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|
|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|
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|
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.
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.
|Alice’s Garden, located in Johnson’s Park|
|Hydroponics lab at Growing Power|
|Will Allen with three young apprentice farmers|
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|
|Kinnickinnic River channel|
|Restored section of Kinnickinnic River|
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|
|Milwaukee Water Commons' water celebration at Bradford Beach|
|McKinley Beach and a view of downtown Milwaukee at sunrise|
|Kevin Shafer at the site of a restored section of the Kinnickinnic River|
|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.