Will a Grand New Playground be Able to Keep Young Families Downtown?

A look at changes for lil kids in the big city.

The boy with the mop of curly hair and the blonde girl in a red coat go back and forth on the swings, bellies on the seats, their faces focused and joyful. Next to them, a first-grader pushes a bucket swing holding her toddler brother, who’s looking very Randy-from-A Christmas Story in his red-and-black checkered snowmobile suit.

On either edge of this playground at Cathedral Square Park sit gaggles of young mothers by their strollers, cherishing a bit of adult time over the lunch hour, eyes focused on the dozen or so of their progeny dashing about on the slides, bars, nets and other implements of the playground.

“We still really like to come and experience the ambiance of Downtown,” says Kathleen Carr, one of the moms and a self-admitted playground hopper. Today, she drove in with her kids from the suburbs, where she and her husband moved after living Downtown for the past decade, most recently in a Grain Exchange condo. Their reason for fleeing is familiar: They had kids. A four-bedroom place in the ’burbs comes with a lot more space, and a lot lower price, than it would Downtown.

Still, though. “My husband and I always say it would be awesome to live Downtown again,” she says wistfully.

The explosion of Downtown living in the past decade – the area saw a nearly 30% bump in population since 2010, thanks in part to all those condo towers – happened almost entirely sans shorties. Census figures show that just 4% of Downtown households include someone 18 years old or younger, compared with 32% citywide. (The real estate industry defines our Downtown as the 53202, 53203 and 53233 ZIP codes, which include the Lower East Side, Third Ward and Avenues West area around Marquette.)

“You very rarely ever see kids Downtown,” says Chris Corley, a Realtor who deals mostly in the condo market. And when you do, he says, they fit in one of two categories. Either the young’uns haven’t started school yet – the U-Haul will be headed out by time they do – or a kid’s almost done with high school, and mom and dad are ready to empty-nest in the chic loft they just bought.

Soon, the kid desert will get some curious additions: playgrounds. One, in the Third Ward, will be small but modern, similar to the Cathedral Square playground, which was upgraded in 2019. The other will stop bigwheel traffic in its tracks: a dramatically upgraded Northwestern Mutual Community Park on the Summerfest grounds.

Scheduled to open this summer, it will feature more than an acre of amenities, all aimed at becoming “the region’s premier space for families.” The playground looks grand in renderings, with about a half-dozen different play zones in inviting reds, blues, greens and yellows, featuring traditional fare – slides and a merry-go-round, monkey bars and climbing walls – plus a collection of “imagination station” type attractions where kids can practice creativity. Kids in wheelchairs can use the many handicap-accessible features. Kids with autism can retire to quiet rooms designed to calm. Toddlers have their own space in the shade. Potty time is easy thanks to family restrooms.

“The guiding priority of the design for this project was to make it a park for all, inclusive to children and their families,” says Julie Dieckelman, spokeswoman for Summerfest.

The need for such a space Downtown cannot be questioned – Yelp lists of top Milwaukee playgrounds include none in the urban core. But will anyone actually be there to play on this playground?

“I cannot think of a rationale [for a new playground],” says Corley, the Realtor. “I think a dog park would serve this area a lot better than a kids’ park. It’s not going to attract people to move Downtown.”

Still, the step up in playground game puts Milwaukee in position to possibly join a halting national trend toward the rechildification of urban cores.

What’s happened here in the last decade is hardly unusual, as explained in a 2019 Atlantic story: “The modern American city is not a microcosm of life but a microslice of it. It’s becoming an Epcot theme park for childless affluence, where the rich can act like kids without having to actually see any.”

Yet, many cities are pushing back against this trend, encouraging affordable housing, good schools and quality child care Downtown – plus playgrounds.

Urbanists point to the Chicago Loop’s 3-acre Play Garden and Manhattan’s Imagination Playground as models of urban fantasylands that have reversed traditional traffic patterns of families. Where once young couples headed out to the ’burbs to live and play, now they go the opposite direction.

Count Lauren Hansen in as a supporter. The fashion blogger and her husband, Matt, live just north of Downtown, near UW-Milwaukee. They used to hit the Lake Park playground weekly so daughters Margot, 4, and Ella, 1, could explore while their parents sipped Starbucks and regained sanity. Since COVID-19 shut down the world, those trips are nearly daily. She’s also joined playdates at suburban playgrounds with more to offer. By now a bit underwhelmed by the playgrounds within walking distance, Hansen was all ears when told of the new spot at Summerfest.

“I think it would be nice to have something a little bit bigger and more interesting,” she says.

With Child?

FAR FEWER of the people who live in Downtown Milwaukee have kids than the city at large. And Downtown Milwaukee is well behind similar Midwestern cities in this metric, too.

Percentage of households with children under 18:

MILWAUKEE: 31.7%
DOWNTOWN MILWAUKEE: 4.2%

(METRO MILWAUKEE: 29.9%, MILWAUKEE COUNTY: 29.7%)

MINNEAPOLIS: 23.3%
DOWNTOWN MINNEAPOLIS: 9.6%

CLEVELAND: 26.6%
DOWNTOWN CLEVELAND: 13.7%

ST. LOUIS: 26.3%
DOWNTOWN ST. LOUIS: 8.8%

CHICAGO: 26.9%
DOWNTOWN CHICAGO: 10.3%

INDIANAPOLIS: 28.3%
DOWNTOWN INDIANAPOLIS: 6.7%

Source: 2018 Census Data analyzed by Point2


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s February issue.

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Daniel Simmons grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the “good twin” city. He started his writing career covering the midsection for the Mayo Clinic. Since then he’s written about human smuggling by sea in San Diego, the coyote invasion of Chicago and the political circus in Madison. He also got to write about his childhood idol, Larry Bird, for Runners World. He’s the managing editor.