Bruce Murphy
News From Elsewhere

Is Milwaukee One of the World’s Greenest Cities?

So says OnEarth magazine. Is it right?

By - Aug 22nd, 2014 10:11 am
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A recent story in OnEarth magazine, whose motto is “A Survival Guide for the Planet,” rhapsodizes about Milwaukee, suggesting it is a national leader in using green buildings and other environmental approaches to transform itself.

The news peg, of course, is that this is your classic Rust Belt city, with “blight, drugs, failed schools, homelessness, brownfields, pollution, decay, and crime… Milwaukee has it all. Or maybe had it all,” reporter Richard Manning. “Because a closer look at the city reveals whole vats of lemonade where once were heaps of lemons.”

Mayor Tom Barrett touring Ingeteam factory

Mayor Tom Barrett touring Ingeteam factory

No, it’s not the most elegantly phrased metaphor. And the story’s suggestion that Mayor Tom Barrett’s big margin in his last election might be explained by his green policies is the sort of nonsense that could only fly in a publication not read by Milwaukee residents.

And yes, the story is a bit hifaluting, telling us that “the reigning eminence of conservation biology, E. O. Wilson, offered up the biophilia hypothesis—biophilia, from the Latin, meaning love of life, all life, as in nature” to explain how this “makes humans more attentive to their surroundings.”

From there, we learn that Tim Beatley, a landscape architect at the University of Virginia, “has compiled a list of biophilic cities worldwide: Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Phoenix; Singapore; Wellington, New Zealand; Oslo; Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain; Birmingham, England—and Milwaukee.” Yes, that redoubt of the Rust Belt is now a global green leader!

Still, once the story gets into the details of how Milwaukee is changing, they are often compelling. It looks at the Menomonee Valley, “once one of the nation’s largest brownfields… a festering urban ulcer of collapsed manufacturing and food processing plants, coal-and-steam-age decay…‘some manufacturers left a giant mess for the taxpayers to clean up,’ says Matthew Howard, the city’s sustainability director. Tens of thousands of jobs disappeared.”

Since 2004, the story notes, the city has spent millions in tax increment financing and won millions in grants to transform the valley. Today, “the first thing a visitor notices, even in winter, is a freakish anomaly: cured seed heads of big bluestem, little bluestem, and Indian grass—the charismatic megaflora of tallgrass prairie—poking through the snow… These prairie species are deep-rooted and suited to survive the catastrophic storms and floods that are occurring in the upper Midwest with appalling frequency. Sixty acres of the valley, about half of the city’s redevelopment project, have been set aside to catch runoff and filter it with the deep roots of a working wetland…”

While the Falk Corporation “continues to manufacture giant wheels, 40-foot-wide gears, and such” in the valley, the “next factory over makes wind turbines and the one after that controls for solar panels. There are now at least 1,300 new manufacturing jobs in the valley…fly fishers are now drawn to the spring and fall runs of steelhead and coho salmon” in the Menomonee Valley.

“The industrial age alternative was to dig holes, bury pipes, and build treatment plants. The grasses do the job a whole lot more cheaply, and so it made sense for the city to pay the extra costs of greenways out of its capital budget. In the early going, the city was also able to attract grants for these projects, partly because the work was seen as cutting-edge by a variety of funders,” the story notes.

Manning reports that city wide, “Asphalted schoolyards were ripped up and replaced with prairie grass, outdoor classrooms, and gardens, all layered over soils engineered to soak up rain. New green infrastructure along city streets catches and channels water.” He then suggests this is how the city went from 50 to 60 combined sewer overflows in the mid-1990s to one last year, without ever mentioning the Deep Tunnel, an old-style, big infrastructure project that actually caused the reduction in overflows.

The story also discusses Juli Kaufmann and her Clock Shadow Building as an example of a green developer and successful green projects, cites the The Water Council and UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences as change agents, along with the three facilities created by the Urban Ecology Center.

The rooftop of the original Urban Ecology Center on the East Side “offers a bird’s-eye view of a restored oak savanna along a section of the Milwaukee River… and is linked by paths to the city’s river walkway of restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops, as well as boat slips that rent kayaks and canoes. The park adjacent to the new ecology center had been there a long time, but went feral from disuse and was claimed by drug dealers…Now the park has been restored with native grasses and is alive with dogs, runners, paddlers, and kids.”

The story adds that the ecology centers “have partnered with 55 urban schools, each of which sends students there at least 24 times a year. The three centers now serve about 51,000 kids annually on a budget of $3.7 million.”

