Urban Rivers

Why Urban Rivers?

The River Alliance brings to its work to save urban rivers the same principles we apply to all our other river restoration initiatives: public education, strategic partnerships, community organizing and good public process.

We recognize that long-neglected and abandoned industrial waterfronts can in fact become economic and aesthetic assets to urban centers. Besides, cities are where people live and urban people ought to have access to clean and beautiful rivers. Such rivers cannot be the exclusive province of remote rural areas.


"When people walk, talk, work, eat, drink, boat and play by the water – when it becomes a part of their day-to-day life and not merely a special occasion destination – a real constituency for clean water is created." - former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist


A River Runs Through Them All

A river runs through almost every city in Wisconsin -- no surprise, as most of these cities came to be precisely because the river was there. Those flowing waters powered the progress of our cities and towns, transported goods, flushed away our wastes and generated power. However, progress came at a price: many of our urban rivers became polluted and degraded eyesores from decades of abuse and neglect.

In Wisconsin, Lake Michigan cities such as Milwaukee and Sheboygan have invested millions of dollars into major waterfront redevelopment projects along both the lakeshore and their riverfronts. This growing interest in urban waterfront redevelopment also brings with it a need for a more holistic vision that focuses not only on the built environment but also human needs, such as public access, affordable housing, cleaner water, and open space.

A key step to achieving economically, environmentally and socially beneficial riverfront redevelopment is to have good public participation in the decision-making. This is how the River Alliance makes an important contribution: we build on our past work in river restoration to educate people about the benefits of beautifying urban rivers and encourage effective public participation in policy-making.


First Stop: Racine’s Root River

Since early 2006, we have been actively involved with local citizens, civic and elected leaders in the city of Racine to restore the urban gem of the Root River, where it courses through the city’s downtown.

The Root River Corridor Redevelopment Plan, or “RootWorks,” calls for mixed-use development along the river, using sustainability through environmental design, historic preservation, live/work opportunities, entertainment venues, dining, recreation, employment centers and city and regional connections."


"What you’ve done with engaging the grassroots is really important. River Alliance was the first group to start beating the drum about the value of these [urban] rivers." - Brian Vandewalle, Vandewalle and Associates


Next stop: Connecting the dots

The journey leading an urban river from dirty and blighted to beautiful and valued is one of a thousand steps. But many cities around Wisconsin have started taking it. While more people are beginning to see what is possible for the river that runs through their backyard, there is a growing need for basic information about water in cities and for helping local citizens get organized and strategic. Navigating municipal policies and politics can be daunting. Sometimes, the most useful thing we can do is get people who are facing common challenges in a room together to share what they’ve learned with one another. In 2011 and 2012, we organized two workshops to bring several communities together to do just that: gather information, get organized and get connected to make their urban river restoration plans happen. The workshops were hosted by the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread in Racine. Following the workshops, the River Alliance will continue to offer assistance to these communities as they work toward restoring urban rivers and riverfronts.


Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust (or Sweet Water)

The River Alliance of Wisconsin participates in a collaborative project striving to reduce polluted runoff to Greater Milwaukee’s rivers through innovative, cost-effective means. The Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust – also, fondly known as Sweetwater – convenes and helps guide the activities of all participating organizations, government entities, utilities, scientists, and agriculture and business interests. The River Alliance leads Sweet Water’s activities to reduce polluted runoff from farmland. To demonstrate a successful way to achieve this goal, we work with the Ozaukee County Land and Water Management Department to reduce phosphorus runoff from 4,000 acres of farmland in a small watershed that drains to the Milwaukee River.