Reinventing an urban river

Land trusts working in the Great Lakes basin understand that protecting fresh water means protecting the land. Here are some of the ways they are helping keep the Great Lakes great.

By Laura Eklov May 18, 2021
Three people with a trash bag and holding leaves standing in front of a river.

The Milwaukee River has always been important to the health and well-being of local people as a focal point for both commerce and recreation, including swimming, boating and ice-skating. People have long built along its shores and used the river intensively. In the early 20th century, residents began to neglect the river and its surrounding floodplain as the Milwaukee metropolitan area grew. This resulted in increased sediment and runoff from streets and construction. Soil erosion from construction and the dumping of sewage degraded water quality and destroyed fish and wildlife habitat.

By the 1990s, many had stopped using the river for recreation due to the decline in water quality. Champions who valued its worth as a natural asset and a vital connection between nature and the city rallied to bring the Milwaukee River back to health.

River Revitalization Foundation is the lead organization in the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition, a group dedicated to protecting the ecological and recreational value of over 800 acres of greenspace along six miles of river. RRF and partners created a Greenway Master Plan with much public input and are using the plan’s goals to make its vision a reality. The unique urban wilderness that results will have the river as its focal point, featuring restored natural communities and shared recreational opportunities.

RRF is working to preserve the existing forested and undevelped land in the river valley, yet its efforts go far beyond this. The Beerline Trail, transforming an old rail line into a multi-use paved path, was one of RRF’s first major efforts. They have demolished abandoned buildings, installed pollinator gardens, created boat launches and parks and planted native flora for erosion control and bank stabilization. Led by a small staff, RRF is getting critical work done to improve water quality and help reconnect the people of Milwaukee to the river.

Learn more at In the weeks ahead, watch our blog for other ways land trusts are making a difference in the Great Lakes basin.

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