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A Green Scene Is Brewing On Milwaukee's Fresh Coast

Jesse Hardman

WWNO’s Coastal Desk has been on tour, looking at water management in other cities. Austin and Philadelphia were the first stops. Now we’ll hear about the final city: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

A delegation of New Orleans city officials and non-profit leaders recently headed to Wisconsin. They learned how Milwaukee, built as an industrial hub, has become one of the greenest big cities in the country.

The list of things least likely to be found near public housing in a big city probably includes salmon. Except in Milwaukee, where there’s a salmon run near the Westlawn Gardensdevelopment, a former barracks-style public housing neighborhood from the 1950s that has recently gotten a green makeover.

The new mixed-income 250 unit, $80 million development features community gardens, compost pickup, and LED street lights. When deciding how to design Westlawn Gardens, the Milwaukee housing authority made sure it collaborated with other agencies, like the Metropolitan Sewerage District, to make sure the local watershed would be protected.

Milwaukee is a major industrial hub on Lake Michigan and part of what’s historically called America’s Rust Belt. And while there was pride and jobs in manufacturing in the Midwest, the environment, something Wisconsinites also take very seriously, suffered. Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, “you go to a lot of cities, particularly cities along the Great Lakes, you'll see a lot of industry, and industry that used the lake as its toilet or depository.”

Milwaukee’s water problem has been the same for a long time. Whatever gets into its five rivers — and its sewage and storm systems — can wind up in Lake Michigan. With the passing of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, that problem hit a new low. The city of Chicago sued Milwaukee for polluting their shared water source.

In the early 1990s Milwaukee completed a $4 billion, 500 million gallon underground water storage system to deal with storm water overflows. Kevin Schafer is the Executive Director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. “I think of it as the skeleton and the bones of that skeleton are the grey infrastructure, it's the pipes, it's the treatment plants, it's all those different grey features that we've added to our urban network.”

Credit Jesse Hardman
Green corridor along Milwaukee's South 6th street

Milwaukee’s storm water management “backbone,” as Schafer likes to call it, has helped the city go from

60 overflows into Lake Michigan a year to around two or three. Shafer says it has freed his department to get proactive, spending $1 billion on rain gardens,bioswales, and porous pavement. “And then the green infrastructure sits on the surface and manages that water," he says. "I kind of think of that as the clothes on the skeleton.”

Kevin Shafer has been busy getting both public and private buy-in for his dream of zero storm water runoff in Milwaukee. To pull that off he’s enlisted the owners of some of Milwaukee’s biggest roofs.

Rockwell automation is one of Milwaukee’s most iconic businesses. The $6 billion company makes automation switches, and now software. And it has long been known for having the largest clock tower in the country. Now it has Wisconsin’s largest green roof too.

In 2010 the Metropolitan Sewerage district gave Rockwell a grant to build a green roof. In return the company is helping the city capture and absorb around 1.3 million gallons of rainwater through its nearly 50,000-square-foot native perennial garden.

Karen Sands manages the Sewerage Board’s sustainability plan. She says while grey infrastructure creates construction jobs, it’s a pretty static strategy, because nobody wants to dig up what is underground and start over.

That’s not a problem with rain gardens, Sands says, “green infrastructure is additional capacity that we can put on the surface of the land. And if it doesn't work we can change it next year because its right on the surface, and easily accessible.”

Sands says adaptability is key with the unpredictable weather that Milwaukee has been seeing the past decade. “There's a confluence of awareness that our climate here has been changing. We've been seeing increasingly severe storms with longer periods of drought in between.”

There’s also a cost benefit win with green infrastructure says Sands. It’s about 60 cents a gallon to capture rainwater on Rockwell’s roof, she says. And about three dollars a gallon if that water reaches the underground tunnel.

Credit Jesse Hardman
Milwaukee's Metropolitan Sewerage District sells rain barrels to citizens looking to assist in water management in the city

Mayor Tom Barrett says even with its industrial past, "being green" aligns with Milwaukee’s values. A regional history of farming means people like to feel nature-friendly. A strong socialist streak explains the collaborative nature of the city. And it’s a hard-working city... that could use some new jobs. Those jobs could be installing green infrastructure.

“Some of you who are a little older will understand what I'm saying when I say, Laverne and Shirley don't work here anymore. They're gone.”

Laverne and Shirley probably aren’t stuck on a brewery assembly line anymore. They’re up on a Milwaukee roof somewhere, installing a rain garden, or composting. That’s the new normal in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Kabacoff Family Foundation.

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.