Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. In recognition of its innovative practices in environmental education programming, Washington Park has been named a Frontline Park.
“The Urban Ecology Center first came across City Parks Alliance as the ‘go to’ place to learn and share best practices for urban parks and are deeply honored that our Washington Park branch has been recognized on the national scale,” said Beth Fetterley Heller, Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning for the Urban Ecology Center. “Washington Park is a gem in the heart of Milwaukee that has seen amazing revitalization in the past decade. This award belongs to the community, as we could not have created a safe place for children and families to learn and play without deep engagement from community partners, businesses, neighbors and supporters.”
Washington Park was built in 1891 and designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The park was once home to the Milwaukee County Zoo, and is the centerpiece of the historic Washington Park neighborhood in the western section of Milwaukee. Currently, the neighborhood is one of the most diverse in the city, with the majority of residents being of African-American, Latino, and Hmong descent. As with many historic parks in aging neighborhoods, Washington Park has gone through cycles of degradation and revitalization in its nearly 125-year history, as the city around it changed both demographically and economically. Like many other neighborhoods across the U.S., Washington Park was hit hard by the recession and foreclosure crisis in 2007, and the plummeting property values and population drain had a devastating effect on the park.
As organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) leveraged funding to help stabilize the neighborhood, other organizations focused on the park itself. The Urban Ecology Center, which had contributed to the revitalization of Riverside Park in Milwaukee through an environmental education effort, opened a facility in Washington Park with the goal of bringing children from nearby schools to the park to foster knowledge of and respect for the urban environment. Although the park and the neighborhood are still feeling the effects of the foreclosure crisis, the Urban Ecology Center has been incredibly successful, drawing tens of thousands to the once empty park for educational and recreational opportunities.