Fox River Hills? Oshkosh Through the Lens of Milwaukee Parks

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This is one of a series of columns that applies observations from other places to life in Oshkosh.

My family and I are one month into our year-long Milwaukee adventure and have been enjoying visiting some of its many wonderful parks.

Among other things, we have visited the three Milwaukee parks designed by the famed Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City.

Lake Park sprawls along the cliffs above Lake Michigan on the city’s east side. At 138 acres, it was built in stages in the mid-late-1890s and remains the closest of the three to Olmsted’s original vision of a beautiful, natural, and restorative park. North Point Lighthouse (which goes back to 1854), Bradford Beach, a par-three golf course, and even Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro are all within its boundaries or contiguous to it. A highlight is a trail that travels down a steep crevasse to the lake front below.

Not far to the west is Riverside Park, the second Olmsted park that was also designed in the 1890s. In its heyday, the 25-acre park was one of the premier recreation spots in the city, where Milwaukeeans would gather to picnic, canoe, and swim in the Milwaukee River. After the river was dammed, creating a polluted cess pool, Riverside Park deteriorated. By 1991, the park had essentially been abandoned. That year, Urban Ecology Center (UEC) began operations as the steward of the park.  As summarized by “Leave No Child Inside” guru Richard Louv, 

When this Milwaukee park was established it was a tree-lined valley, with a waterfall, a hill for sledding, and places for skating and swimming, fishing and boating. But when adjacent Riverside High School was expanded in the 1970s, some of the topography was flattened to create sports fields. Industrial and other pollution made the river unfit for human contact, park maintenance declined, and crime became a problem. Then, in the early 1990s, something remarkable happened. A retired biophysicist started a small outdoor-education program in the abandoned park. A dam on the river was removed in 1997, and natural water flow flushed out contaminants. Following a well-established pattern, crime decreased as more people used the park.

UEC has since built one of the greenest buildings in the state and annually provides ecological education to more than 77,000 local students and residents at its three locations, protects and restores urban green spaces in Milwaukee, and serves as a neighborhood center where people can hang out, borrow canoes and other recreational gear for use in the now-inviting park, use musical equipment, and hold events, creating a national model.

The second UEC location and third Olmsted park is Washington. We live just one block south of this wonderful park, so have spent a lot of time there so far, mostly at the great, no-frills, old school municipal swimming pool where we have season passes. Begun as West Park in 1891, the 128.5-acre park includes the busiest of the three UEC locations in terms of student field trips. UEC is housed in a refurbished county boathouse that sits along a pond designed by Olmsted. A series of interesting, eco-themed mini-playgrounds is found along of the meandering paths (an Olmsted signature) and under the mature oaks and other species found throughout the park.

Follow some of those trails up and over the hills on its west side and one will arrive at the bandshell, a beautiful, whitewashed structure with room for about 10,000 spectators that was originally called the Blatz Temple of Music. It has been renovated and revived in recent years. The Temple is used in particular for a free Wednesday evening music series in the summer, which features a diverse array of food trucks and other vendors, high-quality performances (e.g., tonight I’m going to see Reyna open for Collections of Colonies of Bees), and area residents of a variety of backgrounds, who sprawl out with food and drinks on blankets or in camping chairs on the lawn, or take in the show from the original benches. I was fortunate enough to arrive for one of the concerts early enough to not only learn from a volunteer what I needed to do to change my voter registration to my new ward in Milwaukee, but also to join a walking tour of the park. On the walk I learned more about Olmsted and his rationale for various elements found there, such as getting most of the direction for park design straight from nature itself, and leading people to experience not only vistas but also the feeling of getting lost, even right in the midst of the city (two people on the walking tour admitted that this had happened to them in Washington Park).

On the north side of Washington Park is a larger playground and a number of soccer fields, and across the street is a cozy local library branch on Sherman Boulevard. Following Sherman north, one will travel through blocks of stately historic residences and one of the largest concentrations of Orthodox Jews in Milwaukee. One will also traverse the Sherman Park area that was the site of social turmoil following the police shooting of Sylville Smith in 2016, but will soon be home to Sherman Phoenix, which will “offer high-quality space for small businesses-of-color offering diverse foods, wellness services and cultural activities”, with 20 tenants already on board, in the revitalized space of a former BMO Harris Bank building that was fire-damaged during the unrest. Continue north for a total of 5 miles to reach Havenwoods, Wisconsin’s only urban state forest and a great place to experience some wildness in the midst of the city, some of which (a Butler’s gartersnake crossing the trail) caused my daughters to freak on our first visit.

