Urban Wilderness: Finding Nature in the City

Article published in Waterkeeper Magazine, Summer 2009

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Milwaukee River Greenway
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We put in, as usual, next to the concrete fishing pier in Lincoln Park. At this annual event, sponsored by Milwaukee Riverkeeper, about 40 people, in 15 canoes and a handful of kayaks, pick up their paddles and leave Milwaukee behind. Immediately the natural world surrounds us. Three painted turtles drop off a log as a kayak veers toward them. A great blue heron looks up from its catch in the shallows, then erupts into flight. A dense wall of foliage lines the banks of the impounded lake.

If the dam that creates the lake is removed, as advocated by Milwaukee Riverkeeper, this voyage will become even more organic. After we portage around the dam, there are fewer and fewer signs of the city as we wade into the rocky backwaters. Enormous black willows and cottonwoods lean over and nearly cover the two narrow channels. All of the canoes and most of the kayaks portage the four foot tumbling falls that come next. A few daring kayakers take the plunge.

A trio of radio towers briefly reminds us we are not nearly as isolated as we’ve come to believe. Then, below the Capitol Drive bridge, the wooded riverside bluffs become steeper and higher, and again we are free to imagine ourselves anywhere but in a densely populated city. We scrape the river bottom, push on to deeper pools and watch the fish alongside. An angler in hip boots knows his secluded spot has been compromised; he casts idly, waiting for our flotilla to pass.

We proceed, running gentle rapids, trying to identify birds and wildflowers, soaking up sunshine; until, three hours later, we shoot the flume at North Avenue. Then, catching our breath, we stare at the canyon of condominiums ahead, suddenly confronting a cacophony of construction noise. It is hard not to be stunned by the contrast. For several miles, only the occasional bridge and a couple of tall buildings broke our spell. And although it has been an almost magical interlude, it is no trick, the feeling of having had a wilderness experience in the middle of the city: it is an essential part of the character of the Milwaukee River.

Efforts are underway to preserve not only the land along the river corridor, but also the viewshed within it, thus maintaining the enchantment of urban wilderness. The Milwaukee River Greenway efforts are being spearheaded by Milwaukee Riverkeeper, along with the River Revitalization Foundation and the Urban Ecology Center, to protect over eight miles of river and a combined 800 acres of natural area within the city. Like many cities around the country, Milwaukee is rediscovering and reinterpreting its relationship with its rivers and with nature.

The value of urban natural areas has been recognized since Frederick Law Olmsted formulated his widely emulated principles of landscape design in the nineteenth century. Olmsted believed in cities, but he also believed that their inhabitants should live near the tranquility of natural scenery to relieve the stresses of work and the oppressiveness of enclosed spaces or hard surfaces. Olmsted’s justly famous Central Park in Manhattan is the crown jewel of New York City’s 38,000 acres of parkland, many of which still provide the element of surprise and discovery that my fellow boaters and I experienced along the Milwaukee River.

During the early twentieth century, many cities across the U.S. created beautiful park systems based on Olmsted’s ideas. Milwaukee had the advantage of not only three parks designed by Olmsted himself, but perhaps more significantly, a vision and plan implemented by his admirer, Charles Whitnall. As the first parks director, Whitnall took Olmsted’s model and organized Milwaukee’s park system along its network of rivers and streams. Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee’s Riverkeeper, says enthusiastically, “Milwaukee is unusual among American cities because it has such an extensive system of riverside parks and natural areas.”

In Milwaukee and elsewhere, the impetus to create urban parks diminished in the rush to live in ever-expanding suburbs. More recently, the importance of urban natural areas has regained the respect it once commanded, the combined result of the realization of the limitations and excesses of suburban sprawl, and the urgency of contemporary environmental issues such as biodiversity, habitat degradation, water quality, and sustainable living. Urban green space, important as it is for a variety of recreational uses, contributes much more to the community, especially when it includes “wilderness” areas. The concept of an urban wilderness is a relatively new one, and its success at capturing the public’s imagination is due in large part to a hunger for what it represents, as well as its inherent virtues.

