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Milwaukee's Downtown Food Forest

Friends of MIlwaukee's Downtown Forest (FMDF) sees Milwaukee as an abundant, resilient, and just community.

Photo of Barbara Richards
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Milwaukee Environmental Consortium/ Fiscal Sponsor for Friends of Milwaukee's Downtown Forest

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Urban Ecology Center, Reflo: Sustainable Water Solutions, City of MIlwaukee Health Department, Cream City Conservation Corps, Milwaukee Food Council, Core el Central, Milwaukee School of Engineering.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

U.S. A.

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

3.2 acres: FRACTIONAL WEST 1/2 OF SW 1/4 SEC 21-7-22; N BROADWAY, N MILWAUKEE ST,& E LYON ST) ADJ TID # 48 0.01294994 km2

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

I retired from teaching is the summer of 2010.  That summer two events set me on this path.  First, we had a 100 year flood event and second, the City decided to stop allowing community gardens to use fire hydrant hook ups for watering. Several of us started a water harvesting group to capture the abundance to use for the scarcity.  I started taking permaculture courses.  This had been a site of contention as a freeway had uprooted the heart of the Black business district.  The freeway was torn down. In 2011 Growing Power, a non profit urban ag concern, was installing hoop houses.  I contacted them and suggested this site.  As nothing happened like that, and glass, steel and concrete were encroaching on all sides when Integrated Forest Gardens was published (one author is a local permaculturalist friend), I formed the vision of a model site in the heart of Milwaukee that would heal, feed and grow community. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Milwaukee is blessed with a legacy of county parks but that legacy has not been upheld in recent years. The original legacy focused on natural areas where citizens could touch and be touched by nature. Charles Whitnall, legendary urban parks planner, proposed a downtown apple orchard as a green space in his original plans for Milwaukee‘s County Park System.

Milwaukee has a downtown development plan that is meant to create “a regional and nationally recognized urban center known for its livability and innovation” –(Milwaukee Comprehensive Plan 2010). Yet, Milwaukee’s downtown development is mandated to a high level of gray infrastructure density. These two dictates cancel each other when one realizes that green space is essential to livability.

The Friends of Milwaukee’s Downtown Forest Project (FMDF) has its primary focus the last remaining open hillside in downtown Milwaukee the last remaining open space of the Park East Corridor a torn down freeway site. It is less than three acres in total area. It is within a mile of some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee (53202- 15.6% below poverty and 7.2%Black; 53205- 45.1% below poverty and 84.4% Black). This site, or Plan A, is a bridge between the communities and will be the project focus.

Now it is time to step back and celebrate the success and consider what is necessary for the next iteration of city planning. The current Downtown Comprehensive Plan is a revision of earlier plans because “(i)n ten years time, market, policy and political currents have changed”. As we approach the next decade let us look at what has changed now. Are we more aware of the impact of climate change on our survival as a civilization? Are we more aware of the fragility of our food system? Are we more concerned about bringing our diverse and often traumatized community together?

It is time to reconsider the downtown plan from the perspective of changing realities. It is time to consider what has the best possibility of successful adaptation to, and mitigation of, these changing realities for our downtown area. There are young people who want to live in walkable, livable areas where work, shopping and entertainment are close at hand. It has become clear that the baby boomers also want these amenities. It has become clear that long social divisions and trauma in our neighborhoods cry out for deep systemic change.

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Currently Milwaukee’s food system can be summarized as it is in this ReFresh MKE report from the City Environmental Collaboration Office: “Access to fresh, healthy food has been a higher priority for cities across the USA in the last decade and Milwaukee residents are asking the City of Milwaukee to help increase options to support public health. City neighborhoods suffer when local food markets pull out, decreasing the availability of healthy, nutritious food. Lack of access to healthy foods contributes to poor health outcomes for residents in underserved areas. …Improving Milwaukee’s overall food system, from growing fresh produce on repurposed vacant lots to reducing food waste, will improve the lives and health of all citizens.” In that report several challenges are listed including: “…(U)rban agriculture continues to face challenges with aggregating this food and reliably distributing it to large institutions year-round. Farming on disaggregated urban lots is also often not cost-competitive with regional rural farms, which themselves often struggle to be profitable. It is challenging to attract full and retain service grocery stores into lower income neighborhoods. The issue of healthy food access is being addressed by multiple departments including the Health Department, Department of City Development, and ECO with limited resources”.

These don’t even address ecosystem changes and the impending damage to any food system that is not hands on/eyes on. It uses a consumer focus rather than a producer focus. It is based on monetary exchange rather than service exchanges and localized exchange systems. This compounds the unreality of the current local food system as a model for a secure and just food system into 2050.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

These issues point to the need for grassroots initiatives to support a genuinely local food system. As we engage neighbors in growing food we grow the community food knowledge that has been lost in generational poverty and trauma giving rise to food deserts and food swamps. We can empower people to take control of their health through their control of their food system. 

Milwaukee Urban Food Forest (MUFF) changes can be quantified: e.g., estimated number of fruit trees/shrubs and vegetables: stormwater features, garden plots, homeless jobs development, harvest skills training .

