Redesigning a City of Milwaukee vest-pocket park: a play in three acts

Angie Tornes
Senior Planner
Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program
National Park Service
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Act I
The stage was set: a tired little urban vest-pocket park whose actors were teenagers looking for a place to smoke. Rusting 1960s vintage play equipment lacking key components occasionally played host to children under a watchful parental eye. The park, bordered on one side by an elevated highway, largely covered in asphalt, and surrounded by a six-foot chain-link fence, fostered an impression that a jailhouse lurked nearby. A Mediterranean-style Works Progress Administration-era field house in the park was ingloriously dressed with roof-wrapping barbed wire. Though it lies adjacent to an actively used ball field, it was essentially ignored by the community. It was a desolate set indeed.

How this diamond in the rough, called Lewis Play Field Tot Lot, was transformed and resulted in multiple beneficial outcomes is noteworthy. The City of Milwaukee's Department of Public Works (DPW) had $85,000 in its 2004 budget to improve the four-acre parcel and was open to ideas for community engagement. In spring of 2004, neighbors interested in the park's improvement requested planning assistance from Angie Tornes, Senior Planner of the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) Program, a community conservation and recreation outreach program of the National Park Service. This fortunate coincidence of circumstances set the stage for Act II: creating a new life for the park.

Act II
The RTCA staff formed a "Friends of Lewis Play Field" committee, consisting of neighbors and representatives from local civic organizations, and coordinated collaboration between it, members of the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, RTCA, and the City's DPW Recreational Facilities Coordinator, Michael Sanders. A public open house was held to solicit community ideas about what they'd prefer to see in a redesigned park. The landscape architects offered their services pro bono and incorporated these ideas into a concept plan and a preliminary cost estimate for installation. The plan and estimate were reviewed by DPW staff for feasibility and changes were made accordingly.

The park's transformation took a longer time than anticipated as well as patience and a concerted effort by everyone involved. Local citywide politics and pet projects taking precedence over Lewis Play Field stymied progress, but DPW staff rode through the turbulence, never losing sight of the end goal. Meanwhile, the Friends group diligently organized a silent auction and fundraising letters were widely distributed to neighbors, local businesses, and corporations: $2,354 was raised. An application for Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars was superseded by projects with waterfront causing DPW staff to creatively search out alternatives including Stormwater Reduction monies, Division of Forestry tree contributions, and goodwill on the contractor's part.

The public was actively engaged throughout the process; it also contributed to interesting developments (see sidebar). The Friends group, with the help of Tony Zielinski, Alderman of the 14th District, created flyers inviting residents and businesses to attend an open house on the park's redesign; the flyers were distributed in a five-block radius. Two local newspapers followed the story and collectively published five articles to date. A community website and chat room tracks progress on the installation. The media and the community eagerly anticipate the ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for this spring.

Mutual goals of beautifying the park, enhancing the community, and reducing stormwater runoff were achieved in the redesign and the eventual October 2006 installation. The existing asphalt surface was reduced by 65% and replaced with sod, pervious surface, trees and berms. The small volume of future stormwater runoff will be redirected away from the combined sewer and into an onsite rain garden. The surrounding 6' chain-link fence has been replaced with a 4' fence on one side paralleling an alley. Straight paths have been replaced with curvilinear ones; aesthetically pleasing ADA accessible play equipment installed; water pipes to the "bubbler" (aka "drinking fountain") repaired; barbed wire from the field house removed; the basketball court has new hoop nets and freshly painted backboards and its asphalt will be sealed and painted next spring. A sculptural piece at the intersection of two paths will be created and installed in the near future. The park has been conspicuously and beautifully transformed, like a phoenix from the ashes.

But the benefits extend beyond park transformation into community transformation and goodwill generated towards DPW and the City. Never before had this community been so engaged from start to finish in a civic project; the enthusiasm was palpable. Neighbors introduced themselves to each other, networked to accomplish their pieces of the project, and inadvertently generated a sense of neighborhood pride and empowerment that has been parlayed into other community projects. They are immensely pleased with their interaction with DPW staff as the project progressed and seeing their ideas come to fruition. Nearby businesses are enthralled with the improvements and having had the opportunity to become engaged in the project. The Alderman has been kept apprised of the project and the Mayor plans on touting the project at a ribbon cutting this spring as another example of the City's commitment to reduce stormwater runoff.

The stage setting now offers an inviting, attractive vest-pocket park. The actors are the entire community who delight in using the park or admire it from outside. There is no expected end to Act III, as an engaged community will ensure the park is stewarded well into the future.

Angie Tornes can be reached at (414) 297-3605 or RTCA staff assist with approximately 300 projects each year and have worked in all 50 states. For more details on the RTCA Program and contact information, visit

Unexpected finds at Lewis Play Field
When the public learns of something that piques their interest, expect the unexpected. A member of the neighborhood historical society offered to research the history of its namesake, Dr. Paul H. Lewis. The City's records indicated that the doctor was born near the park in the surrounding Bay View neighborhood and dedicated much of his life to researching and fighting yellow fever. The historian took the information further by discovering where the doctor had lived and conducted surgery (both in the same house a few blocks away), and revealing the editorial career and dalliances of his only child.

A local hair dresser, a descendant of the neighborhood's first Polish fishing community settlers, embraced the project as she recalled fond memories and shared images of her childhood girlfriends at the park. A local Serbian restaurant owner shared his stories about playing at the park as a child and eagerly awaited the park's restoration to its former dignity. Without solicitation, many civic groups offered to donate services or funds.

All of these events evolved organically out of the project public exposure and added unexpected depth and value to the project.