Flood Management for Healthy Communities in Milwaukee, WI

This is the fourth in a six-part interview series with team coordinators from each of the six CCI Connect Capital initiative teams. Team coordinators help their multi-sector teams steward work to address their community’s shared priorities.

We continue to experience more frequent and violent weather disasters as a result of a changing climate, including increased flooding in urban areas. The negative health effects of climate change are already happening in the United States and the most vulnerable residents of our communities are already disproportionately bearing the brunt of these changes. Adapting to climate change will require collaborative action on a large scale and across many different sectors. Like Seattle Public Utilities, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) will make significant investments in flood management to strengthen the region’s flood resiliency. These utilities are leading exemplars of how utilities with a community vision can leverage their investments to plan for a different future. The Milwaukee Connect Capital team is developing a strategy to systematically leverage MMSD’s investments to benefit people with low incomes in disinvested neighborhoods, including the establishment of new green and recreational spaces, increasing safe access to amenities in the city, the creation of bike and pedestrian pathways, and spurring commercial activity.

Kate Morgan

In this interview, Kate Morgan, Project Coordinator at Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, shares the team’s aspiration for the work and the progress to date. A long-time Milwaukee resident, Kate has extensive experience in public outreach and communications with a focus on freshwater and the Great Lakes and has led a variety of green infrastructure initiatives in the region.

What are you all trying to do?

We are trying to leverage our flood management work to catalyze additional community amenities for residents in the areas where the projects are located with the goal of improving health equity and catalyzing economic development. This includes creating green spaces for recreation and enhancing connectivity through the neighborhoods utilizing a complete streets framework. Through these investments, we will create opportunities for passive and active recreation for residents and enhance economic opportunities for businesses in the area. We also hope to foster greater social cohesion in our communities as we work with residents and local business to identify needed amenities, activate new green spaces, and improve safe access to community amenities.

How is this work building on what you all have been up to in your community?

Before Connect Capital, MMSD was engaging communities through the planning and construction of major flood management projects. We had built strong relationships through these efforts. Through Connect Capital, we are building upon those relationships and adding new layers to those projects to address additional community needs. The Kinnickinnic River on the South Side was a dangerous place in the neighborhood due to flooding and the high speed at which the channelized river flowed. By restoring and naturalizing the river, we are creating a safer environment with green space and trails along the river’s corridor. We anticipate residents will be attracted to the river corridor with its new green space and trails for recreation and that users of new trails will be attracted to businesses in the adjacent commercial corridor. This work is building on an established partnership with Sixteenth Community Health Centers and the KK Neighborhood Corridor Plan which was incorporated in the City’s comprehensive plan, enabling us to accelerate implementation.

In the 30th St. Corridor, MMSD is reducing flooding with the construction of three major stormwater basins. We learned many lessons regarding community engagement with the construction of the first two basins. Those lessons are informing our work now as we engage with residents for the Connect Capital West Basin Green Space project on property adjacent to third stormwater basin. We are working with the neighbors and partners including Northwest Side Community Development Corporation and the West Basin Community Advisory Council to envision and develop a neighborhood park that reflects community needs and priorities.

How are you hoping Connect Capital will help?

The multi-sector Connect Capital team is strengthening partnerships as well as helping to establish new partnerships as we build trust across sectors. The fact that our team represents different entities and sectors creates an opportunity to approach projects with multiple goals and to leverage and align efforts so that the work toward those goals advances in a coordinated manner. It’s not very often that a multi-sector team has the opportunity to sit down together and develop a systems approach to a project and to create a pipeline of projects that when added together will accelerate positive change in our communities. Through the Connect Capital program, we have that opportunity.

Through the guidance and direction of CCI staff, we engage with projects in a deeper way; develop new strategies; and investigate constraints in the system of investment. The support helps us to ground our ideas and to consider processes and potential impacts. For example, what will the Complete Streets policy look like on the ground? How will geographies be prioritized? What is process for the inclusion of the community as decisions are made for the implementation of that policy? Connect Capital helps keep us centered in purpose. It’s easy to have the technical side of projects come to the forefront; but through Connect Capital, we are challenged to keep the result of the projects at the center and to the fore. It pushes us to deeply consider how our investments will improve the quality of people’s lives and address inequities that have lasted over decades. Through the Connect Capital process, we are working with residents, businesses, and the community to create a larger vision and to make that vision real, project by project.

What has been most interesting or surprising to you or your team so far?

We have been surprised at interest in the Connect Capital program and the willingness of partners to engage with us around the projects and the initiative. I wasn’t sure this would be the case because there have been other initiatives that have come and gone, but people are sensing something different about this initiative. They are hoping it can take root given the systems and process approach. I’m also surprised by the synchronicity of events – the activation of the Kinnickinnic River Corridor Neighborhood Plan, the adoption of the Complete Streets policy, and the activity of new coalitions to address connectivity and equity – all part of the environment we are building on. The timing of the initiative could not have been better.

What are you most excited about next?

I’m excited to help shift the narrative about what’s possible in the neighborhoods we are working in. It’s meaningful to be part of the changes taking place in these neighborhoods and to work with the communities for that change. The challenges in these neighborhoods are the legacy of segregation, disenfranchisement, and the cascading impacts of the departure of major manufacturing companies. This is an opportunity to overcome those legacies by working to lift up the assets in these communities, implementing a framework for change with the community at the table, and aligning and leveraging efforts to accelerate change.

I’m also excited to see progress at the project level. We now have renderings of complete street elements for 13th Street to bring to the community and businesses as we continue the dialogue with them around safety, business creation, green infrastructure, and connectivity. There are also positive conversations underway concerning redevelopment projects that could anchor the revitalization of the Crisol Corridor.

Anything else you’d like to share about the Milwaukee work?

One important part of the work that we are doing is breaking down silos and building bridges between city departments, departments within our utility, various initiatives of NGOs, as well as neighborhood groups. There is often little opportunity to think about projects and initiatives in a mutually reinforcing way. Through Connect Capital, we invite our partners to take part in a different model and process. We are actively engaged in connecting infrastructure improvements – both gray and green – and public health. With this intention, as we develop processes and a pipeline of projects, we will be able to scale up our work to deliver on our intended result: equitable, healthy communities.

Connect Capital teams recently completed their third Learning Community in Berkeley, California. At the Learning Community, the teams refined their action plan to move forward with their pipeline of projects and identified the adaptive challenges they need to confront to accelerate the pace of their work. The teams are preparing for a second round of Local Strategy Sessions this spring, where they will have the opportunity to bring their partners together in their communities to advance their work.

Transforming investment in communities

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CCI is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The California Endowment.

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