Milwaukee: Get Your Pokémon Off My Lawn!

The Parks Department of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin is not happy about virtual pocket monsters. The department sent a letter to Niantic, developer of the popular Pokémon Go app, demanding “immediate compliance” with the parks’ geocache policy. Niantic is directed to “deactivate and remove all Pokémon Go sites, including Poke stops and Gyms within Milwaukee County parks” until these sites are approved as “virtual geocaches.” In fact Milwaukee, suffering recent riots and myriad problems, wants to bill Niantic for the public’s peaceful use of their public parks.  

Milwaukee’s “virtual geocaching” policy is bizarre; it purports to regulate the transmission of GPS coordinates. Ordinary travel guides and Google Maps seem to violate the policy because they include virtual geocaches: “Coordinates of stationary landmarks [which] guide participants to the virtual cache.” What’s the problem? Well, these sites include virtual geocaches without having completed the required notification form and received prior written permission from the Country Parks Land Manager. Moreover, the Department requires applicants to monitor each virtual cache a recommended four times a year (as they have asked Niantic). Finally, these guides entice you to visit a spot in Lake Park, which is one of 19 county parks deemed so sensitive as to not allow virtual geocache locations whatsoever. These parks are more protected than Grand Canyon National Park, which the Parks Service promotes as a virtual geocaching destination. This Parks Service recognizes that virtual geocaching leaves no mark on the environment and encourages citizens to explore public land.

Pokémon Go has certainly encouraged exploration. As is true across the country, residents in Milwaukee have discovered historical monuments, public art, and pleasant waterfalls they were previously unaware of.

The application’s ability to draw new visitors has been welcomed by businesses and—one month ago—even the Park Department itself, which held a free Pokémon Go event that took advantage of Niantic’s allegedly-illegal virtual geocache coordinates, including “eight PokéStops for players to stock up on free, virtual supplies.” At that time, the Milwaukee County Executive gushed “we love that this game is getting people outside and active in the parks.”

What happened? Milwaukee now sees Niantic as a source of revenue. In an email to constituents, the County Executive’s office denies that they are seeking removal of Pokémon Go sites. “Instead, we are hoping to partner with them and share the cost of increased parks maintenance the County is facing since the debut of the game.”

Milwaukee bizarrely hopes to bill Niantic for encouraging residents to enjoy their own public places. If you do go to Milwaukee’s Lake Park (“one of the most active Pokémon Go areas in the Midwest,” according to the Parks Department), don’t tell them I sent you.