Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

5 Ways to Improve the Riverwalk

Riverwalk should be a marquee attraction, but won't be without these fixes.

By - Aug 28th, 2017 08:36 pm
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The Milwaukee Riverwalk.

The Milwaukee Riverwalk. Photo by Dave Reid.

The Milwaukee RiverWalk is a success by any measure. It’s used in marketing materials for the city. It has re-knit the city’s connection with its namesake river. And last, but not least, the system has produced a billion dollars in increased property values for the $52 million invested in its creation. Impressive. But could it be better?

Milwaukee RiverWalk System Map

Milwaukee RiverWalk System Map

The system, which is built incrementally through a public-private partnership, is 83 percent complete according to a recent city report. It runs for approximately three miles from the southeast tip of the Historic Third Ward to the former North Avenue Dam on the Lower East Side, lining both sides of the river with fewer and fewer gaps in-between.

I took the opportunity to walk every inch of the system yesterday. Along the way I encountered 191 other pedestrians (yes, I counted) from all walks of life, showing the broad appeal of the system, even on a dreary day that included scattered rain.

The walk took hours, and parts were quite monotonous, but it gave me plenty of time to formulate ideas for how to improve things without breaking the bank.

1. Install and Maintain Better Signage

The Milwaukee RiverWalk Logo? Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee RiverWalk Logo? Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Signage on the Milwaukee RiverWalk is abysmal. For some parts of the system it’s easy to identify that you’re on the Riverwalk, be it the signs you do encounter or a heavy pedestrian presence. Yet massive parts of the system are completely devoid of signage.

The oldest part of the system that runs through Downtown includes a wave symbol in the sidewalk that identifies it as part of the riverwalk system, but doesn’t include any text with the symbol to explain what it means. This is good enough for regulars, but useless to anyone encountering the system for the first time. Add some text to it, and install this everywhere so the Milwaukee RiverWalk has consistent branding throughout.

But any signage must also be maintained and updated. One good looking sign in a high traffic area of the Riverwalk lists a number of nearby restaurants, of which six of the eight have closed. That’s not only confusing, but embarrassing.

Expanding on that problem, wayfinding signage is available near Wisconsin Ave., but the further away you get the less likely you are to find a sign to guide you. The Third Ward and Lower East Side segments appear to be completely devoid of wayfinding signage. Which way to Lakefront Brewery? How far can I walk to the south? Where is the nearest bathroom?

The system, being that it’s built incrementally, certainly faces complications because it’s always slowly expanding and distances are therefore changing. But a simple branding and wayfinding scheme that can be easily updated would go a long way to improving the pedestrian experience.

Milwaukee RiverWalk Wayfinding Signage. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee RiverWalk Wayfinding Signage. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

2. More Placemaking

The Bronze Fonz always draws a crowd, especially now with this La Lune furniture nearby. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Bronze Fonz always draws a crowd, especially now with this La Lune furniture nearby. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

There are parts of the riverwalk that are very interesting places to hang out, but unfortunately you can count them on one hand (the Bronze Fonz, the area near the Milwaukee Ale House, the segment by Lakefront Brewery and the segment from E. Wisconsin Ave. to Rock Bottom Brewery). The recently unveiled Trestle Park will certainly add another must-see destination to the system, but sections of the riverwalk are devoid of anything engaging.

A laudable public art program adds some interest to the riverwalk, but the pieces don’t beg you stay around.

Love it or hate it, we live in an era of selfies. People want to snap a photo of themselves. This is why the Bronze Fonz succeeds. Build on that. Have VISIT Milwaukee install a picture frame that people can get their photo snapped in with the skyline framed behind them. Install a teeter totter in Schlitz Park along the massive surface parking lot. Have the Milwaukee Bucks build an interactive monument near the new arena. Build a water fountain with extensive lighting on the segment under Interstate 794. Those are just my ideas; others may have suggestions to further activate the Riverwalk.

3. How About Some Events?

There was a major riverwalk event, RiverSplash, except by the time it was shut down in 2008 it didn’t have much to do with the riverwalk. Today the only real programming along the river is the annual Milwaukee River Challenge which features rowing teams charging down a three-mile course. There is potential for so much more.

What would it take to get the NEWaukee Night Market to extend to the riverwalk? What about programming the riverwalk with musicians at various spots on summer weekends? What about a scavenger hunt for kids? The events needn’t be extravagant, but giving people a special reason to walk the riverwalk would help lay the groundwork for future improvements, and perhaps introduce many more people to this wonderful part of the city.

In the 12 years I’ve lived in Milwaukee there has been explosion of boating activity on the river. It’s time to bring that level of activity and excitement to the riverwalk.

