People enjoy spending time near pristine water bodies. Lakes, rivers, and the oceans can provide scenic views, recreation, and a sense of peace, wonder, and possibility. Cities can create infrastructure to sustain and restore natural water bodies while increasing community access to these assets. Cities that embrace their natural amenities or enhance them with art embody their culture, residents, and history. Natural amenities and art can be powerful educational tools, inspiring citizens to appreciate and connect with their city, stimulating creativity in work and schools, influencing the city’s future.
Settled on the shores of Lake Michigan, at the confluence of three rivers, Milwaukee’s unique environment and water source has shaped its culture, residents, and history. Historically industrial, Milwaukee is now using its water source to position itself as an American Fresh Coast City. The stunning lakeshore beaches, impressive inner harbor, and miles of river that wind through the city have attracted residents and visitors to gather by the water.
Providing environmental education to K-12 schools has increased in recent years with the help of the Wisconsin Green & Healthy Schools program. This program, administered through a partnership between the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Public Instruction, and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education, provides information, resources, and announcements for all school staff, community members, and others interested in green and healthy initiatives and activities for Wisconsin schools. This unique program supports and encourages schools to prepare students to understand, analyze, and address major environmental and sustainability challenges now and in the future.1
The Green Schools Consortium of Milwaukee (GSCM), administrated by ReFlo, is an association of green infrastructure practitioners, agencies, and foundations. The consortium shares resources and works together to develop green infrastructure projects and educational opportunities for schools and the community. Their mission is to promote green infrastructure in projects in Milwaukee area schools that result in improved environmental outcomes and greater eco-literacy among students, families, educators, and community members.
The GSCM is also part of the Milwaukee Water Partners, a partnership of over twenty organizations that collaborated in creating the Freshwater Toolkit. The toolkit includes a collection of lesson plans and activities that educate students about water, which educators can download for free and use to help students meet multiple state educational standards.
Milwaukee Water Commons Public Education
Milwaukee Water Commons - a cross-city network that fosters connection, collaboration and broad community leadership on behalf of Milwaukee’s water - educates residents using community outreach and art. Working closely with residents, the Milwaukee Water Commons uses art as a way to connect people to water and foster environmental stewards to help protect our common waters.
Milwaukee Water Commons also extends their outreach throughout Milwaukee by facilitating community mural paintings, recycled sculptures, and other art installations and educational tools such as the Watershed Wagon, Water Cycle, and Mobile Filter Sink. Frequently seen alongside Milwaukee’s scenic waterways, farmers markets, and community events, their unique traveling interactive displays educate Milwaukee residents and visitors about water.
Continuing to reconnect residents to Milwaukee’s fresh coast, an enormous effort is underway to transform Milwaukee’s inner harbor into a vibrant and productive waterfront that strengthens the community and regional economy. In partnership with many organizations, particularly, the non-profit Harbor District Incorporated, huge strides have been taken to turn the harbor into a center of prosperity and enjoyment for Milwaukee residents. The innovate projects of Harbor District Incorporated, such as Take Me to the River and Slosh Park, are making successful progress to gather residents by the water.
Access to Milwaukee’s three rivers - Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic - has started to be reclaimed with the help of Milwaukee’s stunning Riverwalk. Instead of a collision between the built and natural environments, the Riverwalk combines nature with the historic city. While strolling along the river you will pass historic bridges and Milwaukee’s Art Walk, an outdoor art gallery that includes both permanent pieces, such as “Gertie the Duck” and “The Bronze Fonz”, and temporary installations that change periodically. Plans are in place to extend the Riverwalk south from the inner harbor to Bayview. Incorporating the rivers into city life celebrates Milwaukee’s culture and has created unique restaurants, bars, parks, and other entertainment spaces for residents to gather.
Milwaukee’s connection to the water runs deep. Named by Native Americans as “gathering place” by the water, the City of Milwaukee encourages residents and visitors to gather by the water in more ways than only on land. The rivers are lined with public docks ensuring residents and visitors alike access to the rivers and Lake. The city offers boat cruises, kayak and stand up paddle board rentals, and a variety of urban kayak trails. For more information pertaining to Milwaukee’s water access, visit visitmilwaukee.org. The Milwaukee Urban Water Trail map includes access points, portages, hazards, and resting sites (e.g. sites accessed only from the water), and also includes information on historic, cultural, ecological, or scenic points of interest along the way.
Milwaukee has worked diligently to restore a once underutilized beach, to one of America’s top urban beaches. Bradford Beach is now a gathering place for the entire community and is considered an asset and source of pride by everyone. Offering everything from tiki huts and cabanas to 35 sand volleyball courts for over 500 summer league teams, residents can now enjoy the fresh water and soft golden sand.
Work to be Done
Milwaukee’s use of public art to connect residents with their culture, history, and water is progressing in a big way. Recent art installations such as the Coakley Water Tower and Sculpture Milwaukee - and future installations such as the planned Lakefront Gateway Plaza - are beacons for creativity and future growth.