Habitat Hotels

What are Habitat Hotels?

The Harbor District Habitat Hotels are underwater habitats retrofitted for steel sheet piling. They provide multiple vertical layers of habitat including underwater plants, hiding places for fish, and food for fish, and mimic the habitat that might be found along  more naturalized river shorelines.


Check out the underwater footage!


Why are they important?

The downtown portions of the Menomonee, Kinnickinnic, and Milwaukee Rivers are dominated by steel sheet piling shorelines, making it extremely difficult for plants to grow along the bank. Steel sheet piling provides almost no habitat benefits, but it is used widely in urban areas because it serves other important purposes: protecting buildings and properties from flooding and storms, providing deep channels needed for shipping and boating, and allowing large freighter ships to easily dock. Further, the inner harbor is also dredged to maintain depths of 25+ feet to support shipping and industry in the area. As such, the inner harbor area of Milwaukee is known as an aquatic desert, lacking habitat and opportunities for fish to find food and cover. The Habitat Hotels provide needed “pit stops” for fish as they travel through the inner harbor between Lake Michigan and Milwaukee’s three rivers.


By introducing Habitat Hotels in the Red Zone, we are connecting areas of better habitat in the rivers to the habitat in Lake Michigan. Many fish swim between the rivers and the Lake to reproduce or to complete other life stages, so the inner harbor serves as a very important intersection.



Where are they?

Habitat Hotels are currently installed in three distinct locations across the Harbor District and are marked with fish art painted in the Harbor District colors. As the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences continues working on their Harbor Habitat Mapping Project, we will prioritize future installation locations based on potential improvements to habitat connectivity – essentially making a string of Habitat Hotels between other areas of rich habitat – in the Inner Harbor.


Scroll over for fun facts!
[mpc_ihover image_background_type=”gradient” image_border_css=”border-width:2px;border-style:solid;” title_font_preset=”default”][mpc_ihover_item thumbnail=”824″]Repurposed restaurant grade fryer baskets serve as underwater planter baskets.[/mpc_ihover_item][/mpc_ihover]
[mpc_ihover image_background_type=”gradient” image_background_gradient=”#5e83a3||#5ea588||0;100||180||linear”][mpc_ihover_item thumbnail=”732″]Water celery that was planted in 2017![/mpc_ihover_item][/mpc_ihover]
[mpc_ihover][mpc_ihover_item thumbnail=”886″]Habitat Hotel being visited by a yearling perch![/mpc_ihover_item][/mpc_ihover]

Habitat Hotel Benefits
  • Low cost and easy to reproduce
  • Low maintenance
  • Not a navigation hazard for ships
  • Wisconsin winter-proof
  • Modular to allow for easy modifications
  • Provides complex habitat spaces at various depths in water column
  • Provides community engagement opportunities
  • Engaging educational artwork above the water

              Project History

Scroll over icons to learn more!
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Designing Habitat Hotels

We received funding from the Fund for Lake Michigan to explore habitat solutions for steel sheet piling. This funding allowed Harbor District staff to work with scientists, staff, and students from UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences to inform the Habitat Hotel design process. In April 2018, the Habitat Hotels were granted a provisional patent shared by UW-Milwaukee and Harbor District, Inc.

[/mpc_icon_column][mpc_icon_column background_type=”gradient” background_gradient=”#436087||#488468||0;100||180||linear” border_css=”border-width:1px;border-style:solid;” mpc_icon__icon=”fa fa-dollar” mpc_icon__icon_size=”30″ mpc_icon__background_type=”gradient” mpc_icon__background_gradient=”#465b7f||#478271||0;100||180||linear” mpc_icon__border_css=”border-width:2px;border-style:solid;”]

Pilot Project

  We received a Mini Grant from the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, initiating the pilot phase. The pilot study included building 8 Habitat Hotels and installing them in May 2017.

[/mpc_icon_column][mpc_icon_column background_type=”gradient” background_gradient=”#517791||#559976||0;100||180||linear” border_css=”border-width:1px;border-style:solid;” content_margin_css=”margin:20%;” mpc_icon__icon=”mi mi-build” mpc_icon__icon_size=”30″ mpc_icon__background_type=”gradient” mpc_icon__background_gradient=”#4b6684||#248769||0;100||180||linear” mpc_icon__border_css=”border-width:2px;border-style:solid;” mpc_divider__content_border_css=”border-width:1px;border-style:dashed;”]


Welding students from Bradley Technical High School build the Habitat Hotels as part of a class project. Over 100 students have been exposed to the project and have learned about Milwaukee’s aquatic ecology. Students get to apply the technical skills they are learning to a real-world solution.

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Habitat Hotel Locations

We work with great partners who serve as “site hosts” for the Habitat Hotels, including The School of Freshwater Science, Elementis LTP, and Paul Davis Restoration.


            Harbor District Inc. Works With Local Schools

[mpc_ihover shape=”square” style=”top_to_bottom” image_background_type=”gradient”][mpc_ihover_item thumbnail=”854″]Bradley Tech students perfecting welding skills.[/mpc_ihover_item][/mpc_ihover]
[mpc_ihover shape=”square” style=”top_to_bottom”][mpc_ihover_item thumbnail=”813″]Students operate the plasma cutter.[/mpc_ihover_item][/mpc_ihover]
[mpc_ihover shape=”square” style=”top_to_bottom”][mpc_ihover_item thumbnail=”839″]Elementary students present habitat plans.[/mpc_ihover_item][/mpc_ihover]
[mpc_ihover shape=”square” style=”top_to_bottom”][mpc_ihover_item thumbnail=”779″]Students plant native vegetation.[/mpc_ihover_item][/mpc_ihover]

            Project Funders