4. Better Connect with the City

The Bronze Fonz always draws a crowd, especially now with this La Lune furniture nearby. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

This is an access point to the Milwaukee RiverWalk. It could use a sign. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Not only does the Riverwalk need more signage, but numerous access points to it are completely unmarked. If you didn’t know where to look, you could easily miss them. And if you do find them, it’s unclear if it’s a public walkway or a private sidewalk leading to, say, a parking garage’s back door.

A number of access points are treated more like back hallways than front doors to a multi-million dollar, miles-long park. They’re unmarked small sidewalks or small ramps tucked between buildings.

If people are to use the riverwalk we need to lead them to the riverwalk. Future access points should be more like the west end of Buffalo St. where the street opens up to the river and includes a whimsical winding ramp to entice people to try the riverwalk. We need more such ways to draw people from the unmarked sidewalks that are tucked into many of the new buildings developed along the river.

Overlooked Milwaukee RiverWalk Access Point. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Overlooked Milwaukee RiverWalk Access Point. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

5. Plan for the Future

Given the complexities involved in building around bridges and dealing with a host of other difficulties, it’s amazing the riverwalk even exists in the first place. That said, it’s now such an established concept that any future development, public or private, needs to be well planned to facilitate future growth. Any bridges that are rebuilt should allow for the system to pass underneath or smoothly transition to street level; right now many of the switchback staircases and other accommodations to connect different elevations on the riverwalk are pretty clunky. Future development along the riverwalk should facilitate smooth transitions between segments.

The oldest segments near Wisconsin Ave today are the hardest to traverse because of the constantly changing elevations. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable they must be for those in wheelchairs. (I rode in one of the elevators the city had to build to settle a 2003 accessibility lawsuit. The nicest thing I can say is that I quickly forget it smelled like urine when I had to fight to get the door to close so the elevator would function.) Plans should be laid in place now to fix those elevation issues in the future, as segments will undoubtedly need to be rebuilt and properties will be redeveloped.

This will all be increasingly important as the city looks to build a second system along the Menomonee River. Plans for that new two-mile long system were unveiled earlier this year. The new segments will add value to the entire network, but only if they’re well connected.

42 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: 5 Ways to Improve the Riverwalk”

  1. Pat says:

    Excellent article! I totally agree with your observations.

  2. mbradleyc says:

    There should be an app for that. No joke.

  3. DemCo says:

    Love all this. Please add this simple maintenance plea: If you have decorative lighting, make sure the bulbs work! Just this past weekend I walked the Riverwalk at night with out of town guests – while delightful, so many burned out bulbs under the bridges turned what could be “magical” to “neglected.” And the glorious old Gimbel’s columns were an embarrassment of burned out lighting when it should be a lighted wall of glory!

  4. SteveM says:

    Jeramey, spot on! Events: boat parade, buskers, music, plein air painting fest, floating markets? Great article.

  5. Steve Byers says:

    Signage is not only a key and challenge for the Riverwalk, but for all of Milwaukee. For a city that receives a great deal of tourist dollars, it’s remarkably hard to find good directions. Double the size of all street signs. Include directional signage at most street corners, both for drivers and pedestrians. Require all appropriate new remodellings/developments to include the Riverwalk and other signage into their plans. And certainly follow mcbradleyc’s suggestion of an app.

  6. Virginia says:

    Terrific suggestions, Jeramey.

    Another thing that would make a huge difference: MORE TREES! This could especially be added into the planning for all expansions. On a hot sunny day, walking the RiverWalk at midday can be oppressive, especially along the Commerce Avenue condos. The RW should have a tree canopy–for many reasons. Just as streets without trees feel desolate and unwelcoming, so do public walkways.

  7. Jennifer H. says:

    Spot on Jeramey. We’ve such a opportunity to make Riverwalk a spectacular environment for residents and visitors alike. At HGA, we’re very excited to be bringing Trestle Park to life, creating more placemaking spots along the river. Stay tuned as construction begins in September.

  8. Todd Ruehmer says:

    I feel like all these problems could be solved if there was some kind of Riverwalk association to put some thought into it. Is there? What does San Antonio do?

    Follow up: What are the big numbers embedding in the decking of the Third Ward portion for?

  9. Vincent Hanna says:

    Some info about the development and maintenance of San Antonio’s River Walk:

  10. Brice says:

    Another good step would be to add flashing signals to the crosswalks. There are many crosswalks, but only 1 or 2 of them have flashing signals. Adding these signals would make crossings much safer.

  11. Carl says:

    I have seen pedestrians push the button for the flashing lights and then just stand there waiting because they cannot see that the lights are flashing because the lights face the traffic and cannot be seen by the button pusher.