All very interesting, but it hardly proves Milwaukee has been transformed. Still, the article does capture an under-appreciated aspect of Barrett’s administration, along with cutting-edge efforts by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, to use environmental approaches to rethink how the city works. There’s no doubt this is is subtly changing Milwaukee, though more slowly and less dramatically than this story suggests.

Menomonee Valley Photos

24 thoughts on “News From Elsewhere: Is Milwaukee One of the World’s Greenest Cities?”

  1. Juli Kaufmann says:

    A post from my colleague Mike Westling yesterday struck a theme that I think threads with yours, Bruce. Ironically, Mike is a Milwaukee transplant now living in Portland. He tweeted “It’s time to change “urban planning” to “urban doing”. If cities are really labs of democracy, let’s run some experiments!” I love that sentiment. I’d be the first to agree that Milwaukee has a long way to go in its sustainability journey. However, I have experienced, firsthand, the power of leading projects – like those mentioned in this story – to transform our thinking, our view of ourselves and, most importantly, our belief in what is possible. For all those reasons, these steps matter in big ways. And while they depended most certainly on some planning, they mostly depended on doers – just jumping in and making the impossible, possible.

    We need way more of this. Stories like this one – as you have seen – get retweeted and reposted all over – as if to claim success or, minimally to claim affinity to the principals and values espoused. But we have enough preaching and enough echo in our self-contained chambers. What we need is more – more risk-takers, more people willing to try, more people willing to fail but keep trying, more willing to invest and build on this sustainable momentum. Every effort matters, no matter how small. I hope that lots more people take this hopeful story and manifest it in their own lives, in their own work.

    I see the seeds of this groundwork growing all over. Our fledging bikesharing system, which just started because some people decided to do it. That system will need more commitments to stabilize and realize its vision- more people need to pile on, but its started. Or our new effort to redeem the Inner Harbor – if this effort successfully builds on the gateways of the Valley and the Clock Shadow Building mentioned in the story and which now lead up to the Inner Harbor’s doorstep – we won’t ever again question whether Milwaukee should be named a sustainable city. The Inner Harbor could be a transformation unlike any other for generations to come – the sustainability opportunities are mind-blowing. And, I see seeds sprouting in low-income and low access neighborhoods like Lindsey Heights, where sustainable food advocates and community pioneers are building a more resilient neighborhood that heals many of Milwaukee’s past wrongs.

    Yes, we have a ways to go, but we are the ones we are waiting for.

  2. Tyrell Track Master says:

    Although I agree with Bruce’s sentiments to not roll out too much of a parade, I still think this is a terrific article that should be shared widely. Milwaukee has definitely come a long way and in comparison to a place like Detroit…well, it isn’t even comparable. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, keep spreading the good news, especially among the goon squad of Waukesha county and it’ll continue!

  3. Bill Sell says:

    Praise may come hard to Milwaukeans, steeped as we are in problems. As Bruce and Juli suggest: Find one problem, work it to bloom. I think of compost creating the Kompost Kids, a fervent bicyclist thinking about hundreds of bikes to share his passion with others, the Bash (music, beer, fire dancing) becoming the adopted child of environmentalists, stray cats a purrrrrfect obsession for a city that loves its birds, dog parks from walking the dog and meeting neighbors who walk their dogs, music and a hill chilling a city summer, a steep slope – no barrier to more music and a hill – sit there til it happens, a lagoon watched by neighbors for loosestrife, a bier garten fomented by park lovers and a micro brewery, a school adopted and used by neighbors, a pedestrian slowing traffic at a stop sign results driver education for many drivers, a public orchard, one garden in Shorewood is now 500 new gardens per year, a natural river path now adopted by River Advocates, a single developer taking aim to save a single school building and make a village asset on top of a weedy “parking” lot. This list is long, but not long enough. Name your civic passion.

  4. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Ahhhh!!!! It’s great to be green, but Milwaukee’s problems in descending importance are: top ten for crime, top ten worst poverty, worst schools, 57% youth unemployment,, top ten worst management, abandoned houses, like Detroit, corruption, heroin epidemic, high taxes, inept county leadership. The only bright spot and good county leader, David Clarke is hated by the “do nothing Left”, so they ran a vicious racist smear campaign against him. Oh, I forgot: except for planting gardens and riding a few bikes.
    Oh, I forgot, more, the new Trolley when we need better bus system and the top thing a new Arena for 30 guys to run around bouncing balls.

  5. Dick pieper says:

    Wonderful article Bruce with an abundance perspective — the world might just be attracted go such a reality . Thank you for your leadership Mr Dickens

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @WCD I’ll say it again, as you ignore facts, the City of Milwaukee as led by Mayor Barrett, spends the largest part of its budget (there is simply nothing else close) on cops, which clearly makes it priority number one. The worst managed thing is a lie (as pointed out to you many times), what corruption? (give an example…). And Clarke well he is a big spender, much much more than Barrett, and has almost zero impact on crime.

