City of Madison

City of Madison Engineering | Photo Credit: Archie Nicolette


A greenway is a corridor of protected open space that is maintained for conservation, recreation, and/or pedestrian transportation. They vary in both size and structure. Some are comprised of open grass ways or concrete channels; others resemble wooded streams. They are connected by culverts, bridges, and underground storm drains, guiding excess water to nearby lakes and streams.

Greenways are often used to connect natural areas within urban settings, and are assets for urban storm water management. In addition to providing opportunities to pedestrians, greenways reduce the amount of flooding caused by storm events within the City and assist in reducing the amount of pollution entering Madison’s lakes and rivers.

Who manages greenways and why?

The Storm Water Utility is part of the City of Madison’s Department of Public Works Engineering Division. They are responsible for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the City’s storm water drainage and conveyance system. This system has been designed to improve our water quality while minimizing the potential for flooding.

The Storm Water Utility has implemented a number of Best Management Practices, or BMPs, to reduce non-point source pollution to surrounding lakes and streams. These BMPs are part of a 1,500 acre system of greenways, detention ponds, and retention ponds throughout the City of Madison.

Map of Greenways in City of Madison

City Greenway Map

Detention Pond

Detention Pond

Concrete Cunette Greenway

Concrete Cunette Greenway

Grass Greenway with Channel

Grass Greenway with Channel

A Resident’s Guide to City-owned Greenways, Retention, and Detention Ponds:


Living Next to a City-owned Greenway

As watersheds become more urbanized, much of the vegetation is replaced by impervious surfaces, reducing the area where infiltration to ground water can occur. Thus, more storm water runoff occurs. This runoff must be collected by the City’s drainage system to prevent flooding of private property.

If you live next to a city-owned natural area, it is possible that your property abuts one of the many greenways, retention ponds, or detention ponds within Madison. As such, we want you to understand the function of greenways, how we maintain them in order to ensure continued function, and how you can effectively use the area.

Greenways are part of a more than 1,500 acre drainage system designed to slow the velocity of storm water flow and promote infiltration of storm water into the ground. These areas also provide a buffer that captures significant amounts of sediment, nutrients, and pollutants before they reach lakes and rivers.

Greenway Maintenance and Design

Only a fraction of historic native prairie land remains in Wisconsin, and very little is found in urban areas. Prairies provide a diversity of habitat to increasingly rare species including songbirds, butterflies, and other wildlife. The environment benefits because these native grasses and wildflowers have a very deep root system, unlike turf, that helps improve water and soil.

If the vegetation within a greenway is native prairie, we will actively monitor for weeds and undesirable plants, which will be spot mowed and/or treated with approved herbicide to give the prairie a chance to establish and flourish.

Prairie Restoration in Greenway

Prairie Restoration in Greenway

The City’s standard mowing policy for non-prairie greenways provides that each greenway and pond area be mowed two times per year.

  • The first mowing cycle occurs between April 15 and October 15. Engineering consults with Parks Conservation to determine which greenways and/or ponds provide suitable song-bird nesting habitat, and will not mow these areas between peak nesting season (May 15 - July 15).
  • The second mowing cycle begins mid-October and continues until completion, weather permitting.

Grass Greenway

Grass Greenway

In 2016, some residents received letters stating the greenway or pond abutting their property will change from being partially mowed twice a year to mowing once entirely in the fall. This delay of mowing enables the City to inventory what kinds of plants are present by allowing them to grow for a season. By delaying the mowing, the City can verify the greenway is on a proper mowing schedule.

Mowing Tractor

Equipment used for Mowing

Private Use of Public Greenways


The private use of City-owned greenways is regulated by ordinance. Generally speaking, the private use of public greenways is limited to “temporary” uses – including walking, playing Frisbee or catch, etc. City-owned greenways are not intended to be an extension of abutting private property owners’ yards.

Prohibited uses include, but are not limited to:

  • Structures (i.e. fences, retaining walls, outbuilding sites, dog runs, play equipment, etc.)
  • Gardens and plantings (i.e. trees, shrubs, bushes, etc.)
  • Storage of personal property (i.e. trailers, piers, boat hoists, building materials, etc.)
  • Mowing of grass when posted for no mowing
  • Chemical applications (i.e. fertilizers, herbicides and/or pesticides)


These types of uses are not compatible with the purpose for which these lands are dedicated. For example, by disposing of grass clippings and other yard waste into the greenway, you are actually adding nutrients from grasses and other vegetation to the storm water flowing through the greenway as opposed to letting nutrients settle out.

Yard waste and garbage in greenways often clog outlet structures, preventing sufficient flow through the pipes. This leads to water back-ups, and flooded private property.


Greenway Outlet Clogged with Debris and Trash

Greenway Outlet Clogged with Debris and Trash

Cleaned Greenway Outlet

After Clogged Greenway Outlet was Cleaned

It is important to remember that the greenway is designed to flow at full capacity during large rain events. Therefore, any garbage or yard waste within the greenway property line can be picked up by large flows of water and moved to outlets, causing serious flooding and pollution issues. Please utilize another approved option for brush, leaves and yard waste disposal.

Unapproved uses of the greenways make maintenance more difficult and can pose a safety hazard for our employees.

Removal of Encroachments

While performing greenway maintenance activities, staff document and photograph potential encroachments onto the City-owned greenway parcel. Global Positioning System (GPS) equipment is then used to accurately locate the potential encroachment. If the encroachment is determined to be in the greenway, the private property owner will be ordered to remove the encroachment. Non-compliance and/or repeat violations subject violators to monetary forfeitures.

We encourage residents to be observant of maintenance issues or hazards within greenways or publicly owned lands. Please contact the City of Madison Police for any concerns that pose an immediate danger or nuisance. Please contact City Engineering for maintenance, aesthetic, permitting and/or ordinance concerns.

Lastly, we very much appreciate the dedication to safety and greenway maintenance provided by the many residents living near public greenways.