Milwaukee River Greenway: A decade later

Conservation overlay legislation was passed on May 25, 2010 by the City of Milwaukee (and the Village of Shorewood prior to that) to protect the Milwaukee River valley, over 800 acres of greenspace just a mile from downtown for all to enjoy. In response to a clear-cut on the river’s edge, a grassroots effort led by RRF, Urban Ecology Center, Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the National Park Service Rivers and Trails began to conserve the viewshed. Milwaukee’s Central Park newspaper was published as a community visioning tool to build engagement and support of this natural resource here in the city.

An excerpt from that publication here:


You walk along the Milwaukee River on a recreational path winding six or so river miles from the city limits at Silver Spring Drive to the harbor at Lake Michigan; a soft pedestrian trail uniting suburban Glendale and Shorewood to their Milwaukee neighbors. This river path then zigzags through Riverwest, along Brewers Hill and the Beer Line B, past Park East through downtown and the Third Ward to the lake front. The cool river water bubbles over the rocks through a protected park bringing our neighborhoods and communities together.

Sheltered above by silver maple, cottonwoods and black willow, you cannot see or hear the activity of the densely developed neighborhoods nearby. What you notice instead are the deep blue spikes of blue vervain against the delicate lavender joe pye weed growing along the riverbanks. Pedestrian bridges unite east and west at North Avenue and at Locust Street, creating a series of loops for runners, hikers, dog-walkers, and commuters. This path is networked to the Oak Leaf Bike Trail and the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail at multiple sites. Landscaped access points that are handicap accessible link the river to urban gardens, parks and city sites.

Finally, you reach the Riverwalk District where views of downtown unfold, a contrast to the upstream wooded stretch. Here you find public access to retail, entertainment, and dining.

You are part of a Milwaukee celebrating its sense of place; a place where fresh water is central to its identity.


This path meanders alongside anglers enjoying the improved water quality and fish habitat, canoers and kayakers exploring the natural beauty around the fast flowing water. You see picnickers along the banks and bikers pausing from an afternoon ride. School children at Riverside Park are taking river samples and delighting in amphibian discoveries. At various sites citizen scientists are monitoring water quality. Increased public access has made the river once again a safe social and recreational gathering place. The greenway restores the river as nature’s gathering place too. This urban corridor is home to the Butler’s gartersnake (a State protected species), the red fox, and white-tailed deer. Overhead a Cooper’s Hawk flies away with a humble vole. A spawning salmon jumps below while migratory birds follow the waterway on a longer commute. You are discovering a shifting natural landscape in the heart of Milwaukee.


This corridor unites the river’s rich working past with its economic, recreational, and sustainable present. Historical markers note former boathouses, tanneries, swimming schools, and resorts with distinctive signage and corridor emblems. Still home to Wisconsin Paperboard and other industries, the river maintains its working character through environmental improvements and management. The city has helped industrial sites employ storm water best-management practices and ensured attractive riverfront facades and landscaped setbacks. Residential property values have increased and nearby retail districts are booming as people come to enjoy this lively corridor.

The river corridor is the backbone for our city’s green infrastructure as we move into the 21st century. Just as our sewers, roads, and buildings enliven modern life and commerce, we now see that green parks, gardens, and waterways must equally sustain our urban life. We nurture this urban wilderness and its connection to our spirit. It is a magnificent place of beauty and refuge in the heart of Milwaukee.

From Imagination to Reality

We can imagine our Milwaukee River always remaining like this. Making our imaginings come true and stay true into the future is going to take planning and work. This paper offers ideas on how we can make our imaginings come true.

Through implementation of a Greenway Master Plan, much has been accomplished in the 10 years since this paper was published and is a community amenity that is embraced and cherished by all who live here. Our hope is to continue this effort as a collective voice to ensure this remains a healthy, sustainable, accessible and inviting place for all who live here, including the critters!

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