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Watershed moment gives rise to a revitalized riverfront

The Rotary Club of Milwaukee transformed its city’s riverfront with a contribution from a local landowner — a strategy that could work in other communities

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They are scenes from another time, and seemingly another place. Beneath the hot summer sun, hours after they’d spent their morning mastering the breast stroke and the crawl, kids enjoy a carefree afternoon cavorting in a reservoir formed by the dam downstream. On other occasions, weekend mariners ply those same waters in canoes and rowboats, or more serious athletes, representatives of the rowing clubs that line the river’s steep bluffs, compete in vigorous regattas. Daring merrymakers ascend the bluffs, pile into a large wooden craft, and swoosh down a waterslide, landing in the river with a gigantic splash. Flip the calendar ahead six months and cheering throngs, numbering as many as 20,000 people, marvel at the acrobatic antics of ski jumpers as they race at 80 miles per hour down those same bluffs. And where avid anglers in balmier months fished for pike and bass, skaters of all ages, bundled up against the winter cold, glide across the icebound river.

The Rotary Club of Milwaukee worked to revitalize its city’s riverfront that had once been the heart of the city but had turned into an unkempt wilderness.

These may seem like faded snapshots from America’s pastoral past. As noted in Eddee Daniel’s The Milwaukee River Greenway, they are actually glimpses of the Milwaukee River at the turn of the 20th century as it coursed through what was then the 14th-largest city in the United States. The river had been the heart of Milwaukee from the times when Indigenous people traveled there to harvest wild rice, hunt waterfowl, and catch fish. Settlers of European descent dammed the river in 1835 to provide water to the mills and factories that sprang up along its banks, and in winter “Brew City” breweries harvested ice from the river reservoir to cool the beer that patrons quaffed in summer at the beer gardens along the river’s shores. The celebrated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed Riverside Park, one of the many parks along the river, in the 1890s; it was home to, among other things, a pavilion and a curling rink. About a mile upstream was an amusement park that The Milwaukee Journal called a “brilliantly lighted wonder city.”

But even as children played and couples courted, trouble lurked beneath the water’s surface — or sometimes right on top of it. Filled with sewage runoff, the river had become Milwaukee’s de facto toilet. The situation was so bad that, in 1888, the city began “flushing” the river daily with water from Lake Michigan, using what was said to be the world’s largest pump. Even as the city invested in its nationally recognized sewer system, heavy rainfall frequently caused overflows, sending wastewater into the river. At the same time, as the shoreline factories thrived, the loads of toxic industrial waste destined for the river increased exponentially.

Inevitably, that idyllic waterfront playground disappeared, replaced by an unkempt wilderness. Drug trafficking and other crime became the new pastimes for visitors to neglected Riverside Park. “When we were kids, we’d go there,” recalls Matt Haas, a member of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee. “It was this scary place to go on your bikes. All the trails were abandoned, and the ornate old streetlights didn’t work anymore. We thought it was haunted.”

But just as the wonderland vanished, so too did the blighted wasteland. Visit Riverside Park today and you will encounter a place magically transformed, all thanks to some dedicated Rotary members, their committed and farsighted partners, and an ingenious focus on conservation, land trusts, and generous eco-minded citizens — a miracle formula that, with a few site-specific tweaks, can be applied anywhere.

This massive stone archway was designed by Mario Costantini, a member of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee.

A river revitalization

It’s a sunny morning in May and, serenaded by the sound of chirping birds, members of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee swarm the riverside Coyote Hill. Beneath a cornflower blue sky, kids playfully bang trowels against rocks as their parents pull augers and gloves and drills from crates situated along a winding path that passes beneath a massive stone archway.

Caitlin Reinartz, the urban forester at Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center, wears a straw hat and leans on a shovel as she reviews the day’s tasks. Rotary members are here to plant more than 1,000 prairie grass seedlings, varieties like little and big bluestem, prairie dropseed, and switchgrass. Reinartz demonstrates the proper planting technique with a Virginia wildrye seedling. “This year it won’t grow much more than knee height,” she says in her booming voice. “Next year, after it overcomes its transplant shock, this baby is going to be 9 feet tall.”

The crowd oohs.

Reinartz explains the benefits of prairie grasses — how they provide habitat for birds and bees, sequester carbon, and remove pollutants from the air. “We are really making a good change here today, one that’s going to last a lot longer than we will. This is going to be around for maybe 110 years,” she jokes, a nod to the club’s 110th anniversary. The crowd oohs again and gets to work.