Defining urban wilderness proves to be a bit of a Rorschach test, revealing more about a person’s perspective and values than the characteristics of a particular landscape. Definitions range from the simply aesthetic—the unkempt appearance of low maintenance parklands, for example—to the scientific, with its concern for native species, soil conditions, and biodiversity.

In my book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, I wander freely among these often divergent conceptual terrains. But the definition I prefer does not involve physical conditions in the landscape, but rather the psychological, and even spiritual, experiences that are available to people who are immersed in a natural environment. When we shoot the Milwaukee River rapids, fish in its pools, or simply walk along riparian trails in the shade of silver maples and poplars, stopping to sample wild black raspberries in thickets, it is not mere recreation. These experiences provide a wondrous connection to the earth and to the wholeness of existence. And when children are exposed to these experiences they learn something much more important than natural sciences, biology and ecology. They learn the value of conservation and the appropriate stewardship of nature.

Where we can go to have these experiences is a critical question at this point in our nation’s history. “It’s immeasurably important,” says Nenn, “to have a refuge to go to in the middle of the city, to calm your mind, especially in current economic conditions when people have less money to travel.” Even in better times there are people in inner cities all across the country without the resources to travel to and explore distant parks or nature preserves. Nenn points out that states usually preserve large or pristine areas, and land trusts tend to acquire high quality land with an eye for conserving critical species habitats. Smaller urban properties with less biological significance are given lower priority. However, they serve a much greater population, and a much greater purpose, perhaps.

The urgency of this issue is illustrated by the contrasting experiences of two other urban Waterkeepers. Sally Bethea, Atlanta’s Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, says that although Atlanta created parkland in a “string of pearls” along a 48-mile stretch of river, “metro Atlanta has very minimal green space as compared to other cities of its size. Development has been taking place at a rate of 55 acres of hard surfaces every single day for the past decade.”

Farther north, Baltimore is home to the most polluted river entering the Chesapeake Bay—the Patapsco. According to Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper Eliza Steinmeier, because rivers so often are covered over with concrete and freeways, many residents don’t even know where they are. The waterfront is also industrialized and mostly bulkheaded. But two efforts are underway in Baltimore to reclaim some of the natural heritage: a trail system linking parks along tributaries to the Patapsco River and a major waterfront master plan that includes preservation of what little remains of natural shoreline. “It’s amazing that despite over a hundred years of pollution, we still have life in our rivers,” Steinmeier says. “It’s truly a testament to the resilience of the river system. You can see fish, turtles, crabs, and all kinds of birds. People are often astonished at this fact.” Steinmeier recalls once, when she was on patrol in the Waterkeeper boat, a group of schoolchildren called to her hysterically from the shore to come see something. “I thought it was going to be some kind of chemical spill,” she says. ”But they were pointing to a crab attached to a bulkhead. We need to bring people to the river, show them a living river running through our city, and then they might think about how to protect it.”

Seeing a crab on a steel bulkhead may seem far from a wilderness experience, but it is a start. Milwaukee may be luckier than most cities, but creating an urban wilderness is an important strategy for conservation everywhere. Indeed, because of the size of the populations they serve and the relative difficulty conservationists face in such settings, cities must be in the forefront of the environmental movement. Some cities have stepped up to the plate, with new standards for “green” building and new awareness of sustainability. But research has made it clear that proximity to nature is critical to developing what Aldo Leopold called the “conservation ethic.” Providing young people with places nearby, where they can form connections with nature, will ensure that this ethic and the values embodied in the Waterkeeper mission will endure.

Cheryl Nenn observes that the density of cities is desirable since it reduces the effects of sprawl, thereby allowing for the preservation of suburban and exurban lands. But it is this very virtue of cities that makes it essential to provide that paradoxical urban wilderness experience in order to prevent alienation from nature, and to create a citizenry that values its stewardship.

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Urban Wilderness Introduction

Urban Wilderness image galleries

Milwaukee River Greenway Introduction

Milwaukee's Central Park Gallery

Milwaukee River Work Group

Milwaukee's Riverkeeper

River Revitalization Foundation

Urban Ecology Center

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Milwaukee River corridor : The view north from the Locust Street bridge

Eddee Daniel - Fine Art Photography