  7. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Every village has to have it’s idiot. Percentage of budget means nothing. Milwaukee police are in charge of crime, not Clarke. They have 1,000 or so less officers now than in 1970 and we have crime wave. The issue is not the percent of budget is it enough to quell the 70% increase in car thefts, the sex crimes, kidnapping, aggravated assaults and the answer is not. You are obivously a brown noser to Barrett/Flyyn and co.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    Ah yes. Present Bob (WCD) with facts, and get well…

  9. D says:

    Let me preface by saying that the only Democrat I have ever voted for was David Clarke. I will be voting for Walker for the 3rd time in like 4 years.

    WCD—-you sound like a bitter old man that is fighting a futile battle against the future. The venom spit at Milwaukee by fellow Republicans like you almost makes me want to stay home on November 4th. Positive change is happening in Milwaukee and it’s happening at a rapid pace. Milwaukee isn’t going to clean up crime, poverty, and its long standing social problems in the span of a few years. A few more police officers isn’t going to make a difference. Not unless they get that Minority Report technology and I highly doubt you would ever pay $10 a year extra for that. What will make a difference is more businesses moving in, improving quality of life, and attracting new residents. Which, for the record, Milwaukee has been more successful at than the suburbs in recent times.

    Give Tom Barrett some credit. The city of Milwaukee has successfully resurrected one of the ugliest eyesores in the state with the Valley. It is trying to create high paying, innovation type jobs with the water technology park, council, and university. Building new neighborhoods from scratch. Turning downtown into a place where people want to live and where business might consider staying or moving to. Now Milwaukee is going to fix another massive eyesore with the Inner Harbor and Century City. Where is this ambition in our suburbs aside from a few places like Wauwatosa?

    Bike sharing, streetcars, parks, and the like are quality of life improvements. I personally don’t understand bike sharing but other people think it is cool and we need those people to invest here. The pittance these things cost are far outweighed by the positives they bring. Stop being so cheap and angry. If you don’t like watching the millionaires at Miller Park, stay home in Muskego and enjoy your firework shows, Applebees, polishing your gun, and high school productions of The King and I. You are alienating the rest of us that enjoy big city amenities.

  10. D says:

    Also, in regards to the police—-we had like a 100,000 more people in the 70’s. We lost the city of Green Bay in terms of population, so what did you expect? A community that size has around 200 officers.

  11. David says:

    I agree D, there is a lot of good happening in Milwaukee. There is an energy and vitality in Milwaukee that I have not seen in my 47 years of living here. I grew up in the burbs but I love living in Milwaukee. I’m beginning to believe that there is nothing to say to people like WCD because, for political reasons, he has an anti-Milwaukee agenda. Ultimately he wants Milwaukee to fail because politics is a game to him. He and his talk radio parrots will continue to yell from the mountain top that Milwaukee is a horrible place governed by do-nothing whiney democrats. He doesn’t care if people know the truth about anything, he’s just gonna keep saying it. Unfortunately many in the suburbs are agree but don’t know why.

    I live it the city and I’m for solutions that work whether they are conservative or progressive policies. Most people I know feel the same way. WCD and people like him are the problem.

  12. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    No one wants Milwaukee to fail, they have done that all by themselves. Conservatives want to see the kids educated, reduced unemployment, taxes to the state from good jobs, less crime. Conservatives want Milwaukee to prosper instead of being a black hole to stick money. Energy, like 70% increase in auto thefts, named the “Harvard” of sex crimes plus all of the rest. Barrett dislikes it so much he has spent most of his time running for other offices. He is failure completely. Almost daily, AFSCME, SEIU and others embarrass the county with their antics about businesses, persecuting Palermo. During the Doyle reign, nothing improved in Milwaukee only under Tommy did things happen. Walker saved MPS from disastrous cuts in schools and revenue, now we must override the corrupt influences that chase businesses from Milwaukee and teach kids to read, a total failure of MPS and the left.
    Energy in Milwaukee? The trolley, new arena, for guys to bounce balls, some bike racks? It is a joke. What energy? They conduct a racist smear campaign against the only black official, showing what a sleazy person Abele and Barrett are, plus the sleazy Wisconsin group that ran them. They do not like Clarke cause he is not a house black_____, a steppin fetchit like most of the black legislators. What do you think the black kids think when they see the whites just lambasting Clarke cause he rides a horse, a cowboy hat? Teaches them what the whites are in Milwauakee: Racists. That is energy? How many businesses have relocated from Waukesha, where everyone goes to Milwaukee? Sure a couple of old line guys like NML expand but they are immune from the violence in the inner city that goes on unabated. Kids still cannot read and no one has plans to fix it. Yeah that is energy all right.
    Causey writes about a prize fighter wanting to work on illiteracy which is great. I would like to see the Blue Ribbon people that are so concerned about a new arena take interest along with the Mayor. Barrett has been my congressman, state senator, Mayor. I cannot remember any initiatives about reading and MPS. He avoids it like bubonic plague. Total failure.

