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Pulaski Park and KK River

Photo Essay: Kinnickinnic River restoration in Pulaski Park

January 5, 2021  |  Topics: Issues, Places

Photos by Eddee Daniel

Text by Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District

Project Overview

Pulaski Park is a beautiful urban 26-acre park, situated on Milwaukee’s South Side. It has always been an active destination but now the community has rediscovered an amazing treasure within the park, the Kinnickinnic River! Over the last two years, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), in partnership with Milwaukee County Parks and others, removed over 1,700 feet of cracked and broken concrete river lining and restored the Kinnickinnic River to a natural stream in Pulaski Park.

This project is part of a larger effort by MMSD and its partners to reduce the risk of flooding, improve public safety by slowing down the river, improve the natural habitats within the river and along its banks for fish and wildlife, and refresh parts of the park to better support recreation and meet community needs.

View of KK River in Pulaski Park from 16th St Bridge. 2015
View of KK River in Pulaski Park from 16th St Bridge. 2015
The same view during concrete channel removal. 2018
The same view in 2021.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Surrounding Pulaski Park are the Forest Home Hills and Lincoln Village neighborhoods, which are home to over 18,000 residents living in just under two square miles. Once predominantly made up of a Polish population, today the majority of households are of Latinx origin. Many of the current neighbors are lifelong residents of the area.

Pulaski Park is one of the only green spaces in the area, serving a very diverse community with many different needs. The park includes something for people of all ages and activity levels from active (basketball/futsal) to passive (walking paths).  The park also includes one of two indoor pools within the Milwaukee County Park system.

View south from Cleveland Avenue. 2015
The same view in 2020.

The Pulaski Park area, as well as the entire Kinnickinnic River Watershed, is highly urbanized. The dense number of streets, parking lots, and rooftops, prevent rain and melting snow from naturally being absorbed back into the soil. Unfortunately, during storm events, water flows quickly off these surfaces and overwhelms the river, which drastically increases the risk of flooding.  As development spread throughout the watershed, the frequency and magnitude of flooding increased for the communities downstream, such as the neighborhoods surrounding Pulaski Park.

In the 1960s, government officials thought the best way to protect the neighborhood and public health was to move the water through the river systems as fast as possible. To accomplish this, many sections of the Kinnickinnic River and its tributary streams, including in Pulaski Park, were “channelized” by lining the streams with concrete. The concrete channels were successful at quickly moving water through the system. Unfortunately, it also created safety, water quality, and downstream flooding problems.

The pedestrian bridge over the KK River in Pulaski Park.
The pedestrian bridge over the KK River in Pulaski Park. 2015
The same view during restoration. 2019
The same view in 2021.

Community Connections

MMSD recognizes that engaging the community in collaborative decision making improves the connections between land, water and people. From the beginning neighbors provided input on what parts of the park they love, what they would like to see improved, and what they would like to see changed. Engaging the community early and often built trust, promoted accountability, and strengthened the commitment of all.

Throughout the projects’ design process neighbors were asked for feedback through newsletters, monthly neighborhood meetings, special events, and public meetings. Neighbors voted on the design and color of the new pedestrian bridge, the new types of playground equipment, and the types of sport courts.

View north from Cleveland Avenue. 2015
View north from Cleveland Avenue. 2015
View north from Cleveland during restoration. The coffer dam in the center is holding back the KK River flow and diverting it into the pipes so that the channel is dry enough to demolish and replace. 2018
View north from Cleveland Avenue. 2020

Not only did the neighbors provide their input on the project, they were actively involved in caring for the park. Summer camp youth from the area created a Pulaski Park mural with the help of Melanie Ariens. On a regular basis the KKRNIA organized litter cleanups of the area. SSCHC hosted workshops and classes in the park for residents to learn about the plants and river.

Meaningful community engagement and partnerships led to a park that everyone cares for and enjoys.

The concrete channel of the KK River in Pulaski Park. 2009
The concrete channel of the KK River in Pulaski Park. 2009
The same view during channel demolition. 2019
A similar view from farther away in 2020.

The Result

The outcome is a park that the whole community can be proud of and love. 

  • Over 1,700 feet of cracked and broken concrete lining the riverbed was removed, and the river channel widened to allow the area to better handle heavy rains. 
  • The bridge opening under W. Cleveland Ave. at the center of the park was opened up to allow more water to flow through during floods.
  • At the neighbors’ request, the tennis court was changed to a futsal court.
  • The basketball court was replaced
  • The park’s pedestrian bridge over the river was replaced with a new design picked by the neighbors.
  • New native plants and trees were planted throughout the park.  The deeper roots on these native plants will soak up more stormwater, minimize erosion and buffer the stream to prevent pollutants from reaching the river. These areas also provide great areas for butterflies, birds, and other animals to live.
  • A new playground was installed, and neighbors picked the type of equipment.
  • Improved trails and river overlooks are now throughout the park.
  • A new pool patio with open views of the restored river.
View of KK River in Pulaski Park from 16th St. 2020.
View of KK River in Pulaski Park from 16th St. 2020.

For more information go to the MMSD website.

The text was provided by Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, from their website. Used with permission. MMSD is a project partner of A Wealth of Nature. Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks.