Much of the land on which the Park East Freeway stood on the north edge of downtown Milwaukee has been vacant for years, but Peter Park has no regrets about his important role in advocating for tearing down that section of elevated highway.
The day after Milwaukee County sold a large piece of the land for $1 to the Milwaukee Bucks for development connected to construction of a new basketball arena, Park returned to Milwaukee to pick-up where he left off in 2003, criticizing urban freeways and advocating for “multiple use” downtowns and neighborhoods that are attractive to pedestrians.
Park spoke at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Eckstein Hall. He was the planning director for the city of Milwaukee from 1995 to 2003 and was an influential advocate of changes in downtown Milwaukee that have been made (two-way streets replacing one-way streets) and are still coming (a street car system).
Park said an entertainment center was one of the things envisioned more than a decade ago for the land where the Bucks’ development will go, and the length of time when nothing happened wasn’t a problem. He said sometimes it’s best if things don’t happen all at once. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said.
Furthermore, there has been a lot of development adjacent to the Park East land that would have been less likely to occur with the freeway there, Park said. He mentioned development of the former Pabst brewery buildings and new buildings along the Milwaukee River.
And beyond that, Park remains an outspoken critic of highways running through cities. “I’ve never seen any neighborhood in any city get better when a freeway was cut through it. Right? Does anybody know one that got better?” he said.
“The limited access highway in the city is simply the wrong thing,” Park said. He said cars were useful and were not going to go away, and he did not consider transit options the antithesis of the automobile. Rather, transit is an important part of offering people the elements that make urban life appealing.
“The fundamental thing that makes great cities is (that) we’re all pedestrians, we all have a distance that we’re comfortable walking,” Park said. He said high quality life in a city includes “experiences (that) are informed at the speed of walking.”
Park said the United States emphasized car-oriented living in the period after World War II. “It was like a big experiment. We tried it. It didn’t really work. There is no great city in the world that you can think of that gives priority to the automobile. It just doesn’t exist.”
Asked by an audience member if he had changed his views on anything since he left Milwaukee, Park said he now puts more priority on community involvement in planning processes. Developments such as the rise of social media made such involvement easier.
After leaving Milwaukee, Park was planning director of the city and county of Denver from 2004 to 2011. Since then, he has been a visiting design critic at Harvard University and a professor at the University of Colorado in Denver since 2011, He also has a private consulting business. He continues to live in Denver.
Video of the program may be viewed by clicking here.