Standing with a fishing rod bobbing in the Washington Park lagoon, 61-year-old Stan Johnson said it was his first time out for the season.
“I heard they put the trout in here. I don’t eat trout, so I come out here, mess around for a couple hours,” Johnson said.
Surrounded by a light breeze and stillwater, Johnson said he likes the quietness that comes with the activity.
“A bad day of fishing beats a good day at home,” he joked.
A fisher since he was 6 years old, Johnson said he fishes everywhere, from Madison, Delavan Lake and Lake Wisconsin and likes to make catfish bait from the fish he catches.
He said others should take kids fishing, too.
“They’ll like you for it. Give them a new experience, take them and get them off the street,” Johnson said.
There are people trying to make that come true when it comes to Milwaukeeans and recreational water. They point to lack of equipment and transportation as impediments for some Milwaukeeans to experience the city’s waterways.
Right across the lagoon, the Urban Ecology Center-Washington Park branch offers opportunities for children and adults to engage in recreation on the water, such as boating and fishing.
Branch Manager Terry Evans said the Urban Ecology Center wants to invite community members to use the equipment at little to no cost with an Urban Ecology Center membership.
To use the equipment, residents can become Urban Ecology Center members, enrolling in the $60 family membership package or the $50 individual membership package. A family package covers two adults, all children or grandchildren who are younger than 18 years old in the household and one guest. An individual package covers one individual and one guest.
Cassie Bauer, Urban Ecology Center community programs manager, said that recreation equipment prices are one barrier that sometimes prevents people from accessing waterways in Milwaukee.
“There are certainly a good handful of individuals that we work with who have never been in a boat, or they have not been on the water. They may experience a fear of water, they may not know how to swim, (or) they may have been told through generations or in their lifetime that natural spaces are not safe for them,” Bauer said.
Breaking through barriers
Bauer said that transportation can be another barrier for Milwaukee residents, and the Urban Ecology Center works to provide transportation for participants partaking in its beachcombing program and students in its Young Scientists Club program.
For students, the Urban Ecology Center also offers environmental education for students from the first through the 12th grade to give them the opportunity to learn about water ecology and participate in water activities.
“If we can engage students in first grade, third grade or fifth grade, and show them that there are insects that live in the water that support a whole myriad of life, there is a connection there that stays with them and allows them to see that these spaces exist not just for humans but to support a greater ecosystem that humans are certainly apart of,” Bauer said.
Arijit Sen, associate professor of architecture and urban studies programs at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and faculty adviser for the Milwaukee Environmental Justice Lab, said children’s difficulty to accessing water is not their fault.
“There are young people in Sherman Park who never saw the lake, believe it or not. I actually went to Washington High School and I met these kids who said, ‘You’re from the lake, what does the lake look like?’ And I was like ‘What?’” Sen said. “That lack of access is because of a history of segregation.”
The lab brings together academic and community scholars who focus on environmental injustice issues, particularly on the North Side.
Evans said a student asked him if the Washington Park lagoon was Lake Michigan.
“That tells you where the access is for parts of our community, and it also shows the segregation,” Evans said. “It shows a lot of ugly things about the city, but the great thing about that is we’re able to give those kids an opportunity. And ‘No, it’s not the lakefront but this is Washington Park and this is a park in your community that you can go to, and that’s the great part about it.’”
Jennifer Bolger Breceda, executive director of Milwaukee Riverkeepers, said to help Milwaukee residents access waterways, her organization provides several resources, such as the Urban Water Trail map that shows public access points to the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers.
“It’s easy to say that people should enjoy the rivers, but it’s not always obvious how to safely access them through public space,” Bolger Breceda said.
"It belongs to all of us"
Rhonda Nordstrom, water city program coordinator for Milwaukee Water Commons, said addressing water access issues is important because water is a communal resource.
“The idea is that it belongs to no one and no one can own it, and at the same time it belongs to all of us, and we’re all responsible for the care and stewardship of water,” Nordstrom said.
Among several programs, Milwaukee Water Commons offers a Beach Ambassador Project that provides opportunities for community members to access water, with a focus on safety.
Milwaukee Water Commons partners with community activists, the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center, University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, Coastline Services and Milwaukee Riverkeepers for programming along Lake Michigan on Bradford and McKinley beaches.
Nordstrom said the Beach Ambassador program aims to equip participants with a deeper understanding and awareness of local beach conditions, such as closure, safety signage and real-time water conditions.
“Those are the programs where we’re really intentional about either opening opportunities for people to have positive experiences at Lake Michigan and also doing what we can to make sure those experiences are safe,” Nordstrom said.
Milwaukee Water Commons also offers a water stewardship and leadership program called the Water School. Community members who are 16 years and older can participate in teams of five in a yearlong cohort to develop a neighborhood-wide project that involves the Milwaukee watershed and address the Commons’ Water City Agenda.
“To have an impact in your local watershed, your water stewardship efforts are most likely going to first impact the quality of your local watershed,” Nordstrom said.
Nordstrom said the Water School program shows how profound water can impact people.
“To see community elders and water experiences – but also how much that experience becomes the pathway which stories are told of the city and experiences, and people’s childhood memories and just how much just being at the water brings out for people – you almost always see just how much it means for people to be in those spaces,” Nordstrom said.