Sunday, October 30, 2011

Seiche: Symbolism and reality in an unlikely urban wilderness

In the midst of active rail lines and towering industrial buildings, I find the activity of beavers most mysterious. Discovering the little haven of nature in a place so completely altered by humans is itself unexpected. The presence of a beaver, an animal also driven to modify its environment, seems miraculous and symbolic.

Against long odds, a wetland remains within the historic estuary of the Milwaukee River.

Milwaukee’s estuary, with its vast wild rice marshes, once was one of the greatest treasures in the entire great lakes basin. First it drew myriad Indian tribes, who prospered from its abundance. Later it drew European settlers who, to make a long story short, cleared the wilderness, filled the wetlands, paved over the earth – and transformed it into “the machine shop of the world.”

Today the estuary is reduced to the confluence of the city’s three rivers, their banks lined with concrete and steel. But, accompanied by Megan O’Shea of the Wisconsin DNR, I set out to explore a tiny unnamed wetland in this unlikely setting.

Starting at Skipper Bud’s Marina on the Kinnickinnic River, we follow an uninviting ditch strewn with trash. There are plans to clean and rehabilitate it. In theory, aside from providing drainage the ditch should be hydrologically dynamic. Surprisingly, inland bodies of water as large as Lake Michigan can have something like a tide. It is called seiche. Storm fronts, high winds, and variations in air pressure can cause water levels to fluctuate from one side of the lake to the other, like water sloshing in a tub.

During a seiche event, high lake water can flow into the wetland bringing aquatic life with it as high tide does in a salt marsh.

It takes only a minute or two to reach the heart of the miniscule marsh from South Marina Drive. Atop a large berm we look down on a patch of cattails nearly overwhelmed by tall non-native reeds called Phragmites. Attractive but aggressively invasive, these will have to be eradicated.

We walk along a weed-choked dirt track to reach the far end of the mostly dry 6.5-acre site. A healthy wetland is more than a place that’s wet. Fortunately for this site, size is not a crucial factor. Three things are needed: the right soils, plants, and hydrology – or flow of water. Surrounding uplands add complexity and vitality to the ecosystem, which increases biodiversity.

Bushwhacking through tangled undergrowth, we are suddenly, marvelously immersed in nature. Even here, where surrounding industrial buildings, boxcars, or dry-docked boats are rarely out of sight, the variety of colorful plants in slightly faded autumn splendor is a revelation. We skirt an impenetrable stand of sandbar willows. Poplar leaves quiver in the breeze, by turns silvery and golden.

The wind dies as we enter a slough. All evidence of the surrounding city disappears. After a rainfall the wetland drains through here into the ditch. We see the telltale trees, gnawed and toppled. The teeth marks are gray with age and some of the neatly coned stumps have long since resprouted. Among the many incongruities of our diminutive wetland this evidence of beavers is the most compelling.

I imagine a beaver swimming down the Milwaukee River. First the intrepid creature has to leave its comfortable habitat, probably near the headwaters where the river is relatively wild and protected by Kettle Moraine State Park. Before long it reaches farmland where cow pastures occasionally denude the riverbanks. Then for most of its long journey it paddles past suburban homes perched on lawns to enjoy riverfront views.

Our big-toothed, flat-tailed protagonist would have to portage past – or slip over – at least a couple dams; avoid piers, boaters, fishermen. When at last it reaches downtown Milwaukee it is confronted by a canyon of condominiums and industries, with their bulwarks of concrete walls.

The beaver perseveres. It threads its way through the hardened confines of the constrained river; past barges, motorboats, bridges; until it reaches the narrow, polluted outlet of the only wetland left in the estuary. What instinct drives it to this apparently desperate end?

The question reverberates as we emerge from the copse to see a flat, vacant brownfield, dotted with mounds of asphalt and gravel. Even this harsh landscape sprouts new mosses, grasses, and trees. Nature is persistent. The brownfield would double the size of the preserve. Sadly, it isn’t included on the planning map.

