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What Is a Viewshed?

Paradise in Our Own Back Yard

May. 7, 2008
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A viewshed is an area visible to an observer from a certain vantage point. It usually includes elements of natural interest and precludes unwanted visual incursions like tall buildings. When the Milwaukee River Work Group (MRWG) talks about preserving the Milwaukee River’s viewshed along its green corridor, they are referring to the view of surrounding wildlife and trees that people presently enjoy from the river. It’s part of their commitment to ensure that the area’s unique natural setting is kept intact and not undermined by the sight of new structures looming over the trees.

To secure this viewshed, the group is asking the Department of City Development (DCD) to put certain measures into place with regards to future developments adjacent to the green corridor. These include a building setback of about 50 feet from the top of the bluff and height restrictions that are gradually eased as the building moves farther back from the river. If these measures are not put into place, there’s little that can be done to prevent private owners from building right up to the river—in which case the viewshed will be compromised. We have only to look at the rampant riverfront condo development downriver for evidence of this. They offer residents private views of a natural amenity; the MRWG is trying to secure public views from the natural amenity.

But the setback and height restrictions are a sticking point for some, including Jim Plaisted, executive director of the East Side Business Improvement District. Plaisted said the setback restrictions appear “arbitrary,” and he considers them “anti-development.”

“We’re 98% behind this project of protecting the environmental corridor and keeping it as is, but when you're talking about property rights, we’ve got to take baby steps,” Plaisted said. Ann Brummitt, spokeswoman for the MRWG, said Plaisted’s concerns are unfounded.

“We’re not anti-development by any means,” she said. “We’re just saying this very narrow stretch of land is hugely important to the city in terms of water quality. This is eventually what we end up drinking and it's also this amazing wildlife corridor.”


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