    The big embedded numbers are either the river depth (2 digits) or the width (3 digits)

  12. A Prire says:

    This is the absolute perfect opportunity to further design and implement the diverse ideas that this unique resource provides. The city is evolving…incredible natural design with functional necessity.

    Tourism loves this resource, and it is understandable. The city wins with promoting the river in every aspect.
    Businesses should be encouraged to take part and embrace the vision.

    This river walk is accessible and well planned. It is safe and clean, with great views of the city, the lake and of what is best about Milwaukee, its people!

    Great article! Fantastic suggestions! Please keep this effort as a regular focus.

  13. John says:

    I would recommend something like the Strandbar Mitte in Berlin. It had a couple different local food/beverage purveyors set up, with tons of outdoor seating and even a dance floor. It was directly across from all of the major museums and surrounded on many sides by large, commercial buildings. On days with awesome weather, it was packed. It would be a great way to activate some of the more benign stretches that don’t have much in the way of commercial space. I would guess local food trucks and one of the many new local breweries would love the opportunity to have a public space to sell their goods.

  14. Jerry says:

    @Steve Byers: I agree with you on all points. I moved here from Mpls 20 years ago and even now, I still wonder WHY Mke does not have street signs that are large and at EVERY intersection. The signs are too small and by the time one gets to the intersection to find out where they are, it’s too late to make a decision, thus causing one to reroute to reach their destination. On another note, when is Mke going to get with the times and invest in traffic predictable traffic lights? Mpls has had these since the early 90s. When I moved here 20 years ago, everyone told me that Mke is 15- 20 years behind Mpls. TRUE to this day!

  15. Dan Thompson says:

    The West Bank The redevelopment of The Grand Avenue Mall could be the springboard to drawing pedestrian activity
    south from Wis. Ave., Convention center, symphony hall, theater/ hotel district to new linkages along the River and into the Third Ward. The clunky development of parking structures and lots and lots all the way to St. Paul Ave. could be transformed into a mixed retail and hotel/residential ( a Bayshore type district). A rethinking of the maze of curling interchange ramps and barren parking lots, totally hostile to pedestrians, could come from efforts to redevelop. Think of this area and bordering riverfront as an opportunity to provide a more attractive gateway to Downtown. . Bringing some traffic calming and streetscaping. is overdue. Pedestrianways could lead to the Riverfront with perhaps including a group of pedestrian walkways, perhaps elevated. We need to reconsider the West Bank as part of a greater opportunity to provide much better access all the new activities springing up from Grand Ave. to St. Paul and etc. Downtown Should Lead.

  16. Virginia says:

    I agree with all of the above. Updating the RiverWalk would be a great way to start focusing on how to make the most of Milwaukee’s public spaces. As Jerry noted, Minneapolis is far ahead on this. So is Chicago.

    The park beneath the freeway near the Public Market that accesses the RiverWalk is a move in the right direction. And since people visit Milwaukee year-round, planning should consider ways to engage RiverWalkers in all seasons, including those attending a concert or whatever. It can be a great way to encourage people to linger, which has positive economic development impacts.

  17. max says:

    My thoughts

    #1 – Floating beer garden

    #2 – I agree with Virginia – we need more trees/shade options and just more greenery in general

    #3 – here’s a free idea for Newaukee – have a Friday night dance party under the freeway across from the market on the river – call it 794.

    #4 – finally, just finish the damn thing – 83% complete? let’s just get there!!

  18. A Prire says:

    Trees/lighting are huge benefit to the atmosphere/function this can create with minimal maintenance.

    Outdoor art would go a long way too! Inspired/executed by local talent!

    I agree…lets move on to completion as a community project!

    Endless positive possibilities for all!

  19. Andy says:

    @Todd Agree 100% on the maintenance aspect, especially the Third Ward section. That stretch of the Riverwalk was so nice when it went in and the Historic Third Ward Association/BID #2 has really let it go downhill over the last several years.

    As for the numbers, I believe they indicate either the width or the depth of the river at that location.

  20. MidnightSon says:

    I favor two kinds of improvements to the Riverwalk: (1) systemic things like signage-branding-access ID, trees, seating, and lighting, and (2) increased small scale engagement opportunities like selfie opps, buskers, art-historic markers, etc. To me, these seem to have the potential for the greatest and broadest impact in the long term for the cost.