Why should we care? Why restore such a meager wetland, so long neglected and circumscribed by blight? In a few hours time a bulldozer could erase the last wetland, flatten its gentle contours, prepare it for pavement. Centuries of progress have led us, like the beaver, to this desperate end.

This unlikely place is precisely where we need a refuge. Yes, we can replenish a habitat for the fish, birds, and other creatures that require it to thrive, but our own salvation is no less at stake, inextricably bound as it is to theirs. We humans are drawn to nature, to water and the soft edges of the land, as surely as the beaver.

We are at a moment, if not a turning of the tide then at least a high water mark – a seiche – when the effects of our own pressure on the earth are swamping outdated and unsustainable impulses. Like beavers, we have the power to shape our environment. We can push it around with bulldozers but we cannot conquer nature. How we shape it will determine if we thrive or perish.

It is time to become reacquainted with nature. There is no better place to begin than here in the ravaged estuary of the Milwaukee River. This seemingly insignificant wetland at the edge of civilization is what we have left to work with. We must not merely protect it; we must make the most of it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

2012 Milwaukee County Parks Budget

It is autumn in Milwaukee. Let's hope that's not a metaphor for the continuing deterioration of our award winning county park system.

We thought the parks were in trouble when Scott Walker was County Executive, when every year brought dwindling support. There was hope that the new Executive, Chris Abele, would be kinder to the parks. Apparently not. Immediately below I have paraphrased a letter put out by The Park People. Following that you can read the entire text. I hope you will join me in contacting your county supervisor to urge him/her not to cut the parks budget. Thanks! Eddee
On Sept. 29th County Exec. Abele released his proposed 2012 Milwaukee County budget.  It includes a 3.7 million dollar (14%) reduction in funding for our parks.
The cuts center on costs related to park personnel that total over 2.2 million dollars. All staffing reductions come at the cost of front line positions that provide the end product: safe, clean and presentable parks. 
At this point the budgeting process is in the hands of the Board of Supervisors. The Supervisors have until the first week in November to edit the County Exec's budget, should they choose to do so. In the past the Board often reversed the County Exec's proposed cuts in park funding. However, with an election coming up next April they will need to hear from constituents who express concern about the parks. Here is a link to get information as to who serves you and how to contact them:
It has been obvious to The Park People organization for many years that Milwaukee County, with its myriad economic problems, cannot continue to be counted on to keep our parks viable for the future.  There has been a constant erosion of park funding going on for more than twenty-five years.
The problem with Milwaukee County's handling of park funding can be generally summarized as mishandling. Is this what we, as citizens entrusted with a critical civic asset, would have preferred? We think not.
The time has come to secure a sustainable and responsible funding source for our parks. To do that we need the assistance of the State Legislature. One method that had the support of a few State Legislators two years ago was a half percent raise in the County sales and use tax. A Milwaukee County advisory referendum to do this passed in November of 2008.
Another method would be the creation of a separate Park District. If this were accomplished, the park system would be transferred away from Milwaukee County and placed under an elected, volunteer board of directors. [Urban Wilderness favors this approach.]
Maybe the 2012 park budget, once it manifests itself in even poorer care and maintenance of our parks will foster that discussion.

Full text of The Park People statement:

