Milwaukee makes its landscaped boulevard system more sustainable

Milwaukee is known as the beer capital of America. It’s tough to argue when Miller and a number of smaller beer-makers call the city home, and the local baseball team is proudly named the Brewers. As important as beer is, and it is important, there’s plenty to see in this city on the shores of Lake Michigan beyond yeast and hops. For example, it’s difficult not to notice the landscaping that defines the streets in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee has a rich history, dating back to 1920, of landscaped street side areas, not only at the entrance to the city and at important landmarks, but even in residential and commercial areas.

The first landscaped and irrigated “boulevard” in Milwaukee was installed in the 1920s, and since that time the city has established a landscaped “boulevard system” that totals an amazing 120 miles. The effect is to add a lush, living touch to city streets, from downtown to residential areas, in every direction. Until recently, Milwaukee’s boulevards consisted mainly of turfgrass, highlighted by numerous small flower beds installed at frequent intervals, with almost all of these areas irrigated. The result was a maintenance-intensive landscape that required significant amounts of water.

“As it evolved, the amount of resources required to maintain and fertilize the turfgrass increased,” says Scott Baran, landscape architect with the city of Milwaukee. Until recently, a maintenance worker was assigned to one of the roughly 35 “boulevard segments” in the city, each several miles long. That worker would be responsible for the maintenance, trash pickup, etc., for that segment. “They would take their own vehicle out their daily, they would have their own box of tools on-site, and they would maintain that entire segment,” says Baran. “Each segment also had an old and archaic manual irrigation system, so they would fire it up at one end of the boulevard and walk the entire segment pulling weeds and picking up trash, and then walk back.”

Another hallmark of the boulevard system was the installation of primarily annual flowers in the small beds. “We do have our own city nursery to supply us with annual flowers, as well as perennials, shrubs and street trees, which is pretty unique,” says Baran.

“A lot of the annual beds were on boulevards in more residential areas. There are some boulevards with very nice historic homes along them, and over time the residents have almost adopted those as part of their yards; they would go out and help pull weeds and water the flowers,” says Baran. “And, at the request of residents and the alderman in that district (there are 15 aldermanic districts in Milwaukee), when we had the resources, we would go out to plant flowers in front of specific houses and areas. Those requests are kind of how the boulevard system developed over time.”

While everyone acknowledged that the result of this evolution was an aesthetically pleasing boulevard system, with happy residents who enjoyed the plantings in front of their homes, eventually the costs and demand on resources began to add up. “It just turned into a lot,” says Baran. “And, as the years progressed, budgets got tighter.”

Environmental sensitivities also increased on the part of residents and politicians. For example, one mayor about eight years ago directed the forestry section to stop fertilizing the boulevards, which took a toll on the turfgrass. “We then converted about half of our annual beds into perennial beds,” says Baran. “The thought was that it would save money because we wouldn’t need to do as much planting every year, but the perennials still do require maintenance every year, such as weeding and cutbacks.” There were also periodic restrictions on watering the boulevards.

Residents of Milwaukee and visitors alike appreciate the way that the landscape boulevards soften and add color to the already scenic city. Milwaukee has its own city nursery, which supplies plant materials for the boulevards.

Wisely, the decision was made that instead of following a continually changing series of haphazard maintenance directives, the better approach would be to create a “Strategic Boulevard Plan” that would guide long-term investments and maintenance of the landscaped boulevards in a way that is both financially and environmentally sustainable.

A committee, which included a number of landscape professionals, was assembled to evaluate the boulevard system and make recommendations for improvements. One of the first areas that caught the attention of the committee was the number of small flower beds scattered throughout the system.

“We had close to 3,000 of the tiny landscape beds, some of them as small as 5 by 5 feet. Obviously, it requires numerous stops to maintain all of these. Because all of these had manual irrigation, they all had to be turned on separately,” says Baran. “So, we came up with the idea of moving toward the use of fewer, larger beds that were more sustainable, which featured just a flash of color with annuals at the borders, but mainly relied on perennials, shrubs and ornamental trees. And, with that, move toward the use of automated irrigation.”

In 2007, the public was given an opportunity to offer input on the plan. “We went to many town hall meetings to talk with residents. There were many people who were upset about it, primarily over the aspect of losing the plantings in front of their house. People would say, ‘We’ve had flowers out in front of our house for years, and now we’re going to have nothing.’ We tried to explain that if we didn’t move forward with the sustainability plan, budget cuts might result in the elimination of the plantings anyhow,” says Baran. “Other people didn’t think the plan was sustainable enough; they wanted the use of all native species and no irrigation. It took some convincing, and eventually we did have about 80 percent approval for the plan.”

The plan was formally adopted in late 2007, and the work to transition the boulevard system began in early 2008. The 120 miles of boulevards were divided into three different 40-mile areas, with the goal of completing one area per year. “We had to coordinate with the city’s paving plan. Whenever possible, we tried to stay clear of areas being paved, or come in right after paving. We didn’t want a new bed to get damaged during paving,” says Baran.

