Adapted from a talk at the annual Earth Day celebration sponsored by the Great Waters Group of the Sierra Club.
When I decided in 1999 to name my book Urban Wilderness, I had never heard the term. I thought I’d found a new, wonderfully paradoxical metaphor for the powerful experiences I’d had in Milwaukee. I found out later that someone else had a book so named back in the 1980’s about New York City’s parks, but the term certainly was not in common usage. Today, it’s a different story. Google alerts me whenever someone in cyberspace uses the term and it happens a couple times a week. I think it is an indication of how far we’ve come since 1999.
|Fallen giant - Riverside Park|
This may not seem like a radical notion. After all, the Sierra Club has been caring for the earth for over a hundred years. But during most of that time “nature” meant pristine parklands, usually far away and in need of protection from ourselves. Truly more radical, “urban wilderness” expresses the idea that we can enjoy valuable experiences with nature without leaving the city. Olmsted conceived something like it, to be sure, but the casual way the term is used today seems a recent shift in public awareness.
|County Grounds Park|
I believe “urban wilderness” is a hopeful idea. But it is also a challenging one. Its central paradox is that urban natural areas are not natural. Their existence depends on deliberate decision-making, planning, and – yes – management. Wherever there is open space there will be pressure to take advantage of it. Conflicts often arise out of genuine needs that seem to be in opposition.
|Underwood Creek Parkway|
Another example is the Milwaukee County Grounds, where most of the land once considered for economic development has been preserved as open green space. But after more than ten years of public pressure to “preserve the County Grounds,” and after many compromises were reached, one of the most beautiful sections of this remarkable landscape remains unprotected and zoned for economic development.
Managing an “urban wilderness” involves balancing myriad competing interests that rarely can be conveniently dismissed as a struggle for good versus evil. To paraphrase Ken Leinbach, director of the Urban Ecology Center, “this game of preserving, managing, and restoring very public green space in our fair city is not a game for the faint-hearted. Trying to accommodate one user often alienates another.” Avoiding the polarization that is so commonplace today is hard work – but essential if we are to maximize the potential of our urban green spaces.
It makes good economic sense to preserve green space in cities where, to be physically and psychologically healthy, people need access to nature. The evidence for this is well documented. All across the nation, civic and business leaders, and the general public, are beginning to promote healthy, sustainable urban environments that include natural areas. As Peter Harnik, author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities, wrote, “Cities are vying with one another for ‘best park system’ and the ‘livability crown.’” I’ve long thought Milwaukee could be a contender. Instead, parks budgets continue to dwindle and shortsighted land-use policies prevail.
We must always keep the big picture in mind. Many ingredients make up resilient, sustainable, and livable cities, including a vibrant economy. One of the most important ingredients is excellent parks and natural areas. We residents of Milwaukee County have been endowed with one of the nation’s best park systems. Instead of continuing to nibble away at our greatest asset, it’s time we recognize and promote their vitality. Let’s embrace nature and confront the challenges with the hope embodied in the idea of urban wilderness.
|Milwaukee River Greenway|