Designing the 'plaza-green'

James
Wednesday 12 Sep 2012

Stoss Landscape Urbanism completes new public space in Milwaukee

Erie Street Plaza is a small urban plaza in the historic Third Ward of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The plaza sits at the point where the Milwaukee, Menominee and Kinnickinnic Rivers join and flow into Lake Michigan. It is the final link in a series of public spaces along the Milwaukee Riverwalk and the start of the Lakeshore park system.

The existing urban context included infrastructure, parking lots, active and abandoned warehouses, and other industry. Once occupied by an incinerator, the site itself was a parking lot. Lacking neighbours and potential users, the future of the plaza - its programming and even necessity - was undecided. 

Therefore, flexibility was key. The plaza needed to function in many potential ways and accommodate a range of possible activities, which would only be fully determined as the neighbourhood around it grew up. It also needed a clear identity, so visitors would recognise it as the important threshold between the public and environmental realms of river and lake.

The new plaza is a hybrid plaza-green. A combination of pavers and lawn allows for casual or intense activities, including art festivals, movies, markets, fishing and hanging out. Integrated seat walls allow for multi-level access; they create an amphitheater condition stepping down to the river, allowing users to watch the industrial and ecological performances of the working waterfront.

A scattering of signature fiberglass benches offers diverse seating options-for social groupings or solitary retreats, in shade or full sun, protected or exposed. The luminous qualities of the fiberglass become apparent when the benches glow with the warm colours of the setting sun. As night falls, internal fixtures illuminate the benches, referencing the golden hues of the nearby port.

The plaza also reignites environmental dynamics (previously deadened and displaced by industry), capturing and then filtering and recycling stormwater as irrigation, and helping to reconstitute a native marsh. Water from heavy rainfalls and cyclical river flooding collects in the marsh, making environmental cycles palpable to plaza visitors.

Since its completion in 2010, the plaza has helped established a new identity for this part of the Third Ward, which is now emerging as a new neighbourhood with residences, businesses and an adjacent restaurant.

Key Facts

Architecture
United States
Urban design

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