The land where Rotary members are planting was once the site of the National Brake and Electric Co., which, after its incorporation in 1906, rapidly grew to employ 1,400 people in its machine shop, foundries, and other facilities. During World War I, the company produced heavy equipment for the war effort, but the boom was short-lived: The site closed during the Depression due to financial issues. By 1939, like other locations along the river, the factory had been abandoned.

“Over the years, Milwaukee Rotary has planted thousands and thousands of trees,” says urban forester Caitlin Reinartz.

After a lapse of more than 30 years, things took a turn for the better with the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act, which put the brakes on industrial pollution. In the 1980s and ’90s, the governor of Wisconsin created a task force to come up with a plan for the river, Milwaukee built new sewage tunnels to catch wastewater overflow during storms, and the dam came down. Concerned neighbors founded the Urban Ecology Center to decrease crime and bring life back to the Olmsted-designed Riverside Park.

In 1994, the Rotary Club of Milwaukee joined with the local Kiwanis club to create the River Revitalization Foundation, an urban land trust with a mission to protect and revitalize the river’s environmental corridor. The group also worked to make the land that had reemerged with the draining of the dam’s reservoir accessible to the public, and it lobbied to safeguard riparian habitats. To ensure that people could thoroughly enjoy this newfound nature, it helped implement zoning laws that restricted building heights in the “viewshed.”

The result is the 6-mile-long Milwaukee River Greenway, which, at 878 acres, is larger than New York City’s Central Park (another Olmsted-designed beauty). Today, from parts of the greenway, it can feel like you’re in a remote wilderness rather than in a river basin that’s home to 1.3 million people.

“In a lot of ways, it is an accident we have this,” says Matt Haas, who holds one of the Rotary seats on the River Revitalization Foundation’s board. “This whole river was a big toxic industrial waste dump. The fact that the dam came out and exposed all that land that had previously been under water, in combination with a bunch of these warehouse and manufacturing owners taking buildings down, basically freed up a bunch of green space that previously didn’t exist.”

Left: Milwaukee Rotarian Karen Hung shows off the prairie grasses she is preparing to plant. Right: Energetic Rotary members plant grass seedlings on Coyote Hill, which rose on the site of a former foundry.

That was just one piece of the Milwaukee club’s transformation of the city’s environmental landscape. In 2007, as the club was casting around for a project to mark its centennial in 2013, the Urban Ecology Center brought forward a proposal to expand Riverside Park. It was another opportune moment: Pieter Godfrey, an architect interested in historic preservation and materials reclamation, owned property immediately south of the park — the former National Brake and Electric Co. site — and he had been in conversation with the Urban Ecology Center about donating 4 acres of that land.

Rotarians pledged to raise $400,000, the seed money for what ended up being an $8 million endeavor that resulted in a 40-acre arboretum encompassing Riverside Park. Godfrey died in 2011, but his family donated the $2 million parcel. Members of Rotary seeking additional funding for the project testified before the Wisconsin Legislature and helped land a $1.3 million grant from the state Department of Natural Resources. The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provided nearly $1 million, and many other public and private donations helped subsidize the now-flourishing urban paradise.

“It’s amazing we have this so close to the city,” says Mary McCormick, executive director of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, as she looks out over the river and reflects on Rotary members’ role in the creation of the greenway and the arboretum. “We were the glue that held this together for five years. We were committed to getting this done.”

As she strolls along the riverside trails, McCormick stops periodically to chat with a birder, point out a canoe launch, and listen to a fly fisherman who’s been having some luck with smallmouth bass. Among the goldenrod and rudbeckia flowers rise the thousands of trees planted over the years by Rotarians: white birch and silver maples, American sycamore and white walnut, to name only a few. A huge, downed tree and strategically placed branches cry out to be climbed. The U.S. Forest Service, another partner in the project, has designated the arboretum as a national children’s forest, one of only 22 in the country, and one of only three in a major urban area.

Some of the newly planted and well-nurtured grasses will one day reach a height of 9 feet.

“You have to be an advocate for something,” McCormick says. “We advocate for having vaccinations, we advocate for clean water, and we advocate for taking care of the land. We have done that, and we should do that as Rotarians. We need to protect the resources we have, and in some cases bring them back.” And there are ingenious methods of doing exactly that, which Rotary and Rotaract clubs around the country may want to duplicate.