  13. Nicholas says:

    There is only one black official in Milwaukee?

    Doyle didn’t expand the voucher program you love so much?

    WCD reminds me of the folks on the Journal who manage to turn each and every story (even one today about a luxury condo penthouse) into a bash Milwaukee fest.

  14. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Someone has to put the pressure on Milwaukee to clean up. Last year Jean and I had one of Milwaukee’s thugs come into our house, try to break in, broke into garage. We missed being there by about ten minutes. He was caught up the street and got into fight with two cops while armed with knives stolen from my garage. We have been a frequent victim of crime, all based from Milwaukee.
    As long as the crime does not come into their back yard the Left cares not if a lot of black kids cannot read and kill each others.

  15. Ryan says:

    Barrett was mayor for 5 years prior to his second run for governor, how long is someone supposed to stay in office without being charged with running from the job? This IMHO might be one of the dumbest charges I have seen.

    As for violent crime, poverty, systemic problems in education, these exist in virtually every former industrial town in the United States to one degree or another, many of which are decidedly worse off than Milwaukee. Go to Newark, or Camden, or Birmingham. It doesn’t matter which State the city is in if it’s economy was based on heavy manufacturing odds are it’s dealing with the same problems present in Milwaukee. No WCD, Milwaukee leaders did not dictate the massive economic shifts of mechanization and outsourcing that crushed the Milwaukee job market and turned whole neighborhoods into job deserts.

    Right now Milwaukee is doing what it needs to do. Invest in the areas most likely to grow and then let development radiate outwards.

  16. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    It exists there so it should exist here. Typical left winger blame someone else, creates problems make excuses. If you cannot solve problems get out. Barrett ran three times. Give me list of his accomplishments in ten years. He is nice guy, dumb, he should know self defense, but nice guy. Top politico in this state says he likes Tom. Cannot solve problems or make decisions and his ten year record shows it. He has shown that the cannot solve anything, even build a trolley. Time to move on. Anyone with least knowledge of urban problems will tell you that Milwaukee is top ten worst for fixing things.
    You actually are admitting that Milwuakee is top ten worst run, top ten worst poverty, top ten most violent, 57% youth unemployment, full of abandoned houses, MPS worst in country,heroin epidemic, corrupt as hell and that you and your lefty buddies cannot solve. them. Get lost then, bring in new talent. why do Milwaukee people accept you losers?

  17. Ryan says:

    WCD that is a paraphrase fail. Pointing out the impact of a century old trend towards greater mechanization is not blaming someone else. Nor is pointing out how 30+ year old trade policies greatly reduced the US Manufacturing base(starting in the 80s) and caused decay and blight through industrial cities throughout the United States. If you wish to reside in lala land and blame all social problems on “da libruls,” well be my guest. Though your cartoonish arguments, which really just parody and spoof the old arguments and positions of the political right, are comical.

    As for Milwaukee being one of the worst run cities, that’s patently false. The City has a balanced budget and fully funded pension plan. As I’ve said the problems of poverty crime and education are not unique to the City of Milwaukee and are shared by most industrial cities. The Cities that are performing at the highest level are either benefiting from local natural resources, Texas oil, or started their renewal efforts a good decade or two before Milwaukee.

    What has Barrett accomplished? Downtown and it’s surrounding environs have boomed and increased in population by nearly a third since Barrett took office. The River Walk has been completed, the Third Ward has turned into one of the hottest neighborhoods in the State, Brady has revitalized, Riverwest and Bayview are starting to gentrify, East North Ave is boombing. Oh yes and let’s not forget about the Valley which was once one of the Country’s largest brownfields and is now a thriving business park.

    Now we’re staring to see movement in places like Walker’s Point, the Inner Harbor, and Century City. Heck even national publications are starting to praise Milwaukee as a place to visit.

    WCD, it’s a shame you haven’t been to the City in the last 10 years, a lot of wonderful things are happening.

