Milwaukee is perhaps best known for its beers and its brewing history. While most of its breweries are now gone, it is a city innovating in many other areas, forging new models for urban sustainability and greening.  I had the chance to see these initiatives for myself on a visit to the city in August and was impressed with what found.

My host for this visit was Marcia Caton Campbell, Executive Director of the Center for Resilient Cities, a prominent NGO in Milwaukee and Madison “that practices sustainable community development, working with neighbors to build communities that are good for people and good for the environment.”

Milwaukee has made considerable strides in urban sustainability, now a priority issue for current mayor, Tom Barrett, who has recently established a “green team” to advice and guide the preparation of the city’s new sustainability plan. Barrett created the City’s Office of Environmental Sustainability in 2006, which is now led by Matt Howard, who shared his visions for the future of Milwaukee with me .

Howard is proud of the city’s accomplishments as it has transitioned from “cream city to green city”. There are new storm water management efforts underway in the city, for instance, including the installation of a number of green rooftops (including one on the roof of the City’s central library), and the planting of thousands of trees. There is a very successful home energy retrofit program, and a new bold plan called HOME GR/OWN that reimagines the city’s some 3000 vacant parcels as the basis for a new community renewal. In a recent op-ed article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mayor Barrett described this last plan as an effort to “knit the city back to the land.”

Additionally, Milwaukee is already quite well known for its innovative work in urban agriculture and community food production. It is notably home to Will Allen’s non-profit Growing Power, and, more recently, the aquaponics company Sweet Water Organics (inspired by Allen’s work, and highly publicized, though not without a few hiccups along the way).

Some of the other community food and urban agriculture stories are less well known outside Milwaukee–such as Alice’s Garden, an impressive large growing space and virtual beehive of community-based activities.  Located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Lindsay Heights, this garden aims to do many things at once—provide jobs and income for young adults in the neighborhood, educational programming for school kids (the Brown Street Academy lies adjacent to the site), and important green space for the community. Creating and growing Alice’s Garden has been a collective effort, helped along by a number of organizations in the community, including the Center for Resilient Cities.

Our visit to the garden fell on a fairly hot, sunny summer day. The garden was buzzing with a dizzying array of activity–so many projects to hear about, and so many young people zipping by.  It is hard to envision 2 acres of urban ground more intensively programmed.  There are many classes offered at the garden, it is the site of storytelling and theater arts, the meeting place for a local  horticulture club. Here there is a fertile layering of energy and meaning, as organic and as complex as the soil itself.

In addition, the garden is a staging ground and home-ship, it seems, for many other initiatives in the community.  There is a Healthy Corner Store Initiative, with two stores already stocking produce from the garden, and at least two farmers markets in the neighborhood (including the Fondy Market)sell food from the garden. On that day, I met two amazing individuals that make the garden run and hum: Venice Williams, Project Director, and Fatuma Emmad, Urban Farm Manager.  Their energy and passion both for gardens and positive social change were palpable.

An especially unusual aspect of the garden is the emphasis on food heritage, in particular for African-Americans. Through its Fieldhands and Foodways Project, there is an effort to educate about the role of food during the period of slavery—as Williams explained, not to diminish the hardships and terror, but to show another dimension. There is a master’s kitchen garden here, as well as a slave allotment garden.   Through these gardens many stories related to slavery are told—such as the fact that some African communities were targeted by slavers for their specific agricultural knowledge and skills.

There are important place-making aspects of the garden as well. There are walking paths and a shared pavilion for community meetings. Among the more interesting parts or pieces of the garden is a labyrinth used for contemplative walks and classes.

Another unusual feature we happened upon as we walked around that day was a distinctive looking elevated “box,” which I soon discovered was the first of the Garden’s three “little free libraries”. “Take a book, leave a book” is the motto, and meant to foster  literacy and community engagement.  The brainchild of Wisconsin natives, Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, the idea has now made its way around the world (with several thousand built to date).

Alice’s Garden is just one of many exemplary community building efforts in Milwaukee, undertakings that uniquely combine food production, community building, and contact with the natural world. There are many others. The city’s efforts at urban river renewal and restoration are an especially important part of the Milwaukee story, one already known to many urban planners. Dating back to Mayor John Norquist, is the creation of the city’s highly successful Riverwalk, along the Milwaukee River. While not yet completed, it already covers a 24-block area in the city.

A more recent chapter in this urban river story can be seen in the city’s work to restore the Menominee River, once the location for the city’s industrial base. Through the work of the Menominee Valley Partners, several brownfields have been redeveloped, and new companies are relocating here.

Another unique organization in Milwaukee and one that is playing a key role in the restoration of the Menominee River is the Urban Ecology Center: a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, that “fosters ecological understanding as inspiration for change, neighborhood by neighborhood.” The main branch is at Riverside Park, with another at Washington Park, in addition to the new Menominee location.

These ecology centers do impressive work, and are locations for extensive family programs, from monarch larvae monitoring to bluebird house building, adult learning, and interest groups such as urban ecology photo club, urban stargazers, and early morning bird walks (from a casual scanning of one of their recent newsletters). These centers host many school visits and are highly embedded in their local neighborhoods.  Some 80,000 visits a year have been logged to the ecology centers (before the addition of the Menomonee branch).

On this August visit we had the chance for take a quick peek at the new Menominee center, before its official opening in September. A former tavern, the building has been retrofitted with Solatube skylights and a rainwater collection system, among its green elements. The center also encompasses the restoration of a nearby 24-acre abandoned rail yard, along the Menominee River. This site will gradually be restored and converted into an outdoor classroom, with new pedestrian and bicycle bridges, and new community gardens. The master plan for the site has been prepared by Wenk Associates, and the renderings are just striking.

Water in Milwaukee is a key biophilic asset and condition in Milwaukee, and connecting residents to that water is a goal being pursued in different and creative ways. There is now a 35-mile Urban Water Trail, for instance, for canoes and kayaks, that encompasses parts of the city’s three rivers (and referred to in some of city’s literature as a “liquid parkway”!).  The importance of the lake shoreline cannot be forgotten, with unique opportunities to swim, boat and sail here.

Few cities are doing more to advance at once urban sustainability and connections with the natural world. From the corner store to city hall, becoming a green city seems a common priority here, and a natural step in the evolution of Milwaukee. From Cream City to Biophilic City!

Post by Dr. Tim Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia