The Milwaukee River Greenway: A Wealth of Nature in the Heart of the City

The Milwaukee River Greenway: A Wealth of Nature in the Heart of the City

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Author and Editor: Eddee Daniel

Publisher: River Revitalization Project (2021)

The city of Milwaukee owes its existence to its rivers. Indigenous villages gathered on the bluffs surrounding the bountiful estuary. Although the harbor, which gave access to Lake Michigan and points east, was the initial draw for Europeans, the budding settler community likewise faced inland, embracing the rivers that fed into it. A mighty industrial city grew around the confluence of the Menomonee River, the Kinnickinnic River, and the city's namesake, the Milwaukee River. The downtown banks of these rivers were quickly enveloped in factories, businesses, and, eventually, tall buildings. Like cities throughout the country, Milwaukee expanded outward from this center at a steady pace; dense urban neighborhoods organized within a typical grid of city streets—except for one unique feature … Slicing an organic swath through this orderly urban geometry, a ribbon of green space follows a river. Thanks to the enlightened leadership of Charles B. Whitnall and others in the early twentieth century, Milwaukee established a remarkable and enviable park system, organized primarily along its waterways. These parks were not conceived as separate, isolated places but as a beautiful necklace of interlinked spaces that transcended individual municipalities.

One of the jewels of this "emerald necklace" has always been the "upper river," or what is now officially called the Milwaukee River Greenway. The Greenway is an eight-mile, 878-acre section of the Milwaukee River that begins at the former North Avenue Dam and ends at Silver Spring Drive, cutting through the northeast side of the city and the suburbs of Shorewood and Glendale. The Greenway is wide and expansive at its northern end, narrowing at its southern end to a steep-walled valley, which together provide a unique natural setting surrounded by compact, densely populated neighborhoods. Few cities in the nation—or even in the world—can boast of such a wealth of nature, comprised of wetlands, woodlands, and deep river valley, in such close proximity to its urban core. In what other city can you step off the street grid directly into a river valley where you are literally immersed in nature, with few cues to remind you of the urban surroundings you just left? A place where you can imagine yourself far, far away. Almost as if you've walked through the back of a wardrobe into Narnia. We can do that here. In a place recognized for exceptional ecological habitats, diverse flora and fauna, and great places to relax and enjoy the out-of-doors—all without leaving the city. In this place, nature, plants, and animals can be experienced and appreciated. You can walk through upland forest and lowland forest, each with distinctive environments.

Just as the Greenway itself weaves together disparate places into a unified landscape, this book attempts to assemble myriad images and voices into a harmonious acclamation of it. Numerous contributors collaborated on it, from sponsoring organizations led by River Revitalization Foundation to writers and photographers and storytellers, including the community voices throughout these pages who represent many backgrounds and bring diverse perspectives to the singular objective of celebrating this remarkable place. The images and stories in this book testify to the natural beauty that can be found near at hand and the value that our community places on this extraordinary space. Travel down the river with the many contributors in the pages that follow and listen to their voices as they extol its virtues, lament its travails, honor its resilience, and express gratitude for the hope it engenders.