    Events are fine while they happen, but I don’t think anyone case say that the Newaukee Night Market has somehow improved Wisconsin Avenue outside of its own lifespan. Don’t simply host an event. Create a “there.”
    Nothing wrong with a mini-concert or two, but look to more physically permanent improvements or to small improvements that can have a big impact on people’s experiences. (My take is that people experience cities in two ways, big scale and small scale–and I believe the Riverwalk is a great opportunity for small scale experiences. Pet Gertie the Duck, snap a pic with the Fonz, stop and listen to a one-person band, chalk it up with an artist, experience that light installment that intuitively seems to play music when my family and I walk by. Those are the downtown memories people take with them and the stories they tell their friends.

    Way-making efforts in downtown Milwaukee befuddle me a bit. Sure, there are posts with multiple signs letting people know they’re a block away from City Hall but, frankly, those signs are oddly less about way-making than they are about “place-making” their own locations. (That’s why you see them primarily in some areas and not others.) No need for a sign. Just crank your head 90 degrees and look down the street! Downtown Milwaukee is small enough and navigable enough to not need these “whimsical” signs that are the precursers of today’s highway signs. “Chicago 89 miles.” They’re just goofy in the context of downtown Milwaukee.

    App – yes.
    Maps – yes

  21. max says:

    1 more

    Badeschiff – Spree River Swimming pool in Berlin:

  22. Virginia says:

    For the RiverWalk to have more sense of “there” (as MidnightSon notes), it needs to draw both tourists who stumble upon it and area residents who return again and again.

    Yes, big events can help promote awareness/excitement but small-scale experiences will help make the whole space and journey more compelling as a destination.

    Successful public spaces have multiple activities that draw people there. RW is an ideal place for busking musicians. Does anyone know what the city’s policies are that either encourage or discourage that? What about small food carts? What about spaces where people could set up games like chess?

    Are there key points of the RW that the Downtown BID or other civic group could help activate on a regular basis to jump-start more dynamism, such as Pere Marquette Park, Marcus Center frontage, etc?

  23. Bruce says:

    I agree with Jeramey that this City amenity needs to be improved. My suggestion of adding a water taxi service will only be successful when there is a comprehensive, coordinated plan, and spaces and events that bring more activity. This effort should be encouraged by Aldermen Nik Kovac​ and Robert Bauman.

  24. Steve says:

    Totally agree with your observations, but riddle me this – – – What is/are the compelling reason(s) for anyone to use the Riverwalk? Does it lead to anywhere that isn’t accessible by any other means? Having lived here all my life, I still can’t think of a reason to use it. Maybe create some buzz that would draw people to walk the Riverwalk.

  25. MidnightSon says:

    @Steve, I think you’ve hit upon the paradox of the Riverwalk. If we consider it a thoroughfare from one place to another, it doesn’t make sense. But, if we regard it as a destination to stroll along and engage the water, the weather, the buildings, and whatever else we put there, it’s value becomes more clear.

  26. Tom D says:

    Steve, one compelling reason for taking the Riverwalk is that it’s faster than using sidewalks and waiting for traffic signals. The Riverwalk either crosses underneath streets (like Clybourn) or it has a crosswalk (like Wisconsin), where cars are SUPPOSED to stop for you.

  27. Virginia says:

    Steve, Paris has lower walkways along the Seine as well as streets with sidewalks overlooking it. They are different, complementary experiences.

    The RW has helped revitalize Downtown. It just needs more tweaking and TLC.

  28. More events? Isn’t a good place an event in and of itself?

  29. 1) Why not a “Laverne & Shirley” sculpture or anod to other TV programs that had Milwaukee as a back drop ( 70’s Show). 2) What about a bus map for access points along the walkway for those of who would find it difficult to traverse 3+ miles. and 3) Also more historical markers telling the story of Milwaukee’s growth & developement, from ethnic neighborhoods to the urban center in it’s near future. And the native flora & fauna that existed in this area.

  30. Bill says:

    All this I agree with but nothing in Milwaukee gets done easily. Our downtown area is so far behind other Midwestern cities of our size and population due to under funding and especially no forward thinking. Our politicians need young forward thinking candidate’s challenge the establishment candidate’s for the positions that control this type of development. Our political leaders have always taken the approach it’s easier to do nothing than to make Milwaukee a viable and thriving destination point of the state that will add to the tax base of the state with additional conventions and visitors enjoying the natual beauty our downtown could offer.

  31. Sam says:

    A lot of good ideas. My question is who is ultimately in charge of the maintenance and improvement of the Riverwalk? Is it individual BIDs? The city?

    Milwaukee has a real problem with disparate interests approaching the same issue in a myriad different ways which results in half baked results.

    A single authority, with dedicated funding, must be responsible for the vision, maintenance, and improvement of the ENTIRE Riverwalk. It’s essentially a public amenity, built with private funding, that now is the public’s responsibility. Any talk of improvement is worthless without a funding source and someone or some organization being responsible for all of it.