The third and newest UEC location (christened in 2012) is located not far from Washington Park, south of I-94 and Miller Park, near another of Milwaukee’s three rivers in the Menomonee Valley, an industrial zone undergoing an economic and ecological revival. The UEC’s refurbished former tavern is now a model in green building options on the south side. It was closed the day we went to check it out, but we were able to walk a portion of the 2-mile hiking loop along the river, first passing the colorful murals featuring the diversity of people and wildlife that occupy this area historically and today, amidst the rolling hills covered with native plants, past the 42 raised-bed community garden plots, and across two of three pedestrian/bike bridges that give this new, 24-acre park its name. It’s quite the manufactured urban oasis, but many of the thousands of people who drive across the 27th and 35th street bridges each day are likely unaware that it’s there, offering respite and connection to both the natural world and their neighbors. The idea behind the park is also explicitly economic, as it is meant to encourage people to walk or bike to work and encourage more companies to locate in this revitalizing area.

Other Milwaukee highlights include having a campfire and several great hikes and trail jogs at Hawthorn Glen, a hilly patch of woods and recreational amenities located near us on the border with Wauwatosa that is an outdoor education center owned by Milwaukee Public Schools. I’ve also disc golfed numerous times at Dineen Park, a nice urban course where most of the time I’m the only one playing; I’m guessing this is because disc golf sadly remains largely a white person’s sport, and on the north side of a city ranked as one of the nation’s most segregated…well, you do the math.

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A recurring theme in my experience with these parks is hills.

Some, like Lake, Riverside, and Washington parks and Hawthorn Glen are naturally hilly, the products of glaciation and erosion from the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers or Lake Michigan over the millennia.

Looking at Oshkosh through the lens of Milwaukee parks, though, I’m more interested in features that are directly applicable to Sawdust City: hills that have been built as part of landscape restoration efforts. Two examples stand out.

At Riverside Park, the UEC and its partners recently created the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum. This 40-acre “living museum of trees” features samples of 70 trees indigenous to Southeastern Wisconsin as an extension of Riverside Park, whose woods contained 27 different tree species prior to the new development. The arboretum provides numerous benefits, such as expanding the outdoor classroom area for the UEC, creating a site for ecological research, reducing storm water runoff and thereby improving water quality in the Milwaukee River, enhancing the diversity of native plant species, and improving access to the river for local people.

In the process of building the arboretum (pictured below), the UEC placed tons of clean soil over the top of a polluted area, to help remediate it. They then sculpted the soil into hills, planted on them the trees and other native plants that help the land recover, while reducing erosion and runoff, creating new habitat for birds and insects, and providing beauty in what had been disregarded space. Given the UEC’s educational and recreational mission and Olmsted’s legacy in that area, trails were built to meander over, around, and between hills, leading to attractive vistas and linkages to the riverbank and more mature forest of the park. Indeed, this innovative park space is part of something bigger, being located along the southern portion of Milwaukee’s 800-acre Milwaukee River Greenway, with its paths directly connected to the Oak Leaf Trail, a 120-mile rail-to-trail through the metro area.

The second example is from Three Bridges Park, whose similarly-manufactured hills provide new spaces through which Milwaukeeans can meander, refresh themselves, and access the river, and whose peaks provide views not only of the amazing reclamation and restoration success story below them but also of Milwaukee’s skyline. Such hills help to create a unique landscape that offers new ecological and social possibilities, and enlivens human curiosity. According to the biophilia hypothesis, we have a hardwired connection to nature and should feel an intrinsic pull to see what is around the bend or over the hill, and when we follow that urge, we are rewarded. As John Muir said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than one seeks.” Again, Three Bridges doesn’t exist in isolation and is not only an extension of the the Menomonee Valley UEC, but also forms part of the Hank Aaron State Trail, which covers 12 miles and connects people to Miller Park and beyond.

As I have written about previously, there is a precedent in Oshkosh for creating new, hilly landforms for similar reasons, the large, wildflower-covered berms on the northern edge of County Park being a prime example. My particular vision for this area is to utilize the concept to make the ever-improving Oshkosh Riverwalk–and its connection to the rail-to-trail Wiowash, which one can follow for 22 miles north to Hortonville–even better.

The Oshkosh Riverwalk seems to be successful so far, in terms of improving the aesthetics of the area, increasing accessibility to the river, and encouraging recreation and related economic and housing development. The inclusion of some interpretive signage about the history of the area and utilization of the former arch from the nearby railroad bridge are nice touches. The path functions to connect people not only to the water, and people on water to downtown Oshkosh, but it also facilitates movement of people to the various small parks along it, such as Leach Amphitheater, Riverside Park, William Steiger Park, and Pioneer Drive Park, and to downtown shopping, employment, and entertainment districts. Much of this is quite consistent with tenets of creative placemaking and new urbanism, the latter of which has been the worthy recipient of criticism (which I’ll elaborate upon in my next column) but stands for laudable urban planning principles such as walkability, greater density of land use, and sustainable design. Personally, I love being able to bike from the Menominee South Neighborhood on Oshkosh’s east side to Sage Hall at UWO, traveling largely on the Riverwalk/Wiowash.