2012 Milwaukee County Parks Budget Issue - Fall 2011
On Thursday September 29th County Executive Abele released his proposed 2012 Milwaukee County budget.  "As I developed this budget, everything was on the table except a property tax increase and a fixed-route bus fare hike," Abele said during his presentation to the County Board of Supervisors. 
Prior to his release of the budget it was generally assumed that Abele would be kind to the Parks Department in regard to their precarious financial position in the wake of the previous County Exec's seemingly endless downsizing of our storied park system and Abele's well stated respect and admiration for Parks Director Sue Black.  In addition, Sue Black had recently turned down a highly coveted job leading the Chicago Parks District to stay with Milwaukee County and many assumed that Abele would reward Black giving her a budget devoid of any cuts.   Not so.  As it turns out, Abele has proposed a 3.7 million dollar (14%) reduction in property tax funding for our parks in 2012 which lends credence to the old adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same". 
Abele's proposed reduction in property tax support of the parks is made up of true budget cuts and an increase in expected revenue.   The cuts again center on costs related to park personnel which total over 2.2 million dollars.  Extremely troubling is a 30% reduction in seasonal employee staffing ($1,000,000) and the elimination of 15 of the remaining 46 full time front-line Park Maintenance Workers ($470,000). All staffing reductions come at the cost of front line positions that provide the end product: safe, clean and presentable parks.  The remaining cuts, unrelated to personnel, are in the utility budgets (gas and electric) which total a little over $700,000.
The 2012 revenue goal is troubling as well with a total increase of $850,000 for a department that already has an unobtainable revenue target of $17.5 million dollars.  The average revenue actually generated by the parks over the last three years is approximately $16.5 million.  To make budget every one of the last few years the parks department has internally substituted cuts in staffing levels totaling $1 million dollars to bridge the gap between budgeted revenue and actual revenue.
At this point in the County budgeting process the ball is in the court of the County Board of Supervisors.  The Supervisors have until the first week in November to edit the County Exec's budget in a way that they find appealing.  In the past we could count on the Board to reverse many of the County Exec's proposed cuts in park funding.  However, with an election coming up next April for many current Supervisors and significant funding needs in other County service entities such as Transit and Social Services, it is unlikely that there will be any significant budgetary relief offered by the Board to reverse Abele's most egregious park budget reduction proposals for next year.  Of course that does not mean that we, as park loving citizens, shouldn't try to inject our will into the process.  If you want to let your elected officials know what you think about further reductions for our parks you should write or call your County Board Supervisor.  Here is a link to get information as to who serves you and how to contact them:
It has been obvious to The Park People organization for many years that Milwaukee County, with its myriad economic problems, cannot continue to be counted on to keep our parks viable for the future.   Each and every year there seems to be an insurmountable deficit facing Milwaukee County that ultimately affects the Parks Department budget.  As a matter of fact, there has been a constant erosion of park funding going on for more than twenty five years.  The chart below shows in gory detail how property tax funding for our Park System has shriveled over the years.  The property tax for park operations in 1986 (the high water mark for property tax funding) was actually over 5 million dollars more than that provided in 2009.  If one were to factor in inflation over that time period the loss of funding is staggering with a gap of approximately 30 million dollars when adjusted for the consumer price index for that period.
One of the major ramifications of this gap in funding is the loss of front line workers.  In 1986 there were 760 full time park employees.  Today there are approximately 210 and less than half of those are the people working in the field providing the end product. 
The Park Department budget which is its actual spending authority, is made up of not only property tax funding, but revenue as well.  Proceeds from golf courses, marina operations, parking at O'Donnell Park, athletics, building rental fees, picnics, etc., also contribute to the parks spending authority.  The chart below displays total park funding from 1983 to 2009
 Click for link to graph.

