Is Milwaukee One of the World’s Greenest Cities?
So says OnEarth magazine. Is it right?
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.”
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.”
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.