The total square footage of existing beds was added up, and the goal was to keep as close to that total area but in the form of larger beds, called “signature beds,” in fewer locations. “We determined that the ideal location for the beds would be at or near intersections, where traffic slowed down and people could appreciate them. Sometimes, because of sight line considerations, the beds are being installed one island away from the intersections,” Baran explains. “Sometimes, the medians immediately at intersections are also very narrow because of the need for turning lanes.”

The second median in from intersections usually provides a wider area, allowing the bed to be surrounded by some turfgrass, offering protection, especially in the winter when snow might be piled and accumulate during winter road maintenance. The new beds are typically about 1,000 to 3,000 square feet, and are being constructed by the same forestry section crews that will then maintain them. While crews typically were able to circle around the beds on their 5-foot mowers, some beds now require the use of push mowers to navigate around. “It’s a trade-off for the aesthetics of how the design of the bed looks,” says Baran. The addition of “mower ramps” up onto newer medians has made it easier for mower crews to navigate up and down the boulevards.

Maintenance of the boulevards is now approached using roving crews. “They’ll stop at a bed to pull weeds and maintain it, and then they can drive a mile or so until they see the next bed. They’re not stopping every 20 feet and having to walk the entire thing,” says Baran. Mowing is done once or twice per week, depending on the growth of the grass and the season. “The person on the mower is also picking up garbage with a stick as they go,” he adds.

As part of the environmental efforts incorporated in the plan, the forestry section is allowed to install new automated irrigation only in medians that have a signature bed. The new irrigation system does cover both the bed and the turfgrass on that median. “It wouldn’t make sense to have a nice looking bed surrounded by brown grass,” says Baran. But, when a paving project or other work requires the old irrigation system to be removed from a median, it is not being replaced at all unless there is a bed on that median. So, the turfgrass on some medians without beds is now suffering from a complete lack of irrigation. “It’s a challenge, and it’s frustrating, but it’s a reality based on cost savings,” says Baran.

Over time, Milwaukee’s boulevards came to be defined by the presence of thousands of small flower beds, often installed at the request of homeowners. This proved to be costly in terms of maintenance and resources, so a plan was developed to transition to the use of fewer, larger beds.

That said, the improved aesthetics of the new beds seem to be making up for the fact that there’s less green turfgrass on some parts of the boulevards. “One of our crew members came up with the idea of also incorporating some stonework into the new beds. We did put in some granite cobbles and some miniature wing walls in the beds, and that became an added benefit that we didn’t anticipate, because at least in the winter months it added a little definition to the area,” says Baran. The cobbles used as edging were recycled from the streets of Milwaukee; the stone had been removed and palletized as old cobblestone areas were repaved. “That helped keep a little of the history of Milwaukee in the new beds,” says Baran.

The city is currently nearing the end of the second year of the boulevard transition plan. “As more people see the new beds and like them, we’ve had parties, such as a local business association, wanting additional beds that they funded and will pay us to maintain,” says Baran. “Now that there’s only a bed every 10 medians or so, we hope that groups like that might get together to provide for the maintenance.” Any such beds would have to be consistent with the framework of the Strategic Boulevard Plan, matching the other new beds in terms of size and materials.

More trees are also being added to the medians in areas where there are now no beds. “We’re trying to create more canopy. People who lost flowers might now get an ornamental flowering tree,” Baran explains. He says the reaction has been largely positive so far, and he’s heard from other municipalities interested in following Milwaukee’s lead.

Boulevard Design Guidelines

The following is a look at the guide-lines that were created as part of Milwaukee’s Strategic Boulevard Plan to guide construction and future maintenance of the city’s boulevard system.

  1. No evergreens will be planted in the signature beds.
  2. All beds will contain a combination of ornamental trees, woody shrubs, perennials and annuals.
  3. All annual areas will be located at the borders or at the most highly visible focal point of the bed.
  4. All bed grades shall be raised for visual aesthetic enhancement where possible.
  5. All beds will contain some raised natural stone visual elements (mainly walls) when the site permits it. Stone choice should fit site surroundings when appropriate, otherwise an equal amount of stone types per district shall be used throughout.
  6. Bed size shall be dictated by site location (proper scale for surroundings) and follow the shape of the median when possible.
  7. Bed size should be a minimum of 800 square feet and a maximum of 2,000 square feet.
  8. All beds shall be mass planted, and plantings shall be closely spaced together.
  9. Plant species shall be chosen by high salt tolerance, ease of maintenance, late fall flowering characteristics, excellent fall color, repeat bloom varieties, summer flowering, spring flowering, visually appealing foliage, etc. (basically all seasonal appealing varieties).
  10. Bulbs shall be mass planted in the perennial /shrub areas.
  11. Species of annuals, perennials, grasses and shrubs will be limited to two species of each per bed.
  12. All bed installations shall be coordinated with irrigation contractors for proper head layout for cost savings efficiencies and future maintenance efficiencies.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.