Milwaukee River Greenway: A Community Input Success Story

May 28, 2020

For many people, the outdoors has become a precious oasis — maybe now more than ever before. One spot that hikers gravitate toward would have been unthinkable and largely inaccessible just a decade ago: the Milwaukee River Greenway.

It forms a ribbon of 878 acres stretching from Glendale to the edge of downtown Milwaukee, much of it parkland. Milwaukee-native Kathy Mooney recalls forbidding parcels before the Greenway was established.

"I never hardly saw that river because it was not accessible to see and this was considered a taboo park, and now I have total access to it,” Mooney says.

Early mornings, Mooney and her husband Mike walk Greenway trails within Riverside Park, just south of Locust Street, and along the adjacent Rotary Centennial Arboretum. Both are situated below the Urban Ecology Center.

READ: New Arboretum Along Milwaukee River Takes Root

The Milwaukee River Greenway encompasses 878 acres along the river along its path to downtown Milwaukee.
Credit Milwaukee River Greenway

Its executive director, Ken Leinbach, was an early greenway visionary who saw the park and arboretum as pieces of 12-mile of trails looping upstream to Silver Spring Drive and downstream to the former North Avenue dam.

“There wasn’t access and it wasn’t even legal to walk in many places because it was privately owned. All of that has shifted thanks to the Milwaukee River Greenway coalition — that made it all happen,” Leinbach says.

Scientist Cary Casper approached the greenway mission from a wildlife habitat point of view. His two years of surveying uncovered snakes, frogs, and turtles.

"There’s like five species of turtles, which surprised me, but what we don’t know is where they’re breeding, where they’re nesting,” Casper explains.

READ: Weighing In On The Evolving Milwaukee River Greenway

But the coalition’s fight to create the Greenway wasn’t fueled by where turtles were nesting, but rather by a single event back in 2008.

"A private landowner clear-cut 1,200 feet of frontage. That was the catalyst,” says Kimberly Gleffe, who heads the River Revitalization Foundation.

Seventy percent of the land along the Milwaukee River from Glendale to the edge of Milwaukee's downtown belongs to the Milwaukee County Parks system. But the coalition wanted to make sure 100% was protected in some way.

River Revitalization Foundation's Kimberly Gleffe and Milwaukee Alderman Nik Kovac upstream in Glendale. Several businesses recently there have signed easements to increase Greenway access.
Credit Susan Bence

It took time, but eventually, the city of Milwaukee passed protective legislation, which includes no clear-cutting unless other trees will replace those removed. It also requires that any new construction must incorporate stormwater management, so less ends up in the river.

The ordinances passed exactly 10 years ago when Alderman Nik Kovac was brand new to the Milwaukee Common Council. His district is one of three bordering the Milwaukee River. Kovac says it was clear his constituents wanted to protect the resource.

"There definitely was some debate internally with the department of city development. They were pushing back pretty hard, but we had so many meetings and so much public goodwill and consensus that we sort of shamed them into not objecting in the end,” Kovac recalls.

Ann Brummitt walked into the coalition as a French teacher who just wanted to help out. But when grant money flowed in, Brummitt was hired to coordinate the effort.

"The zoning stuff bubbled up pretty quickly and it was pretty daunting. There were so many property owners and so many parcels, and the idea of the viewshed,” Brummitt says.

Ann Brummitt stands near the furthest point downstream of the Milwaukee River Greenway.
Credit Susan Bence

Brummitt says the coalition wanted paddlers to feel like they’re in the middle of a wilderness, not a city.

"You look up and you see trees, not buildings,” Brummitt says.

Brummitt still seems amazed that the coalition pulled off its quest.

Easements have made a number of private parcels accessible to trails and upstream within the greenway. Shorewood has protected its river valley, while Glendale passed a resolution that could pave the way to additional fiverfront trails.

Brummitt believes in order to keep the Milwaukee River Greenway flowing, the public must continue to be engaged.

"Thank heavens we have the people. We have been passionate and have been able to do these things for the last couple of decades, but I think going forward, we need everybody in,” Brummitt says.

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