Architect James Wasley stands in Milwaukee Harbor District rainwater fountain

Designing a one-block fountain that runs on rainwater

Professor James Wasley’s architectural work focuses not on designing buildings, but on how structures interface with the natural world.

“I want to reintegrate natural processes into cities,” says Wasley, co-director of the Institute for Ecological Design in the School of Architecture & Urban Planning. Doing so, he says, brings nature’s proven psychological benefits to urban residents who may not see much of it. Methods could be as basic as creating green roofs or rain gardens.

James Wasley
James Wasley

Or they could involve more conspicuous projects, such as a block-long fountain that runs on rainwater in Milwaukee’s Harbor District.

Wasley designed a series of pools adjoining Freshwater Plaza, a mixed-use building on the northeast corner of First Street and Greenfield Avenue, just across the road from Rockwell Automation. The fountain recirculates rain runoff, cleaning it in the process with planters full of sand and wetland plants. During a drought, the fountain can be topped off with city water, and during a downpour, it can drain into the storm sewer.

The fountain James Wasley designed reduces the amount of water going into the sewer system while offering a new green space for the city and area residents. (UWM Video/Cris Lago)

The result: More water stays out of the sewer system, the city gets a new green spot, and the area’s employees, shoppers and residents get a place to sit and relax.

The project is an example of the architecture school’s intense engagement with the community. Plans call for a companion fountain a quarter-mile east in front of UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences. There, water discharged from aquaculture tanks inside the school will spill into a reflecting pool filled with native aquatic plants and then drain into Lake Michigan. The matching fountains, bracketing a railroad trestle, will help tie the area together and integrate the Harbor District into Walker’s Point.