Urban Park Designed to Blend Exploration and Education

Aug 30, 2012

Crowd pitched in to help build path Thursday at Menomonee Valley ground building celebration.
Credit Troy Freund

The first step in creating a combination urban park - science classroom in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley took place Thursday.

Shovels will meet the dirt on property that once was a rail yard, and later became a dumping ground.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence learned a great deal of groundwork has gone into the multimillion dollar project, as partners work to blend exploration and education.

Some people HAVE discovered the Menomonee Valley.

Employees from nearby businesses – such as Derse and Ingeteam – that have contributed to the valley’s economic rebirth – take to paths during lunch breaks.

Neighborhood kids, savoring the last days of freedom before school starts, pedal across the valley passage bridge at 37th , winding up onto Pierce Street or cruising west toward Miller Park on the Hank Aaron State Trail.

Laura Bray with the Menomonee Valley Partners can hardly wait until they are able to take the trail EAST .

“A lot of people have heard the revitalization story and the economic development side but they might not think wow, I me, could bike there, bring my family there, I could canoe there; I could go fishing,” Bray says.

Work remains before Bray’s dream can be realized.

Parts of the project that stretches from 27th to 37th Street are “ready made by nature”.

Eighty-year-old trees stand regally along the river’s edge.

But right now, it’s hard to see the forest for the scooping out and sculpting of much of the 24-acre parcel Bray points to huge bulldozers and backhoes groaning and heaving.

“This was where there was major erosion. Water was eroding the banks and the banks were unstable. And some of the banks were contaminated. And by stabilizing the bank, improving the soil quality and it improves future erosion too because it gives it a better path to flow,” Bray says.

Project engineer Patrick Finn measures progress truckloads.

“We’ve moved over 80,000 cubic yards of dirt,” Finn says.

Beyond its massive physical scope, this project represents a bundle of partners.

The City of Milwaukee owns the parcel, when the park is up and running the Department of Natural Resources will manage.

Patrick Finn’s firm representing the Department of Transportation as construction manager.

He calls it an unusual assignment for the state agency.

Instead fashioning of customary smooth, densely packed slopes, this plan requires what Finn calls “local depression”.

“Change up the grade a little, it breaks up the slope; different plants will grow in there because they’ll have more moisture. It also breaks up the stormwater from just sheeting right down the side of the slope,” Finn says.

Laura Bray says the idea of approaching of manmade landscape creatively came from another partner.

“This was really inspired by the Urban Ecology Center,” Bray says.

The UEC, an incubator of immersing children in the environment, is about to open its third branch just steps away.

“They said well, if you’re going to need to move dirt around on this site, you might as well move it into something that teaches,” Bray says. Bray says the goal is to mimic glacial formations. ` “So that kids that might not have the opportunity to go hiking in the Kettle Moraine, just have a life size opportunity to say wow “that’s what glaciers created,” Bray says.

Bray couldn’t be more delighted as she pulls out a colorful drawing depicting the “grown up” version of this glacially inspired terrain, when native trees and plants are in “full bloom”.

“This is the rendering of what this will look like in thirty years. You can’t plant it and expect the next year that all of a sudden everything is going to be in its full mature state,” Bray says.

Bray says the project’s success hinges on engaging people of all ages to this space and its future.

“The community as a whole is going to see how an evolving landscape works, on how the people involved in the stewardship of this site both professional and volunteer are going to need to made seasonal changes on how the earth is working and how do we learn from controlling invasive species,” Bray says.

Melissa Cook with the DNR will be on hand to help.

She manages the Hank Aaron State Trail, of which this new park will become a part.

Cook climbs a south-facing terrace that will hold dozens of raised vegetable beds – interspersed with fruit bushes and nut trees.

She says the decision to include a community garden has deeper significance than simply producing fresh, local food.

“What it also does it to bring activity into this space during a longer period of the day and that’s what we want. We want lots of activity not just bicyclists and walkers but just people coming back here and enjoying the space,” Cook says.

A year from now, when canoes begin slide into the river next to a sleek new pedestrian bridge at 33rd Street and kids pull on waders to take water samples, collaborators in this urban experiment will be a step closer in an ambitious goal - to weave the Menomonee Valley back into the community.