Riverside Park, a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park located one mile from Lake Michigan and downtown Milwaukee, was the place for swimming, canoeing, skating and curling in 1906. Over time, the growing city’s industrial use and rural runoff so polluted the Milwaukee River that recreation was no longer safe or desirable. Due to budget cuts, the Parks Department stopped maintaining the park and this once-beautiful oasis became neglected, crime-ridden and unsafe.
Fast-forwarding to the early 1990s, people throughout the neighborhood joined to reclaim the park from the crime and pollution. They performed an inventory of the 15-acre site which revealed that years of neglect had turned the park into a rich habitat for local flora and fauna. From this inventory, the idea to use the park as an outdoor classroom for neighborhood schools was born. By the late 1990s, in partnership with Milwaukee County Parks, the natural area was being used nearly every day and illegitimate activities were displaced by learning. The Center’s Neighborhood Environmental Education Project (NEEP) has been serving neighborhood schools with quality science and environmental education ever since. This Center now serves 30 schools within a two-mile radius around the Center, hosting close to 30,000 student visits each year. Thanks to so much constructive activity in the park, the crime issue has essentially disappeared.
After years of operating from a double-wide classroom trailer, the Center opened a new community and education center in 2004. The new facility was the result of a community collaboration to envision, fundraise and execute the hundreds of decisions involved with constructing a building. Informal groups coalesced to research green materials, recycled materials and systems. Each decision was filtered through seven “lenses” to come to a conclusion. From recycled bricks to the now second-largest solar installation in the state, from toilets flushed by rain water to the garage’s green roof, the building is full of environmentally-oriented features. The award-winning facility has themed classrooms designed especially for school programs. In addition, there is space dedicated to the community for potlucks, meetings, lectures and recreational activities, making it the only environmentally-based community center in the city.
Thanks to the dedication and vision of the community, Riverside Park is now a safe, clean, green haven, available to everyone, centrally located in one of the most densely populated areas of Wisconsin. The Center provides a wide range of educational opportunities including canoeing, kayaking, snowshoeing, rock climbing, skiing and biking outings and training. Additional Center offerings include summer camps, after-school activities, scout programs, weekend family programs and adult interest groups, and serve close to 50,000 visitors annually.
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv, Algonquin Books, 2005.