real here as it is elsewhere. The citizens of Wauwatosa should be particularly concerned that the Community Development Authority is empowered to negotiate privately – without public input – even when development plans involve public land and taxpayers’ funds. 

A scenic natural area along Underwood Parkway.
The consultants who recommended the new brand to city officials wisely identified the parkways as among Wauwatosa’s most valued assets. The Mayor wants to use the new marketing strategy to “make a buzz around Wauwatosa.” A truly innovative idea would be to promote Wauwatosa and Milwaukee as cities where people can enjoy nature and places that protect natural areas. Let’s make a buzz about the indisputable importance of the parkways and the nearness of nature to the quality of life in our community. Economic development and the public interest both would benefit from this approach.

A view of High Pointe Office Center from Underwood Parkway.
Economic development is essential. Wauwatosa and Milwaukee have plenty of places that need revitalization. Development should be sensitive to the public’s enjoyment of the parks and parkways; it should occur in locations that will never compromise their value. This includes consideration of the views from the parks and not just the attraction of the views into the parks. The recently created overlay-zoning district for the Milwaukee River Greenway should serve as a model for development in ecologically sensitive areas. Milwaukee County really is blessed with an abundance of nature – that’s something worth creating a buzz around.

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