BY: KRISTIN SCHOENECKER, SWEET WATER
Known by names such as “emerald necklace” and “string of pearls,” Milwaukee County’s vast system of parks are considered one of the region’s most valuable amenities. However, there are some who believe that not enough is being done to protect this treasure - a sentiment reinforced by a newly released Delay of Game study on the state of our parks from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.
Preserve our Parks & A Wealth of Nature
In 1999, a group of citizens formed Preserve Our Parks (POP), an organization committed to preserving and sustaining Milwaukee County Parks. Since its inception POP has launched several initiatives to ensure accessibility, sustainability, and restoration of the parks. One of POP’s newest initiatives is called A Wealth of Nature. It is “a project to promote the enjoyment and preservation of nature in our region” and is designed to increase citizen appreciation of the amenities offered by our parks.
The Wealth of Nature website includes:
Information about southeastern Wisconsin’s natural areas and species
A “Share your Story or Photo” page for people to share their appreciation for the parks
A tool that helps users find parks suitable for their favorite outdoor activities such as swimming, birding, or even wild edible gathering.
Other components of this initiative include public and private presentations and a photo book exhibiting the natural beauty and wealth of the parks.
Another strategy POP is using to makes its voice heard is a petition entitled “Our Turn” that calls for more funding to be allocated to repairing and maintaining Milwaukee County parks and parkways. An article posted on the POP website evidences that although the county budget has doubled since 1986, the amount allocated to maintaining the parks has dropped from 29% to 4% of the budget. At a recent POP event at the Milwaukee Yacht Club, initiative leaders shared ideas to address this investment gap, including a proposal to transfer Miller Park sales tax revenue for use in the maintenance of parks.
After making the rounds at town hall meetings over the summer, and the petition continues to draw signatures on Change.org and is nearing its goal of 500 signatures. POP plans to present the petition to County officials this fall and State officials in January.
New “State of Milwaukee Parks” Report Released
The issue of how to best care for our parks has also been the focus of a recent report. According to Wisconsin Policy Forum’s September 2018 “Delay of Game” report,
“The list of park assets that the county must replace within the next 10 years includes 85% of parking lots and service yards, 75% of walkways, 73% of parkways, 54% of rated Oak Leaf Trails and of basketball courts, 48% of tennis courts, and (measured by replacement value) 47% of large buildings other than the Domes,”
The report highlights how funding has changed over time and the affects of decreased investment on natural areas, recreational spaces/facilities and cultural institutions. The report concludes that limited capital funding options make addressing infrastructure challenges more difficult which, in turn, threaten the quality of service offered to Milwaukee County residents.
Why Parks Matter for Improving Water Quality Outcomes
Milwaukee County Parks are of special interest to water stakeholders. The parks include and border many creeks, lakes, lagoons, and rivers and even brush upon 32 miles of Lake Michigan’s coast. The County Parks Department also teams up with UW Extension in an initiative called the Natural Areas Program, which helps to protect waterways by restoring eroded areas and wetlands within the parks. Having these green spaces scattered throughout our largely imperviously surfaced cities is also important for water quality and retention following heavy precipitation events. Parks with permeable landscaping help decrease flooding and improve water quality by retaining stormwater instead of allowing it to become runoff that picks up chemicals and sediments and introduces them to our waterways.
While addressing the financial situation of Milwaukee’s parks presents itself as a challenge, it can also be seen as an opportunity — careful investment would allow us to achieve environmental goals while preserving the social and economic benefits of these natural resources for decades to come.