Kilbourn Park and the Milwaukee Riverfront: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

City Parks Forum Case Study


Aerial photoMilwaukee's Beerline district once hummed with breweries and tanneries along the Milwaukee River. The good life supplied by heavy industry was captured in popular television sitcoms like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Unfortunately, these same industries also brought the price of a degraded natural environment: dirty air, polluted water, and severe disconnect between people and the natural world. Like so many other cities in the Great Lakes region, Milwaukee has suffered significant loss of industry and manufacturing in the decades following those "happy days" of the 1950s and 1960s. However, industrial decline also affords city residents the opportunity to rekindle their relationship with the Milwaukee River and bring new life to its shores. Reinvigorating long abandoned land near the riverfront is breathing new life into Milwaukee's unsinkable spirit.

Kilbourn Park is an outstanding example of how reuse of riverfront land can bring urban populations back into intimacy with their natural surroundings. Located on a bluff descending from the Commerce Street neighborhood to the river itself, Kilbourn Park is not simply a place for local children to explore with their parents. Rather, The City Parks Forum and the City of Milwaukee have partnered successfully to reinstate Kilbourn Park as a true outdoor classroom for Milwaukee's youth.

Site photoFormer Mayor John Norquist brought the challenge of revitalizing Kilbourn Park to the City Parks Forum. The result is the River Adventure Team kids (RATs), which have taken the lower Milwaukee River by storm. This program, initiated in part through a Catalyst Grant from the City Parks Forum, operates with the strong support of the Milwaukee Rowing Club (half from local Marquette University). Not only are the RATs taught swimming, water safety, canoeing, kayaking, and basic sailing skills, they are reconnected to a part of their world that had long been closed off and forbidden to their curious exploration. The foresight of the Children's Outing Association and the Urban Ecology Center also strengthened the initiative as the mayor strove to improve quality of life in his city. This collaborative process has been a vanguard for the entire Commerce Street corridor, the Beerline redevelopment zone, and the areas around the lower Milwaukee River estuary.

Children at playMike Wisniewski, senior economic development specialist with the City of Milwaukee, has cited Kilbourn Park's connection from the top of the river bluff to the estuary's shores as the lynchpin in the larger Kilbourn Landing project. Kilbourn Landing includes a series of capital improvements along the Milwaukee River to complement the ongoing revitalization of the Commerce Street corridor, including: (1) landscaping and trail development along the historic Kilbourn Park and Milwaukee Road rail corridor and (2) construction of a riverfront viewing terrace with a riverfront plaza and dock. These improvements, coupled with the extensive new urbanism approach to revitalization of Commerce Street and the rest of the Beerline district, have created a shining example of how both natural and urban revitalization synergistically lift an aging community. Mayor Norquist enthusiastically offers hope for other cities in similar situations as Milwaukee, lauding Kilbourn Park's success as "an idea that can be replicated virtually anywhere ... what creates valuable real estate is a sensible, sophisticated, easy-to-follow plan."


Sue Black
Director of Milwaukee County Parks
9480 Watertown Plank Road
Wauwatosa, WI 53226
(P) 414-257-7275

Images: Top — Aerial photo. American Planning Association. — Site photo. American Planning Association. — Children at play. City of Milwaukee.