  32. Virginia says:


    Re: Comments 30, 31 and others, how about a follow-up article with input from city planners and anyone else responsible for any aspects of the RiverWalk (planning, design codes, maintenance)? What entity or individuals (official or not) might be willing to lead on getting needed changes made for the RW to fulfill its potential?

  33. Angela Robert says:

    Good points made here- would like to add that the same goes for the bike trails. The routes have poor signage. Some of the intersections are dangerous (Lincoln Memorial Drive by the lagoon, for example).

  34. Barbara Richards says:

    In scrolling through I found a few mentions of trees being needed along the river. I advocate for many trees. There is one hillside next to the MSOE soccer field and parking garage that would be a wonderful site for an urban food forest of permaculture design. This area would be a sure fit at the north end to those who have enjoyed a walk up the river and seek to relax in a cooling green space. Perhaps even one of those swirly walkways could bring pedestrians across the Water Street thoroughfare. There could be shops in the vacant storefront under the soccer field that provide refreshment made from the food produced at that site. There could be harvesters, chefs and servers employed. Harvesters would have been trained by Blue Skies Landscaping, LLC ( Walnut Way) and chefs and servers by Tandem Restaurant. It could be a reality!

  35. mbradleyc says:

    There really needs to be an alternate route under every bridge. It can be done.

    Also, how about starting a Friends of the Milwaukee RiverWalk? How do we do that?

    Not just trees, but lots of plants all over it. Trestles of vines, planters, window boxes.

  36. Harv says:

    Adjacent bars and restaurants should be required to allow open access access to their restrooms. This is required in cities welcoming tourists. Shame on the Ale House in this regard. And let’s move the homeless guy under 794 East at the river.

  37. michael says:

    Many of the bridges, one can walk under. But for the bridges with street-level crossings, we could just lift the draw bridges during nights/weekends and block the through traffic. Then the Riverwalk would be a peaceful and perfectly unobstructed stroll – a true destination for residents and visitors alike. During off-peak hours, there’s more than ample capacity on the other bridge crossings for vehicular traffic.

  38. Virginia says:

    mblradleyc: I think forming a Friends of the RiverWalk could initially just involve seeking out like-minded people to start meeting and setting goals, etc. Any group would need to engage with one or more point staffers at the City of Milwaukee.

    Ultimately, if friends groups want to raise money to support stewardship they sometimes obtain their own 501(c)3 status. In the interim they can enlist an existing nonprofit to serve as their fiscal agent That’s what The Park People of Milwaukee County does for many friends groups of specific county parks, and also assists friends in other ways.

    I totally agree about more plants of all sorts. Hey, maybe there could be some type of recognition for businesses who excel in beautifying their RW segments.

  39. Liam says:

    Greatly done article. I have usually avoided the Riverwalk because of the sun so more trees and spots would be nice.

  40. Janet says:

    Great article! I agree with Virginia and Barbara, we desperately need more trees to cover all the concrete on the Riverwalk…and all around the city! With climate change raising temps, we will need trees and plants more than ever. The idea of not having places to sit and relax I am sure is an effort against having tourists encounter bums sleeping on benches. Not a nice thought, but there it is. Downtown is avoided by many people because of the panhandler problem. And can we put a moratorium on ‘events’ please. Folks are perfectly capable of entertaining themselves if given a chance to walk amongst greenery along a river on a lovely day in relative peace and quiet.

  41. John Jansen says:

    All terrific ideas. Thanks for a much needed update on thia wonderful asset Your points are all valid.

    Speaking of ilack of signage, how about doing a walk down the Hank Aaron state trail? Good luck not getting lost there!!! The signage is all but nonexistent.

  42. Phil Man says:

    These are great ideas for helping Milwaukee better enjoy and capitalize on this amazing asset, Jeramey. At a time when too much potentially public space is gated or privatized, it’s really encouraging to see the good that results when property owners, BIDs and city government collaborate to create a public space that’s cumulatively pretty massive.

    In walking a new stretch of Riverwalk myself — alongside/behind the new Bader-Rutter building — I was disappointed to find that section end abruptly in a fence/gate protecting a private elevated wooden deck attached to the building marked “Water Street Garage, BJ Peck, Proprietor.” I suppose no budget existed in the redevelopment of the Laacke and Joys site to extend the Riverwalk the relatively short distance past this adjacent property and to give pedestrians a route through to Cherry Street. Still, it’s too bad for a major new stretch of Riverwalk to feature a significant gap. Any thoughts on this section??

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