Green is the new black for formerly decrepit play areas in Milwaukee, Wisconsin


Story by Whitney Gould

MILWAUKEE: The playground memories of my childhood are a dismal blur of skinned knees, ugly metal jungle gyms and sun-baked asphalt.

What a pleasant surprise then to discover a kinder, gentler generation of playgrounds slowly taking root. They're user-friendly and green, showing how environmental sustainability can be built into the most modest chunks of urban infrastructure. May this movement flourish.

A good example is the 4-acre Lewis Play Field in Bay View, hard by the Lake Parkway. Managed by Milwaukee Public Schools, the city-owned site at 1424 E. Pryor Ave. looked pretty sad in recent years: a wide swath of cracked asphalt, with antiquated play equipment and a lot of chain-link fencing.

“Kinda like a prison yard,” recalls Mike Sanders, the recreational facilities coordinator for the Department of Public Works, who worked on an earlier incarnation of the play field back in 1976 and remembered how vibrant it once was before tight budgets took their toll and gangs and drunks began scaring off the kids. The site was named for Paul Lewis, a crusading Bay View doctor who conducted research into a cure for yellow fever.

Check it out today. Most of the asphalt has been replaced with sod. An improved drainage system directs remaining rainwater into a little rain garden. There's bright new play equipment on a soft, wood-chip surface with rubberized edges. Wheelchair-accessible games (a tic-tac-toe panel and a steering wheel). Comfortable benches. Shade trees. Curvy paths. And much less chain-link fence.

What made the $107,000 renovation possible was an unusual alliance among neighbors, the city, the National Park Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Grants from the feds, fund raising by residents and donated landscape design services supplemented the city's $84,000 contribution.

A side benefit is that the project has helped spark neighborhood renewal and community-building.

“The drunks don't hang out here anymore now that parents come in to watch their kids,” says Sanders. “And people are fixing up their own properties.”

“It's a good model for educating people about what happens to rainwater and how it can be used as a resource rather than a waste product,” says Angie Tornes, a planner with the National Park Service's Rivers and Trails Program who coordinated the work and pushed for the rain garden.

Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, figures that this little transformation will keep almost 100,000 gallons of runoff each year from going into the overburdened combined sewer system. It exemplifies, he says, the sort of “green infrastructure” that can also reduce urban heat islands, the hot zones formed when the sun warms up hard surfaces in cities.

There's still too much asphalt for my taste at Lloyd Street Global Education School, 1228 W. Lloyd St. But the bright spot in its vast gray playground is a shaggy, quarter-acre patch of green. It's a bio-retention zone of native plants, installed a year ago as a way to catch rainwater, reduce the heat-island effect and teach environmental concepts ranging from plant germination to pollution filtering.

“It looks a little unkempt,” admits Clavon Byrd, the school's principal, “but it's that way on purpose. Kids get to see that different plants do what they want to do, and it's a nice relief from the land of asphalt.”

“The children really feel that they're stewards, that they own it,” says Carolyn Leamann, a green-infrastructure consultant and former storm-water management specialist for the city who got the project off the ground with funding from the EPA, the sewerage district and the local Brico Fund. The Walnut Way Neighborhood Association helps maintain the site.

Joe Wilson, executive director of the non-profit Greening Milwaukee, points to similar playground conversions at schools all over the city – about 50 since 1996.

“It's one of the most efficient programs Milwaukee Public Schools has going,” he says. “You have to repair playgrounds anyway, so you might as well make them greener. You get a more beautiful campus, you create a learning environment for students and you rebuild the urban canopy.”

But Leamann notes that this worthy cause still faces hurdles, including layers of bureaucracy and old rules that encourage hard surfaces around schools as a way to reduce mowing costs.

Time to cut the red tape, unpave the asphalt and go green. Blade by blade, block by block, this is how a healthier, more beautiful city emerges.


Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

July 1, 2007