If the Park Department budget had remained whole during this period the spending authority would be approximately 88 million dollars in 2009, about twice as much as it actually was, again, shining a light on the County's ability (or intent) to properly fund our parks.
If the County budget as a whole had remained mired in the same malaise as the Park Department budget over time one could understand the park system funding deficit.  That unfortunately, is not true.   Since 1983 the County budget has almost tripled while Park Department funding has basically remained the same.
     Park Budget Comparison to the Overall County Budget (1983 – 2009)
 Click for link to graph.
The whole conundrum of Milwaukee County's handling of park funding over time can be generally summarized as a mishandling.  Is this really what we, as citizens entrusted with a critical civic asset, would have preferred?  Our guess would be no.
The time has come to take matters in hand and work together to secure a sustainable and responsible funding source for our parks, to do that we need the assistance of the State Legislature.  The County is basically a ward of the State and the changes necessary to secure park funding has to come through legislation that the State could provide. 
One method that had the support of a few State Legislators two years ago was a half percent raise in the County sales and use tax.  A bill was drafted that would allow the increase but did not advance because the majority leaders in both the Senate and Assembly blocked a floor discussion that would have been put forward for a vote.  It seems that the majority leaders did not want to allow their fellow legislators to vote on a tax increase even though a Milwaukee County advisory referendum to do such had passed in November of 2008.
In 2007 a bill that would have allowed the creation of Park Districts in Wisconsin did not get a committee assignment in the legislature, a sure fire way to kill a bill.  If a Park District was created in Milwaukee County the park system would be transferred away from Milwaukee County and placed under an elected, volunteer board of directors.  The ability to levy a tax for park purposes would as well be transferred from the County to the elected Park System Board of Directors.  Under this scenario the County would have to reduce its property tax levy by an amount equal to the Park District levy.  In essence, there would be no immediate increase in taxes for the citizens of Milwaukee County.  This would not provide more dollars for park maintenance but it would stabilize funding for our Park System as it would no longer have to compete with other Milwaukee County Departments for precious tax dollars in subsequent years. 
It is likely that other park funding scenarios are possible.   The problem is that there is currently no public discussion of these alternatives.   
Maybe the 2012 park budget, once it manifests itself in even poorer care and maintenance of our parks will foster that discussion.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Love Parks Week

In England a non-profit called GreenSpace, founded in 2006, has created an annual event called Love Parks Week. According to their website, the event "is now established as a major event that is celebrated in parks across the country."

Let's do it here! Milwaukee has one of the premier park systems in the US. Why not celebrate it more? 

Canoeing the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail, Milwaukee River Greenway
This is also from the Love Parks Week website:
Did you know?

  • 91% of people believe that public parks and open spaces improve their quality of life.

  • Over 33 million people in England choose to use their green spaces, with around a tenth of the population visiting daily, and over half of us do so weekly.

  • Air quality, air temperature, water and flood management, are all kept within manageable limits because of parks and green spaces.

  • The more often a person visits urban open green spaces, the less often he or she will report stress-related illnesses.

  • A brisk walk every day in your local park, can reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes and diabetes by 50%, fracture of the femur by 30%, colon cancer by 30%, breast cancer by 30% and Alzheimer's by 25%.

  • Local authorities are not legally required to provide, invest in or maintain public parks and green spaces.

  • I don't know the comparable stats for the US but I'd bet they are similar. 

    I love the parks. I know a lot of other people who do. Milwaukee should get out in front of this one, don't you think?

    Friday, October 7, 2011

    Autumn paints the Urban Wilderness

    It's been a great week in Milwaukee! Here is an offering of autumn color.

    Veteran's Park, Lakefront
    Monarch Trail, Milwaukee County Grounds
    Menomonee River Parkway, Wauwatosa
    Research Park, Wauwatosa
    Research Park, Wauwatosa 

    Monday, October 3, 2011

    Third Urban Ecology Center breaks ground in Menomonee Valley

    UEC director Ken Leinbach
    “Milwaukee is an amazing city!” exclaimed Ken Leinbach, the dynamic and indefatigable director of the Urban Ecology Center (UEC). “When it comes to supporting the work of the center,” he continued, “miracles just seem to come down from the sky!” Then he looked up…leading the crowd also to turn their heads…just in time to see tiny parachutes flutter down bearing seed packets. Children scrambled to scoop them up.

    The occasion was the groundbreaking ceremony last week for the new UEC, its third satellite, which will occupy a soon-to-be renovated 1933 tavern on 37th St. and Pierce in the Menomonee Valley.

