Necklace of green: Milwaukee County’s historic parkways

Virginia Small

As leaves turn brilliant fall colors, Milwaukee County parkways are great places to enjoy the show. Eleven greenways allow those traveling by foot, bicycle or car to make a scenic journey throughout the city and suburbs.

Milwaukee’s parkways include 60 miles of roads and comprise nearly half of the park system’s 15,325 acres.

Charles B. Whitnall (1859–1949), the “father of Milwaukee County parks,” developed a comprehensive plan in 1923 that included parkways linking existing parks and future parks.

Then as now, the county’s topography was defined by the Lake Michigan shoreline; the Milwaukee, Menomonee, Kinnickinnic and Root Rivers; and Honey, Lincoln, Oak and Underwood Creeks.

These waterways became the guiding framework of Whitnall’s concept of a “necklace of green” encircling the county. Waterside parkways were developed to include abundant plantings of natural trees and shrubbery, a vehicular parkway drive, green space and some recreational buildings.

Five of these parkways have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places: Honey Creek, Oak Creek, Kinnickinnic River, Milwaukee River and Root River. Milwaukee County’s entire system of parks and parkways has been deemed eligible for the register. Historic components include buildings, bridges, roads, trails, landscape and water features, and small-scale structures.

Whitnall owed a conceptual debt to Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), considered the father of American parks and landscape architecture.

Although roads constructed specifically for pleasure driving emerged in England in the late 18th century, Olmsted introduced and popularized the concept in the United States. He and partner Calvert Vaux designed the first-ever “parkway” in 1868 as an approach to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. They wanted to increase urban green spaces to let more people live near a park.

Meandering parkways contrast with the straight-edged grids that form the road backbone of most cities. Olmsted contended that proximity to parks would increase nearby property values, which research has borne out.

Olmsted also popularized landscaped horizontal boulevards. These “linear parks” became a key element in Milwaukee’s urban planning. Highland, McKinley, Newberry, Sherman, Washington and other boulevards linked city parklands via ribbons of green.

Milwaukee County’s best-known parkway is arguably Lincoln Memorial Drive, which runs from downtown about 3 miles north to Kenwood Boulevard. The route along Milwaukee’s iconic public lakefront distinguishes the city nationally. Although Olmsted first specified a “Shore Drive” in Lake Park’s 1892 master plan, Lincoln Memorial took shape over the ensuing decades. City leaders created new waterfront parks and protected the lake’s bluffs from erosion by gradually filling in lakeshore — thus providing the land needed for the drive.

Parkways are streets, but…

Milwaukee County’s parkway system was built as the automobile was becoming popular. Parkways offered opportunities for leisurely drives as well as strolling, bicycling and running. However, over the years, some motorists ignored the low speed limits as they used parkways to bypass stop-and-go traffic. That has sometimes necessitated remedial measures.

For instance, the county has nearly completed a 4.6-mile major renovation of the Menomonee River Parkway, updating it for all uses and increasing its environmental

Eddee Daniel
Cycling the Root River Parkway in Franklin. Photographer Eddee Daniel lives in Wauwatosa, where he also writes and publishes a blog called “Urban Wilderness.

sustainability. A 10-foot-wide, off-road multi-use trail was added, thus improving access and safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. For greater safety and traffic calming, the redesign also added speed bumps and extended cross-walks. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District supported green infrastructure additions such as bioswales and rain gardens — landscape elements designed to remove silt and pollution from stormwater runoff.

Wauwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley told OnMilwaukee in 2014 that “an increasing number of people who live in this area are riding bicycles or walking for transportation,” rather than just for recreation. “The more connectivity we have, the more it can help alleviate the stress of cars on the roadway.”

The Park System

In 1891, Olmsted was enlisted to design the “three pearls” of what would become Milwaukee’s “Grand Necklace of Parks” — Lake, Riverside and Washington — as well as Newberry Boulevard, which elegantly connected the first two parks.

Even though the rest of Milwaukee County’s park system took shape later than those in many American cities, local park pioneers made up for lost time. They wisely bought affordable land and then relied on New Deal federal work programs such as the Civil Conservation Corps to build much of the system in the 1930s and ’40s.

County parkways, and most parks, were designed in a naturalistic style. According to a 2013 Mead & Hunt inventory, “ Alfred Boerner, the lead landscape architect for the Regional Planning Department, helped establish a design aesthetic that would turn Whitnall’s vision into reality. A dominant theme emerged that informed the whole system. Parks were to appear as a natural extension of the Wisconsin landscape.” Native plants, grouped according to ecological association, were preferred. Boerner wrote that woods were to “remain in their natural state with undergrowth and wildflowers left undisturbed.” Structures incorporated local native stone. Rustic-looking signage is among the park system’s historic “character-defining elements.”

Oak Leaf Trail

The presence of a linked parkway-and-park system has facilitated creation of the county’s 118-mile multi-use Oak Leaf Recreational Trail, comprising off-road paved trails, park drives and sections of municipal streets to ensure continuity. Dave Schlabowske, deputy director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed, says Milwaukeeans can take pride in having been “an early leader and model” in the creation of well-connected byways. “Many communities were not so fortunate to have a park system like ours and are now working to build their own trail networks,” he says.

