This week I’m traveling in Milwaukee, WI visiting family.  One of the best parts of traveling is that it gives you a fresh perspective on what’s back home.

The prevailing trend is that people from the midwest move to sunny Arizona because of the weather and the promise of a new start.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole lot that’s right in the midwest that Arizona could learn from.

So during my stay in Milwaukee, I’ve been thinking about what Phoenix can learn from this city.  One of the big differences I’ve seen is in the way that neighborhoods are laid out here.

I’ve had the opportunity to stay in three neighborhoods on my visits to Milwaukee over the years and drive around many more.  This is what I’ve noticed:

1.  The streets are narrower than Phoenix neighborhood streets.  They don’t seem constricted though, there’s ample room for traffic flow.  The narrower roads create a street scape that accommodates pedestrians, bikers, strollers, dog-walkers and other non-car users.

2.  The homes are much closer together.  In fact, Milwaukee on the whole is much denser than Phoenix.  This density forces less anonymity and more interaction between neighbors.

3.  There are few ranch homes in Milwaukee, almost all homes have a basement and an attic.  This makes for roomy homes without taking up much land.

4.  I didn’t see much EIFS (or synthetic stucco) which is so prevalent in Phoenix.  This may be because of the different climates, although I don’t see why EIFS would not work in colder climates.  Although EIFS is a great insulator against thermal heat gain, it also contributes to the bland beigeness of Phoenix neighborhoods.  Milwaukee’s version of EIFS is vinyl siding, which is no more beautiful than EIFS.  But I did notice that homes in Milwaukee do a better job of integrating several different materials along with siding, managing to create more interest and personality to the neighborhoods.

5.  There are a lot of old homes in Milwaukee.  The three homes I’ve stayed in in my past trips were built in the late 1800s, 1926 and the newest in the late 1940s.  They are all solid and beautiful.  There are lots of old buildings in general in Milwaukee.  People in Milwaukee are proud of their history and you can tell.  There doesn’t seem to be the tear-down mentality we have in Phoenix.  Sure Phoenix doesn’t have the same depth of history as Milwaukee, but we do have vibrant history and yet we keep tearing it down sometimes in favor of asphalt parking lots and new EIFS blandness.

6.  The garage is usually a detached garage in the back.  I’ve not seen neighborhoods where garages are prominently the front “face” of homes in Milwaukee.  Instead, front porches and unfenced lawns are what face the street.

7.  I didn’t see one block fence in the neighborhoods I’ve driven through. In fact, I didn’t see many fences at all.  The ones I saw were visually porous wood picket or horizontal fences cordoning off the back yard for pets or kids to roam safely in.

8.  The neighborhoods are very walkable.  There seem to be plenty of sidewalks, but the trees lining the streets along with the narrower roads and visually accessible front yards of the homes encourage people to walk their neighborhood.  (Granted, below zero weather would be a big detractor to walking for me!)

I’m not saying that we need to copy Milwaukee’s neighborhoods.  We have our own unique challenges and opportunities in Phoenix, not to mention a very different natural landscape and climate.  But I do think that while we can create something new, we can also  benefit from learning what works in other cities and see how we can incorporate those lessons into our up and coming metropolis.

What do you think?  Leave me a comment!

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2 Responses

  1. John Sketting says:

    You are completely messed up, Milwaukee is ugly compared to what we have in phoenix and our history. Not everything is torn down especially historical stuff. Plus we have light rail and more spaces between houses is better for people. More privacy, some neighbors are bad! If people want to interact with others and neighbors or walk, they will, even in phoenix, they already do, so open your eyes!

  2. Laura Vanderbilt says:

    Thanks for the perspective. Living in Milwaukee, it’s sometimes easy to forget where some of our strengths lie.

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