Friday, May 11, 2012

Urban Wilderness and Accessibility

“This game of preserving, managing, [and] restoring … very public green space in our fair city is not a game for sissies.” – Ken Leinbach

New Cambridge Woods trail
Ken, Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center, made this thoughtfully provocative statement in an email response to concerns that recently were voiced about a new wheelchair accessible trail being constructed in Cambridge Woods.

A healthy patch of trillium
My fondness for Cambridge Woods, a strip of riparian parkland along a stretch of the Milwaukee River north of Locust Street, goes back more than twenty-five years. I lived a block away. Nearby Riverside Park, once one of the Olmsted-designed jewels in the Milwaukee Park System’s emerald necklace, had gone feral and was considered unsafe. Few people ventured there.

Retaining wall collapse
I still remember “discovering” the path north from Riverside, between the water and the Oak Leaf Trail, which was still called the “76 Bike Trail” back then. Mountain biking was not yet popular and a well-used but narrow dirt path led past prodigious CCC-era retaining walls, up and down surprisingly rugged terrain, through tall stands of hardwoods and thickets of mostly native shrubbery.

Banzai blocked with logs and brush
Near the end of Cambridge Avenue a wide ravine had become a defacto banzai half-pipe for kids on short trick bikes. Ropes strung from trees enabled them to swing out across the intervening space. Unpoliced, the slopes were pounded bare and eroded.

Together Riverside Park and Cambridge Woods lent several meanings to the term urban wilderness, mostly dark connotations indicative of places civilization has either fouled or neglected.

Much has changed since then.

A healthy patch of May apples
In 1991 the Urban Ecology Center established an outpost in Riverside Park. Long story short, over time the Center and its programs grew; the park was transformed once again, this time into an inviting natural area and outdoor classroom and laboratory. It also was made accessible to a public that had long since learned to shun it.

Natural areas as significant as the Milwaukee River Greenway, as it has come to be known, are magnets for diverse activities. This is particularly true in cities where relative scarcity creates high expectations. Accessibility means different things to different people – and inevitably leads to conflicting demands. The drug dealers that made the parks unsafe have largely moved on, but taggers continue to spray paint colorful graffiti under bridges and along decaying foundation walls. Hikers must stand aside as mountain bikers blaze past. Their wide treads have expanded and muddied once narrow paths, gouged the rugged slopes, and exposed tree roots. Anglers who wade into the river shallows also must contend with a growing contingent of canoes and kayaks as more and more people discover the Federally designated Urban Water Trail.

Wild geraniums
As new appreciation for urban wilderness grows some of the conflicts that arise – ironically – are amongst the very people who most care about the land. Now a new controversy has erupted over the new trail being constructed in Cambridge Woods. Accessibility is the heart of the brouhaha.

New trail construction
On the one hand, the dirt track is being widened and paved with gravel. Trees have been cut, hills and curves straightened. Some have complained that the “wilderness experience” is being “ruined.” If I didn’t know the feeling myself, I would find it amazing: That we have a constituency who feel that a wilderness experience is possible in the most densely populated zip code in the state must be some kind of miracle!

Endangered red trillium
But the new trail not only will provide access for disabled people; it is more inviting to many who would not otherwise enjoy the beautiful woods. The beauty of this place is not in fact a miracle or illusion but part of a deliberate management plan. As Ann Brummitt, director of the Milwaukee Greenway Coalition, put it, “Cambridge Woods is home to the greatest biodiversity in the Greenway. It has an extraordinary array of plants.”

Invasive garlic mustard
It doesn’t take a long walk to recognize the threat that invasives like garlic mustard pose to that diversity. The new trail is not being constructed in isolation; it is one element in a comprehensive restoration project that will close opportunistic trails that cause erosion and protect native plant species. And the contractor, Marek Landscaping, which specializes in native landscaping, is doing the work with integrity. At one point I asked the crew what a deep pit next to the trail was for and the reply was “a living retaining wall.” Sounds better than concrete to me. I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

May apple, worm's eye view
The accessibility conundrum and controversy is hardly unique to this area. National Parks and natural areas in far less populated places face the same concern. Ken Leinbach admits, “The Urban Ecology Center can be seen as a culprit here as we are now bringing tens of thousands of visitors to the area.” Then he continues, “This game of preserving, managing, [and] restoring … very public green space in our fair city is not a game for sissies. Trying to accommodate one user often alienates another.” I personally will never fault the Urban Ecology Center for pacifying what once was a demonstrably dangerous urban wilderness.

Leinbach, Brummitt, and many others who help manage and protect the Greenway understand very well that “improvements” can go only so far without destroying the essence of what makes it unique and marvelous.

Riverside Park trail, bird's eye view
During the leisurely walk when I made the photographs that accompany this story I met a man in the company of four large furry dogs along the newly graveled trail. I asked what he thought about it. With a reflective demeanor he considered for a moment, clearly torn. Then he said, “I was disappointed when they did this in Riverside Park, but now that things have grown back, it seems fine. I've gotten used to it.”

A healthy patch of wood anemone
Like nearly everyone I’ve heard on the issue, I would prefer the old dirt path. Unlike most, I mean the old old dirt path: before the explosion of activity, the mountain bikes, and the increased erosion. But the increase in usage is a double-edged sword. Greater access has already created the constituency that has made protection of the Greenway a reality. Well managed, the urban wilderness is resilient.

I agree with critics who insist that some sections of the riparian trail system ought to be left as "wild" as possible. Some trails should be reserved for foot traffic alone. How fortunate we are that the Milwaukee River Greenway is large enough to provide such a choice.

Choke cherry blossom
Buddhism teaches us to be mindful of the “true nature” of things and people. We are remarkably blessed to have urban parks like Cambridge Woods and the Greenway. Unfortunately, much as it pains me to confess it, they will never be wilderness in the literal meaning of the word. But if we walk there in wonder, with our senses awake to the vitality, we will know its true nature and be comforted.

The Greenway with Cambridge Woods on the right


  1. thoughtful post eddee. thanks. Ann Brummitt MRGC

  2. you make it sound as if any activity other than walking through the woods on a paved trail is bad. Hikers souldnt have to yield to anyone any more than the anglers need to watch out for boaters. These areas are here for EVERY ONE to use and we all need to realize that there are others to consider when we use theses lands. I feel that it is a miracle that we have that little slice of heaven down there and we need to do all we can do to keep it and make it for ALL to enjoy. To not consider all user groups when "re-designing" nature is pretty close to discrimination.

  3. I meant to be inclusive as you suggest. In fact I tried to make that a major theme. If it sounds otherwise, it is unintended.