While it may take a car, train, or plane to get to some of the nation’s greatest natural wonders, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it doesn’t take much gas money or time off work to get to hiking trails, frog ponds, kayaking, snowshoeing, and fishing.

In fact, some of the city’s greatest natural spaces are in communities where it may be most challenging for residents to get away.  To top it off, non-profit organizations run nature education programs there to teach and inspire visitors about the local and regional ecology.

Havenwoods State Forest
Interpretive signs help trail users learn more about the ecology around them. Credit: S. Schramm

Wisconsin’s only urban state forest, Havenwoods, is located on the north side of Milwaukee. With 237 acres of forest, grasslands, wetlands, and community gardens, this beautiful public natural area provides many opportunities for people to get outside and explore.  More than 6 miles of trails invite residents to walk or jog through the different habitats and periodic signs provide information about ecological processes featured at each site.

For more hands-on engagement with nature, Havenwoods offers programs for school field trips,
junior ranger programs, and weekend family activities teaching kids and adults about the plants, amphibians, Weekend programs help participants become acquainted with their human and non-human neighbors.]insects, and other wildlife that live there.

Participants learn a range of naturalist skills from identifying frog calls, examining insects under microscopes, and representing nature through arts and crafts projects.  All that identification training helps support citizen science programs and record keeping of the species found on the site helping Havenwoods keep track of the populations it is supporting.

The video below is a clip from a June afternoon at the frog pond.  Insect humming and bird chirps fill the air and provide a break from the city sounds of traffic.

Menomonee River Valley

Another great Milwaukee natural area is the Menomonee River Valley at the south end of the 27th Street viaduct.  Part of a $26 million revitalization project that prioritized habitat restoration alongside industrial development, the Menomonnee River Valley is now a great place for community members and local employees to step into nature.

Just 10 years ago the valley was covered in “several feet of sludge and grease,” says Matt Howard, Milwaukee’s Environmental Sustainability Director.  “The river was totally dead and there were only one or two remaining businesses in the area,” the legacy of the industrial and manufacturing boom and bust in the valley.  Now, with concrete floodwalls removed and the riverbanks re-vegetated, wildlife not seen in many years are returning to the area.  “One of the cool things about this stretch of the river is that in the spring and the fall we have salmon runs. I was up here in October for a meeting and there was a guy coming out of the river and he had two 20-pound king salmon that he had just caught fly fishing,” Howard shares happily.

The Menomonee River from the Valley Passage bridge.
The Menomonee River from the Valley Passage bridge.

This area connects parts of the Hank Aaron State Trail and extends a spur to Mitchell Park, further improving the walkability and bikeability of Milwaukee.  Where the trail passes through the revitalized valley, users can meander through the marshy wildlife habitat that doubles as stormwater management.  “This is a 60-acre stormwater park and it actually filters and conveys all the runoff from the manufacturing on this site,” Howard explains.  “Normally when you do a project like this you try to contain the stormwater management on each parcel of property, but we decided to try something new: a park that manages everybody’s [stormwater].” In doing so, the developers were able to create a larger park out of what otherwise would have been separate stormwater management pockets.

Menomonee Valley's Urban Ecology Center

Another component of the valley revitalization project was the creation of the third branch of the Urban Ecology Center (UEC). This non-profit, Milwaukee-based organization is a cornerstone of Milwaukee’s environmental stewardship, nature-based science education and play, and community development.  Prioritizing outdoor science education for urban youth, the UEC partners with local schools, hosts after-school programs, facilitates citizen science, operates a free outdoor equipment rental service, and coordinates many other programs—all geared towards engaging youth and community members in outdoor exploration and learning. Even non-members benefit from the UEC. Improved environmental quality, reduced crime, and more sociability in parks associated with a UEC outpost benefit all who pass through or live nearby.

With assets like Havenwoods, the revitalized Menomonee River Valley, and the Urban Ecology Centers located in lower income neighborhoods, opportunities to experience and learn about nature are accessible to some people who may be least able to travel outside the city for the experience otherwise.

Post by Sarah Schramm

Sarah is pursuing her Masters in Landscapes Architecture from the University of Virginia.