During the past decade, Milwaukee County has invested millions, using federal grants and other funding, to expand and upgrade the Oak Leaf Trail. More extensions are planned, according to county parks officials.

Cheri Briscoe, an appointed member of the Milwaukee County Trails Council, says Milwaukee has some of the best trails in the state. She frequently encounters cyclists from Sheboygan, Racine, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties on the OLT.

Briscoe took the lead more than five years ago in launching The Park People’s Oak Leaf Discovery Tour, a “passport” program to encourage exploration of sites throughout the trail network. The tour aims to promote the trail system as a tourist destination, both for area residents and visitors. The council recently worked with the county to improve wayfinding signage along the trail to ensure that newcomers have a positive experience.

Jim Goulee, The Park People’s executive director, notes that the parkways’ natural areas, especially along waterways, are popular spots for hiking. Park friends help to maintain natural areas, through such efforts as  TPP’s Weedout program to remove invasive plants such as garlic mustard and buckthorn.

As Milwaukee’s historic park and parkway network approaches its centennial in 2023, these green legacies continue to provide invaluable natural habitat, scenic beauty and pleasant transportation experiences. These “necklaces of green” add luster to Milwaukee County’s landscape year-round.

Fall flourish

Planning to leaf peep this month? Travel Wisconsin reports fall colors — from yellows to oranges to reds — are intensifying, with northern parts of the state expected to see peak color the second week of October.

Here’s glance at the estimated peak times in the fall color report from the state tourism agency as of Oct. 1.

Second Week of October

Northern Wisconsin: Antigo, Ashland, Bayfield, Chippewa Falls, Eagle River, Forest County, Grantsburg, Iron River, Manitowish Waters, Marinette County, Mercer, Merrill and Minocqua.

Central Wisconsin: Adams, Calumet County, Clark County, Shawano, Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids.

Southern Wisconsin: Horicon Marsh area and Spring Green.

Third Week of October

Northern Wisconsin: Eau Claire, Green Bay, Hudson, Kewaunee, Madeline Island, Medford, Menomonie, Pierce County, Polk County, Rhinelander, Superior-Douglas County, Three Lakes and Tomahawk.

Central Wisconsin: Appleton, Fox Cities, Elkhart Lake, Fond du Lac, Juneau County, Manitowoc, Marquette County, Marshfield, Mauston, Oshkosh, Rome, Waupaca, Wausau and Wautoma.

Southern Wisconsin: Baraboo, Beaver Dam, Beloit, Black River Falls, Buffalo County, Crawford County, Dodgeville, Eagle, Green County, Janesville, Jefferson, La Crosse, Lake Geneva, Madison, Milwaukee, Mineral Point, Pepin County, Platteville, Portage, Richland County, Sauk Prairie, Sparta, Tomah, Vernon County, Washington County and Wisconsin Dells.

Fourth Week of October

Northern Wisconsin: Oconto County.

Central Wisconsin: Green Lake.

Southern Wisconsin: Kenosha, Lafayette County, Ozaukee County and Racine.

For updates on fall colors, go to travelwisconsin.com or text “WI Fall” to 468311 to receive notices on smartphones.

Accessing Parkways

Eddee Daniel
Little Menomonee River Parkway (Northwest Milwaukee from Bradley Road south to Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa)

Grantosa Creek Parkway (W. Capitol Dr. to Menomonee River Parkway)

Honey Creek Parkway (Wauwatosa south to Milwaukee and West Allis)

Kinnickinnic River Parkway (West Allis from McCarty Park east to Milwaukee’s Bay View)

Lake Michigan North Parkway (Lincoln Memorial Drive north from downtown to Kenwood Avenue)

Lincoln Creek Parkway (Milwaukee’s North Side including through Lincoln and Meaux parks)

Little Menomonee River Parkway (Northwest Milwaukee from Bradley Road south to Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa)

Milwaukee River Parkway (Milwaukee’s East Side north through Shorewood to Hampton Avenue in Whitefish Bay)

Oak Creek Parkway (Oak Creek from County Line Road northwest to Drexel Boulevard and then east to Grant Park)

Root River Parkway (From Morgan Ave. in Greenfield southeast through Greendale, Hales Corners and Franklin to Ryan Road)

Underwood Creek Parkway  (West Bluemound Road & West 124th Street in Wauwatosa northwest to Menomonee River Parkway)

Sources: Milwaukee County Parks staff, website and maps

Learn More

A Milwaukee Greenway Workshop will be held Oct. 18, 8 a.m. to noon, at Havenwoods Nature Center, 6141 N. Hopkins St., Milwaukee. It’s being coordinated by volunteers David Boucher and David Flowers in partnership with several community organizations and agencies. A panel will be followed by strategy sessions on expanding Milwaukee greenways. Info: 414-517-4348.

All photos by Eddee Daniel