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Milwaukee Creates Green Instructure Plan To Cope With Changing Climate

Mayor Tom Barrett says the city of Milwaukee is committed to fueling 25% of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2025, but climate change requires additional action. Earlier this month the city introduced its official Green Infrastructure Plan. It includes strategies to manage water resources and adapt to a rapidly changing climate.

One of the main concerns is the risk of flooding. Currently, vast amounts of pavement make it difficult to manage stormwater (streets cover over 20% of the total area in Milwaukee).

“We know we have extreme storms coming and so extreme storms coupled with too much pavement leads to flooding risk. And so we’re rethinking how we’re using our parking lots,” says Erick Shambarger, Milwaukee's director of sustainability.

The plan sets out to add 36 million gallons of stormwater storage through infrastructure projects, the equivalent to 143 green space according to the City. It plans to do this in several ways and has begun to implement these strategies at sites throughout Milwaukee. 

Credit Susan Bence
Bioswale built into Tippecanoe Library parking lot. It along with permeable pavement and rain gardens help handle stormwater.

GREEN PARKING LOTS - Tippecanoe Library

Milwaukee is folding green infrastructure to City-owned parking lots, including at public libraries.

Shambarger says partnerships help bring these projects to life. For example, a $75,000 grant from MMSD and the Fund for Lake Michigan helped underwrite a series of rain gardens, bioswales and permeable parking lot pavement at Tippecanoe Library located on South Howell Avenue.

Shambarger says it sets the standard for what parking lots should be, “which is not just for a place for cars to park, but to manage stormwater.”

Cars park on permeable pavers designed to allow water to percolate down. Also, the parking lot pitches toward a bioswale that runs through the middle.

“It’s basically a nature-based solution for managing stormwater. So we’re holding water on-site, we’re allowing the plants to take up the water and evaporate and that reduces pressure on our sewer system and reduces flooding risk for our community as well, Shambarger says.

Left to right: Kurt Spangers and Sara Gantt with Milwaukee's Department of Public Works look for opportunities to create bioswales like this one in a series along Highland Boulevard. Erick Shambarger is Milwaukee's director of sustainability.

GREEN STREET PROJECTS – Highland Boulevard

In 2013 the city started incorporating stormwater catchment projects as streets are repaved, including a series of 16 bioswales constructed in medians along Highland Boulevard.

Sara Gantt with the City’s Department of Public Works says the eye-catching plants do more than add beauty to their surroundings.

"There’s a perforated underdrain that catches the water after it percolates through the engineered soil and it cleans the water and then it goes back into the system or it gets stored in a storage layer underneath,” Gantt adds. “As far as the plants, they are salt-tolerant and they love the sun and the water and they attract the bees and butterflies."

Approximately 200 have been created throughout the City, with more on the way.

Credit Susan Bence
Right now it takes a bit of imagination, but not long after Starms kindergartners return to school they'll have a green space that only captures stormwater but is a multidimensional outdoor classroom. (Left to right) Justin Hegary manages the Green School Consortium of Milwaukee and helped bring the Starms project to life as did Starms teacher Lisa Misky. Angeline Koch is project manager and MPS' first sustainability project specialist.


The city plans to prioritize green infrastructure on schoolyards by allocating at least $600,000 annually to Milwaukee Public Schools (from MMSD’s Green Solutions funding). Four schools, including Starms Early Childhood, were selected for the first round of schoolyard redevelopment projects. 

Starms is a kindergarten where Lisa Misky has taught 4K for 21 years. She says the school has been plagued by flooding.

“Our basement was flooding and our neighbors were flooding. We would have to evacuate and to take 300 3, 4 and 5-year-olds; it’s not safe and it’s not fun” she explains.

Not only will a sea of asphalt outside the school be removed, Misky and her colleagues designed an outdoor space where students can play and learn.

A series of slides represent Milwaukee’s three rivers, “The Kinnickinnic, Menomonee, and Milwaukee. “The slides will go down and converge into our permeable Lake Michigan. And then around it will be green space,” Misky says.

Starms’ teachers created a curriculum for each grade level built around its new outdoor classroom.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>