The value of land grants

As a former executive director of a land trust in northern Michigan, Kirt Manecke talked with landowners who were interested in preserving their property. “I’d ask them, ‘What is your reason for doing this?’ And they said, ‘Well, I just love our land,’” he recalls. Or, he continues, they didn’t want their kids to “slice and dice” their property for development when they died. The biggest problem Manecke, a member of the Rotary Club of Northville, Michigan, ran into was that people had no idea what options are available when it comes to land preservation.

Get involved

Rotary clubs and districts can financially support the preservation of land through Rotary Foundation global grants. Find out more about the Foundation’s focus on protecting the environment at

Don’t re-create the wheel. Reach out to members of a local land trust to learn how to work with them. Rotary members can sit on land trust boards, and Rotary volunteers can participate in service days to care for lands. Land trust board members can make good speakers at club meetings to educate Rotary members on options for their own or family members’ lands.

Laws around land ownership vary by country. Find a U.S.-based land trust at, and resources for other countries are available through the International Land Conservation Network at

More than half of all real-estate wealth in the U.S. — about $23.3 trillion — is held by people ages 60 and older, according to the Federal Reserve. “That is a lot of value,” says Andrew Bowman, president and CEO of the Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization that represents nearly 1,000 land trusts in the United States. “There could be a number of people in those generations that want to preserve their land or keep their land in the state it is now, whether that’s for scenic beauty, a working farm, or a wildlife habitat. There’s a lot of different reasons people might preserve land, and these generations might do something to make sure their land stays that way.”

That’s where land trusts come in — and where Rotary clubs could too. These trusts, nonprofit organizations that partner with private landowners to permanently conserve their land, held more than 61 million acres in the United States at the end of 2020. That’s more land than is found in all of the country’s federally regulated national parks.

Land trusts might run on a national or international level, such as with the Nature Conservancy, or as community institutions, like Milwaukee’s River Revitalization Foundation. “It’s a natural synergy,” says Bowman, who was a Rotary Scholar at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom in 1989-90. “Chances are there is an organization ready-made for Rotary members to work with.”

Rotary Foundation global grants weren’t available for the Milwaukee arboretum. But with the adoption of the environment as one of Rotary’s areas of focus, land preservation projects are now eligible for Foundation funding. “It checks all the boxes for Rotary,” Manecke says. “It’s important for kids. It’s important for the mind. It’s important for clean drinking water.” And, adds Bowman, it’s a “natural climate solution. Whatever your motivation is, there are all these side benefits.”

Protecting the ecosystems

Paige Radke scrapes her shovel across the soil, pulls a little bluestem seedling out of its pot, and plants it in Coyote Hill. A past president of the Rotaract Club of Milwaukee and now a member of the Milwaukee Rotary club, Radke was drawn to Rotary because she enjoys volunteering, and her passion is the environment. When a seat on the River Revitalization Foundation board opened up, club executive director McCormick asked her to take it.

With her passion for the environment, Milwaukee club member Paige Radke welcomes the opportunity to preserve and enhance an urban green space.

“We feel good about what we’re doing,” says Radke, taking in views from the hill. “This could have been built into condos with riverfront views. It’s important to the ecosystem, and it’s maintaining that ability for the public to access the green spaces in urban environments.”

Construction on the arboretum began in 2010 and included capping off the contaminated soil of the former factory to create the hill Rotary members are planting this day. The arboretum, which opened in 2013, is owned by Milwaukee County and managed by the Urban Ecology Center. Rotary members continued to be involved, and today, in part because of their efforts and the work of more than 2,000 volunteers, the arboretum is home to tens of thousands of new plants, including trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers, and a dozen distinct ecosystems. That includes a re-created oak savanna, once common to the area.

After finishing up their planting project on Coyote Hill, about 60 people gather around Reinartz. “People deserve to live in a city that is beautiful, that is green, that is healthy, that is safe,” says the urban forester. “That was missing before Rotary planted this piece of land. With friends like you, I think the future of this spot is really bright and beautiful.”

A monarch butterfly floats behind Reinartz, and the prairie grasses wave in the breeze, as if to whisper, This is our place — and this is our time.

This story originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

Rotary supports activities that strengthen the conservation and protection of natural resources.