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Rain Garden in Hoyt Park

Nature Ignores Design that Ignores Nature

March 14, 2022  |  Topics: Issues

By Tom Mortensen, PLA, ASLA

Photography by Eddee Daniel

I am passionate about water. As a Site Planner and Landscape Architect for raSmith and Friends of the Domes Board Member, I encourage people to think about how we use and manage water. Water issues affect every aspect of life.

Floodwater detention basin on the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa. Responding to twin “100-year” floods that ravaged the city in the 1990s, this 65-acre basin was designed not only to contain flood waters but also to resemble natural wetlands.

Background on Stormwater Management

In the 1950’s-60’s, best practices in engineering developed a system of channeling water from our tributaries and rivers into Lake Michigan. This led to the creation of concrete ditches and channels; we see them all around Milwaukee. Home owners were advised to channel water into storm sewers. Water was treated as a problem that should be eliminated.

Wilson Creek, a tributary of the Kinnickinnic River, is one of several Milwaukee area waterways that were channelized.
Honey Creek in McCarty Park, West Allis.

Some of the projects, like the MMSD Deep Tunnel Project have significantly decreased the amount of flooding, but heavy rains still cause major sewer overflows in Milwaukee. This flooding flushes everything from pollutants from vehicles to road salt into the lakes and rivers. Combined sewer overflows can ultimately end up in our drinking water. We have been trained to make it go away, but there is no “away.” Landscape architects, engineers and agencies understand this now, and best practices are shifting away from treating stormwater as a waste product. Now it is considered and treated it as a resource.

An angler is framed by one of several combined sewer overflow pipes that discharge into the Milwaukee River during extreme rain events, which have been reduced significantly by the deep tunnels but not eliminated entirely.
A stormwater sewer that discharges into the Menomonee River at Hoyt Park is being tested with green dye in order to monitor infiltration (leaks into the sewer) and other sources of pollution.

Green Infrastructure (GI) Strategies


Green Infrastructure strategies treat water as a resource rather than a problem. Good design methods use rainwater, diffuse it, and slow it down so that it can infiltrate or be detained before surcharging the storm sewer system.

Bioswales, a type of rain garden designed to capture and absorb rain water, under construction in the Reed Street Yards, Menomonee Valley.
A well-established rain garden in the middle of a parking lot in Grant Park absorbs runoff from the pavement.

In residential areas, homeowners are encouraged to consider using rain gardens and research the plants they add to their landscape. Directing water away from the house to a spot in a yard like a rain garden means that the water can be absorbed, or slowed down, and stay out of the sewer system. A low, wet spot in the yard can be designed with the proper plant material that is adapted to the soils that are present, whether it is clay, sand, or silty loam.

A “green roof” or rooftop garden, here atop the MMSD headquarters building next to the Menomonee River, absorbs rain water.

On commercial projects, developers are now required to offset the impact of their sites’ impervious areas (surface areas that do not absorb water like roofs and parking lots) with GI strategies. This can include green spaces that detain and use the water, permeable pavers that store water in the subgrade, and even innovative design features like water features that use rainwater. Roadside green spaces like the bioswales implemented on Grange Avenue in Greendale capture sediment and pollutants before they enter our storm sewers and waterways.

Newly created bioswales to capture rainwater at the recently opened Trinity Woods Residential and Senior Living Community at Mount Mary University.

To make these projects possible, MMSD offers incentives to developers who implement effective strategies through their Green Infrastructure Partnership Program (GIPP). For example, raSmith’s team designed an extensive system of permeable pavers, basins and bioswales to capture rainwater at the new Trinity Woods Residential and Senior Living Community at the Mount Mary University Campus. Because the potential impact is so large, this project received $1.3 million in construction cost reimbursement from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) under this program. 

Three Bridges Park in the Menomonee Valley is an example of environmental restoration and adaptive redesign of a former railroad yard. The flat “Airline Yards” were contoured into rolling hills reminiscent of glacial terrain.

It is encouraging to know that there are many experts like myself that are educating the public and making a significant impact on how we relate to, think of, and manage water. It is also clear that more of us need to have this passion and ethic for water. We can respect our water with simple and proven strategies like turning the water off when brushing our teeth and using low-flow toilets, but it’s much bigger than that. For example, if you become aware of how Wisconsin’s mega industrialized factory (dairy) farms are impacting our water quality, you may change your buying habits to support businesses that share your values and that respect our waters. You can also be aware of, and vote for candidates in the state and local government that have demonstrated that they put OUR water quality ahead of special private interests and corporations. Let’s ask bigger questions about water so that we can take action to protect and value this limited and essential resource.


Design that ignores nature. Standard, non-native shrub plantings that don’t address stormwater issues.
Planting trees that will grow in urban environments requires special techniques to ensure survivability.
Design that respects nature does more than put trees into holes in the sidewalks.
Planted median on Milwaukee Street in the Third Ward.
A particularly egregious example of what the author calls a “stormwater jail,” Wilson Creek next to Mitchell International Airport.
Concrete channel in Underwood Creek, a tributary of the Menomonee River in Wauwatosa, being removed in preparation for stream bed restoration.
A concrete channel being removed from the Menomonee River.
Riprap used to stabilized river banks on the Pike River in Petrifying Springs Park in Kenosha.
Gabion wall–rocks encased in wire cages–used to stabilized bank in Honey Creek.
Restored Kinnickinnic River in Pulaski Park following removal of concrete channel.
Passive water treatment feature under construction in Reed Street Yards adjacent to Milwaukee’s Global Water Center.
Outflow structure in a flood detention basin.
Stormwater Park designed to capture, detain and absorb runoff from the adjacent Menomonee Valley Industrial Park in order to reduce stormwater flow into the Menomonee River.
A well-established bioswale/rain garden adjacent to the Oak Leaf Trail in Hoyt Park.

This story has been adapted from one that originally appeared in the Spring 2022 Friends of the Domes newsletter. Reprinted with permission.

Tom Mortensen is a Site Planner and Landscape Architect for raSmith and a board member of Friends of the Domes. Eddee Daniel is the curator and editor of The Natural Realm.