In addition to the need for enhanced walkability at points where the path intersects Main, Jackson, and Wisconsin streets, what I have observed to be lacking from the plans for and execution of the Riverwalk is the inclusion of additional natural and park spaces (though the in-progress area on the south side offers promise). The enhanced connectivity caused by the improvement of the “interstitial spaces” between the parks and attractions of the area is undoubtedly positive, and may be hinting at the emergence of a larger greenway.

But while we have some great parks, we are a city with below-average parkland acreage per capita, which is a shame given all of the water and natural amenities found here. Twelve miles of shoreline were owned and maintained by the city prior to the sale of a portion of it to Oshkosh Corp. for its new headquarters earlier this year, according to the 2011 Oshkosh Comprehensive Park Plan. We lost parkland in this deal, but perhaps a portion of the planned park space at the site of the former Lakeshore Golf Course can be reimagined along the lines of the hills at Riverside and Menominee Valley in Milwaukee. In any case, the plan calls for connecting “local trails to regional trail systems,” so plans for a trail through this area that would connect to the Wiowash would be on the mark.

Back to the Riverwalk area, the park plan calls for budgets that “allow for future park land acquisition and future park facility development” and securing “additional lands along environmental corridors to ensure public control.” With redevelopment lagging on certain parcels of the Riverwalk area–in part, perhaps, due to their status as contaminated former industrial brownfields, of which there over 200 in Oshkosh’s central city, and particularly the riverfront area–establishing additional mini-parks or small neighborhood parks could greatly enhance the public spaces of the Riverwalk and be the catalyst for further economic and housing development, as new park space has proven to be across the U.S.

A vacant riverfront parcel such as the one between Jackson St. and the relatively new Anthem apartments on Marion Road, for example, seems like an ideal spot for some creative placemaking, a potential green oasis in a relative sea of central city concrete.

My particular idea for the space is to create rolling hills a la the UEC arboretum and Three Bridges Park, cover them with native plants and trees, and build trails to meander in, over, and around them, with vista points to take in the surrounding water and city.

In addition, however, with a golden wand I would strategically place public art installations created by area artists throughout the park, and incorporate a covered stage for small-scale performances of various kinds. These features would add exciting dimensions—akin to those of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and Chicago’s Millennium Park (home to “The Bean“)—to the ecologically-restorative and landscape-transforming hills. I predict that a project like this would become a major draw to the Riverwalk and downtown Oshkosh and enhance the already relatively successful public spaces found there.

When the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden was overhauled and expanded a couple years ago, for example, 150,000 people visited in the first month alone. Such projects would entail significant investment, of course, in a period of fiscal austerity for most public entities, but the return could be substantial. With millions of visitors each year, Millennium Park is now estimated to be the Midwest’s most popular attraction. This free park, home to The Bean and event programming throughout the year, was created via a $500 million investment. It was projected, however, to produce $2.6 billion in visitor spending and $1.4 billion in additional value to adjacent real estate in its first ten years. Rather than the dollar amounts, the multiplier effects (leverage ratios of more than 5:1 and nearly 3:1) should be noted.

Further, as argued by the Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail, which features numerous murals and other works of art, “Public art invigorates public spaces and helps to engage the community. It draws people onto the Trail, creates a recognizable identity, and links the landscape to the history, architecture, and social fabric of Milwaukee. Art can be used to tell our story, honor our history, or explain an environmental concept in a creative and engaging way. It can create a more inviting space.” They also note that, “Turning the former brownfields into greenspaces has created plentiful opportunities for recreation and exercise, improved stormwater management and air quality, and quality habitat for plants and animals.” 

Oshkosh is not Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or Chicago and probably does not have the space or capital to develop projects on the scale of these examples. But, we can and should learn from them as we continue to work on making this a truly great city in which to live. Creative placemaking via ecological restoration, greenspace development, and public art may be a winning combination for Oshkosh. If enough imagination and engagement on the part of its people were to emerge behind such a concept, the resources would likely follow.

 

Photos:

Featured image of hills at Three Bridges Park: Marek Landscaping (http://mareklandscaping.com/project/three-bridges-park-hank-aaron-state-trail-natural-area-project/)

“Oshkosh Through the Lens of…” logo: Created by author with images from Wikimedia Commons

Valley Passage: Hank Aaron State Trail (https://www.hankaaronstatetrail.org/art-on-the-trail/)

Urban Ecology Center Arboretum: Urban Ecology Center (https://urbanecologycenter.org/our-branches/rotary-centennial-arboretum.html)

Oshkosh riverfront: Google Maps (https://www.google.com/maps/place/Becket’s/@44.0158974,-88.5418339,284m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x4c72ac4ad7d647c0!8m2!3d44.0155418!4d-88.5418134)

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About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.

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