As local government is aware and working but in a limited capacity, as businesses, NGO’s and local Philanthropy seek the best use of their resources FMDF envisions a collective impact model gathering these efforts, integrating the needs of the homeless, the jobless, the working poor at a central site with the rolling creation of multiple satellite sites.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Milwaukee is an abundant, resilient, and just community. Our food is grown, prepared/preserved seasonally, locally by individuals, community groups, and regenerative family farms within 200 miles of the meat’s or produce’s site of consumption. Our diets have returned to a more regional menu. CAFO’s are a memory. Rural communities are thriving diverse communities working the land and raising families. Our health, our soil, our ground and surface waters are on the way to recovery. Our neighborhoods have local employment in providing for the needs of all. Our health care is based on diet rather than pharmaceuticals. Cooperation, not competition, is the norm as it is acknowledged by all to be the very basis of future survival and of existing life systems.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The time in which we live calls for a refreshed perspective on what is valued now as we build a resilient community both in gray and green infrastructure. We know that food shelter are basic human needs. We must ask ourselves if the actions we are taking now further the needs of the future or take away from our ability to create livable spaces for people. We must consider the unknowable in this. We must create as best we can a response that will bring the best possible results. Just as communities around the world are questioning the continuation of fossil fuel dependency, we must look at our city and strive to build what will create the infrastructure we need to survive into an unknown future.

  • Let’s change the definition of dense: trees and vegetation at all levels – a forest. A forest centered downtown drawing residents and visitors. A new sense of Place in a natural setting connected to the Riverwalk leading up hill to Cathedral Square and on to the Lakefront.
  • Downtown Milwaukee would have another reason for visitors to spend time in our city. The direct economic benefits of housing price stability, increased human health, as well as decreased negative behavior are benefits of creating this space.
  • An Urban Food Forest of this design and in this place could become a “Cosmopolitan Canopy” as described in the work of Elijah Anderson in the book of that title. Cosmopolitan Canopies are “settings that offer a respite from the lingering tensions of urban life and an opportunity for diverse peoples to come together. Canopies are in essence pluralistic spaces where people engage one another in a spirit of civility, or even comity and goodwill.”
  • Furthermore, if these were food forests using permaculture design principles, Milwaukee would be addressing food security and human dietary health. Milwaukee would model local food production. This model would be replicated throughout its neighborhoods. Milwaukee would become “a regional and nationally recognized urban center known for its livability and innovation”.
  • In Good Food, Strong Communities edited by Steve Ventura and Martin Bailkey, Greg Lawless writes that: “The mismatch of supply and demand for fresh produce is not news to local food activists in Milwaukee, who struggle to attract vendors of fresh produce from local farms into low-income urban communities. Basic economic theory dictates that when product is in short supply, it is allocated to higher-paying customers, at least in the absence of subsidies or programs that alter conventional market dynamics” (p. 91). Neighbors utilizing vacant properties, and individuals utilizing the space on their living sites to grow their own fresh produce, is a grass roots solution to this mismatch. A downtown urban forest would model and serve as an education center for replication of this model across emerging urban homesteads and community based gardens with the resiliency of permaculture design.
  • In addressing various needs of the Milwaukee community in this downtown space FMDF will utilize the long unused storefronts underneath the adjoining Milwaukee School of Engineering parking structure/soccer field. There is a space for a homeless shelter utilizing the new design of small private rooms; a kitchen for preparing healthful food harvested from the forest gardens and reskilling residents and neighbors in food preservation; a small shop/café for sales of prepared and preserved foods from the Forest Gardens; meeting space for skills training from basic gardening to skilled arborists. The invitation is to the population, homeless or Section Eight housing such as at Hillside Apartments nearby and beyond, that seek employment, to find training in family supporting occupations through the partners who step forward to bring this part of the FMDF Vision to reality. There are models for these auxiliary benefits noted in Good Food, Strong Communities edited by Steve Ventura and Martin Bailkey.

This paragraph from Earth ED by the World Watch Institute says it clearly:

“The defining quest for humanity today is how we will be able to provide

fulfilling lives for 8–10 billion people even as Earth’s systems are declining rapidly.

These cannot be consumer lives, ecologically speaking, but decent lives

that offer access to vital services, such as basic health care and education, to

livelihood opportunities, and to essential freedoms. Unfortunately, few people

today understand the urgency or magnitude of this quest—some even deny

it—and few fully grasp the changes that are necessary to succeed. Far fewer

have the skills that are required to help with this transition or, at least, to survive

the ecological shifts if the quest for a sustainable future fails. Education

will be essential in changing this.”

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
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Team (5)

Barbara's profile
Nick's profile
Nick Tomaro

Role added on team:

"Milwaukee City Health Department: Health: connections to Hospitals, health services"

Jean's profile
Jean Schultz

Role added on team:

"MIlwaukee City Health Department: Worked with land redevelopment; Connect to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources"

Michael's profile
Michael Carriere

Role added on team:

"Milwaukee School of Engineering: Research Site, Food Service local source, Biophilic resource"

emily's profile
emily breffle

Role added on team:

"Permaculture Consultant; School Liaison, Board Member"


Join the conversation:

Photo of Constanza Castano

Hi, Barbara Richards ,

Thank you for publishing! Congratulations on a submission that shows great knowledge and understanding of Milwaukee’s People and Place.

Make sure you have reviewed your final submission through the Pocket Guide to support you through the final hours of wrapping up your submission. This will give you the most important bullet points to keep in mind to successfully submit your Vision.

Here is the link to the pocket guide:

I look forward to seeing your submission updated to satisfaction by 31st January, 5:00 pm EST.

Warmest regards,


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