    Mayor Barrett plants seeds with a buddy
     At the completion of the ceremony the seeds were planted along the recently completed Valley Passage, adjacent to the center’s site, which leads to the Menomonee River,
    Hank Aaron State Trail, and as-yet-uncompleted 24-acre park. Such notables as Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Parks director Sue Black, and many others bearing trowels, each buddied up with one of the children.

    The emotional intensity of the ceremony was electric. Speakers included board members, CEO’s of Valley businesses, major donors, DNR personnel, and representatives of the Silver City neighborhood where the site is located. Everyone was thrilled to be part of an historic moment. Most moving, I thought, was Michele Bria, CEO of nearby Journey House, who had brought the elementary students. She spoke with unmistakable excitement about the prospect of bringing them all to the new center and being able to visit the new park in their own neighborhood instead of having to ride the bus to Riverside Park.

    Raising trowels in salute for the groundbreaking
    The new branch of the UEC, which is slated to open in fall 2012, would be reason enough to celebrate. However, this is just part of a unique collaborative effort that will do much more than transform the Menomonee Valley, once largely a post-industrial wasteland, into a vital, ecologically significant, culturally rich, and economically powerful part of Milwaukee. It may well spark a revitalization of the entire region.

    For the project, called “Menomonee Valley – From the Ground Up,” the UEC has teamed up with
    Menomonee Valley Partners, a non-profit whose mission is to redevelop the Valley. The project has four components:
    ·      Improving pedestrian/bike access to and from the Valley.
    ·      Doubling the Hank Aaron State Trail with a six-mile western extension.
    ·      Establishing the third branch of the Urban Ecology Center.
    ·      Transforming a 24-acre brownfield into a visionary public park and ecologically significant natural area.

    At Tuesday’s groundbreaking plans for both the UEC branch and the park were unveiled to the public.
    Rendering by Uihlein-Wilson Architects
    The old tavern has been reimagined and enlarged in designs by Uihlein-Wilson Architects with an eye toward sustainability. The rooftop sports an array of solar panels. An exterior stair provides access to a deck from which both the panels and the Valley can be viewed. At 6,000 sq. ft. it is smaller than the UEC flagship in Riverside Park, but will provide similar environmental programming, including community gathering space as well as science-based classrooms. The elegant new building steps down from its perch on Pierce St., visually and symbolically directing attention towards the Valley Passage and the park beyond. A lower level classroom opens directly onto the Passage.

    Within five years the new branch expects 10,000 annual visitors and to provide students in 22 south side schools with environmental stewardship projects, urban recreational adventures, and science education, among other things.

    Site of the new park
    I took the time to walk through the Valley Passage for a peek at the new park.

    Bikers already use the recently erected bridge across the Menomonee River and head west on the Hank Aaron State Trail. Looking east past the temporary gate, however, all I can see are large, featureless piles of dirt. 
    The concept is compelling: to make of this vacant former railroad yard a “touchable ‘wilderness’” with “a mosaic of biodiverse landscapes, including forest, prairie, and ephemeral wetland,” and to evoke topographic formations specific to glaciated Wisconsin. What a refreshing way to conceive of “landscape architecture” – to design a long-abused urban space in such a way that it becomes a healthy, functioning ecosystem, so that it appears un-designed – natural.

    Rendering by Wenk & Associates
    The quality and ecological integrity of the design has already generated national acclaim. The
    American Society of Landscape Architects has granted local designers Landscapes of Place, LLC
    an honor award for their plan, called “Making a Wild Place in Milwaukee’s Urban Menomonee Valley.”

    Before long, guided by Urban Ecology Center staff and volunteers, school children from all over the south side will be roaming the hills, exploring the woods, and discovering the river. Milwaukee is an amazing place! 

    Some additional photos of the event:

    Ken Leinbach juggling trowels!
    Menomonee Valley Partners director Laura Bray with renderings
    Students from Journey House
    Hank Aaron State Trail manager Melissa Cook
    Parks director Sue Black planting with a buddy