  18. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Fact is that I have worked in the inner city most of the last 30 years and have property there. Am disturbed to see the mess that you have created. Amazed that you can types all those words with excuses, whines and no solutions, but typical of the liberals and their butt kissers. Create problems, never solve them. Doyle makes mess Walker solves it. Ament make mess Walker solves it. Earl makes mess Tommy solves it. Carter makes mess Reagan solves it. Left screws up lakefront,Clarke fixes. Left screws up HOC, Clarke solves it.

  19. David says:

    WCD…. now we’re all losers? What’s with the name calling? Please stop pretending to care. You’re so tired.

  20. Ryan says:

    By working in the inner city, you mean driving around with a loud speaker and newspapers plastered all over your car, don’t you?

    Pointing out maco-economic trends and how they negatively affected large urban areas, which were designed to provide large amounts of cheap labor, is not whining.

    What you do is engage in one logically fallacious argument after another. Affirming the consequent is your stock in trade. If Bill Gates owns Fort Knox he is rich, Bill Gates is rich therefore he owns Fort Knox. Are there intelligent conservative arguments and critiques, absolutely. When you, WCD, produce one of these arguments it’ll be a first and leap from the blather you usually produce.

  21. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Ryan, pne thing nice about answering a Lefty is that they are big jerks without answers. Look at the messes that Doyle, Obama and Barrett have created. If Walker had not come along with answers there would have been big cuts in school airs. We would have been another Illinois.
    I worked the last 20 plus years in pharmacies on both in the heart of north and south side, Walgreens, where you meet and work with everyone, hookers, gang leaders, seniors, everyone of every color shape and size. Plus I have property that, apts. are like UN. Pharmacists are medical guys closest to people. Have seen everything. have seen the many victims of crime, diseases, bad homes etc. Have listened to their frustrations with the leaders in community, especially the schools where they are powerless, that is why they like CHOCE, which of course the white left wants to take away from them.
    The White Left has destroyed the base of the inner city areas for jobs, produced poverty, bad schools, violent crime, abandoned houses, heroin epidemic and given them nothing. You even ran a gutless, racist smear campaign, against the principal elected official of the inner city cause he refuses to be their Steppin Fetchit with “little weenie” like Abele hiding behind some big fat group.
    Left creates the problems, creates more poverty, chases jobs to Waukesha and as long as it is just black kids shooting each other they do not care. In ten years of Barrett running for new jobs every other year, the city has gone backwards. Instead of working for better buses, he cannot even build his silly little trolley which will not help the inner city one bit.

  22. PMD says:

    The left created the heroin epidemic? That is not cool at all. Why did they do that?

  23. PMD says:

    As for the left creating poverty, was it only lefties behind redlining and racial covenants and what not? Only liberals played a part in that?

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/13/how-we-built-the-ghettos.html

  24. Juli Kaufmann says:

    I appreciate that efforts like our Menomonee Valley are being recognized nationally. If ever there was a benchmark for sustainable economic development in formerly blighted industrial zones – this is it. The transformation is remarkable: 300 acres of brownfields have been developed, 39 companies have moved into the City, and more than 5,000 family-supporting jobs have been created. One million square feet of green buildings have been constructed and more than 60 acres of new trails and park space with 45 acres of native plants installed have led to improved wildlife habitat and water quality. This effort reflects millions of dollars of economic activity. This happened at a time when many other urban cores continued to deteriorate around the country. This did not happen by magic – it was smart policy, good planning and is the result of positive people taking action -leading – in both the public and private sector.

    Another example from the story Bruce wrote about – which I think should be the point of comments here – is the Clock Shadow Building. This is also a remarkable example of urban transformation using sustainable development. Located in one of the most socio-economically challenged zip codes in the City, this building rose up on a former brownfield. The project created nearly $8 million in direct investments and catalyzed at least another $5 million in a neighborhood renaissance that continues. The building is now home to seven different businesses – including manufacturing, medical and professional services which employ nearly 50 people. The wages paid to the predominantly Milwaukee- based employees represents millions in payroll now recirculated within the area and around Milwaukee. Already one business that started in the building has grown so successfully that they moved into a new building a block away, added five jobs, doubled manufacturing production and are exceeding sales goals. The economic ripple effect is magnified.

    Anyone can be a critic, as I often am, and its easy to assign blame, as I sometimes do. While more always needs to be done, its worth celebrating these projects. The facts surrounding these remarkable economic achievements are irrefutable. One thing I generally enjoy about Urban Milwaukee is that – despite the minority who like to be negative ideologues – there is often a robust and interesting social debate about issues that matter, often including exchanges between participants who are really making a difference here in Milwaukee. How can we build on these success stories to continue improving Milwaukee? That’s the question I think about.

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