Milwaukee sheds the rust in push to become world leader in sustainability

Pete Geraci, MEConnect Contributor

In late May, I sat down with Erick Shambarger, the Director of Environmental Sustainability for the City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office (ECO), to discuss the City’s ongoing effort to make MKE a world class Eco City. Loaded up on caffeine, immersed in the sounds and smells of the Collectivo by the lake, we began our conversation by discussing how we came to be sitting across the table from one another.

“So Erick, where are you from?”

“I’m from Nebraska originally, but I was really drawn to Milwaukee because of its unique architecture, culture and lakefront.”

Erick moved to Milwaukee in 1996 to attend Marquette University where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and writing. He later went on to obtain a Masters of Public Affairs degree from the University of Wisconsin with a focus on energy policy. Erick sees energy policy as the key to combating climate change and improving the everyday lives of Milwaukee residents. Many of ECO’s award-winning programs focus on these issues.

For example, Milwaukee Shines is a program that provides a step-by-step guide and financing for getting solar for your home or business, while Me2 encourages homeowners to increase their energy efficiency with cash-back rewards and low-interest financing for new windows, insulation, and lighting. PACE, short for Property Assessed Clean Energy, helps commercial property owners do the same thing as part of the City’s Better Buildings Challenge. PACE financing supported more than $13 million in energy efficiency projects at eight buildings including the Macke Building, Wally Schmidt Tavern, and new Westin Hotel.

Thinking all this seemed a little too easy for this political climate, I asked Erick, “What challenges remain for implementing these programs?”

Erick hesitated briefly and admitted that despite all the great progress they had made, there were still roadblocks preventing them from moving forward more aggressively. He alluded to the general reluctance of energy companies to move away from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas as well as the lack of financial and political support for renewable energy at the state and now federal levels. In talking to Erick about this topic, I got the sense that he saw cities as having to step up to lead on energy efficiency and renewable energy, which I admit is encouraging to hear from someone in government in this political environment. Undismayed, he cited the hard work of partners like the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, a fellow founder of MEConnect, as the key to achieving their goal of reducing emissions and lowering energy costs in Milwaukee.

“Public-private partnerships are key," he stated several times throughout the interview, adding “not all partnerships are equal, but when they are good, they work really well.”

The City’s sustainability efforts are established in the ReFresh MKE sustainability plan. ReFresh MKE was established through a community engagement process led by his predecessor, Matt Howard, who is now the director of the Water Council’s Alliance for Water Stewardship.“I want to make it clear that Matt deserves a lot of credit for this plan.”

One ECO program that is visibly improving the community is HOME GR/OWN, which grew from the ReFresh Milwaukee plan. HOME GR/OWN’s mission is to “Transform targeted neighborhoods by concentrating City and partner resources, catalyzing new, healthy food access and greenspace developments to promote economic development.” The award-winning program revitalizes neighborhoods by transforming abandoned lots owned by the city into food-producing gardens, composting sites, and storm water storage facilities while also promoting grass roots entrepreneurial opportunities for urban farmers, grocery store operators, and community organizers. HOME GR/OWN completed 20 pocket parks and community orchards in central Milwaukee in 2015. This year HOME GR/OWN is developing a community park next to the Fondy Food Center and is revitalizing vacant lots on North Avenue.

Erick Shambarger is the Director of Environmental Sustainability at the City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office (ECO). He and his small group of staff and interns oversee the implementation of the city’s comprehensive plan, ReFresh Mke, designed to transform the 20th century industrial city of Milwaukee into a 21st century world-class Eco city.

HOME GR/OWN is an example of one of their Catalytic Projects, a way of addressing complex issues such as poverty, public health and crime through comprehensive planning and public-private partnerships. The Milwaukee Inner Harbor Redevelopment project is another example of a catalytic project which seeks to redevelop the harbor to provide water access to the area’s residents. The Inner Harbor redevelopment project is now being spearheaded by the Harbor District, Inc.

“Water access is really important, it’s really hard for people to care about water when they can’t make a connection with it,” Erick stresses.

“Since you mention water, Erick, Milwaukee sits next to one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world, what is the City doing to protect its drinking water?” “Well, the city established the Water Centric City Initiative, it’s a program with nine different objectives, you can read all about it online.” One of the objectives of the Water Centric City Initiative is making sure Milwaukee has fishable, swimmable water. Erick recounted how early on in his tenure he was involved in revitalizing Bradford Beach.

“About ten years ago, Bradford Beach was a mess, overrun by weeds and seagulls with signs warning of E. coli”

“I had no idea,” I responded.

A runner jogs towards the Bradford Beach volleyball courts

“Yeah, Sandra McLellan, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s, School of Freshwater Science, identified the source of bacteria and we worked together with Milwaukee County and MMSD to implement ways to get it under control using rain gardens and other strategies such as regularly raking the beach exposing the sand to disinfecting sunlight and discouraging seagulls from landing by getting people to use the beach through volleyball leagues.” This year, ECO is helping the Harbor District develop strategies to get residents to the water through the Take Me to the River project.

“So we have talked a lot about the economic benefits of sustainability, but is the City interested in preserving the environment just for the environments sake?”

“We don’t see the economy and the environment as an either-or choice anymore, any benefit to the environment is also a benefit to the community, economically or otherwise.”

ECO is not only thinking about how to revitalize the city through sustainability, but it is also actively thinking about ways to respond to the threat of climate change, a growing concern for many U.S. cities situated near water.

“OK last question, Erick. In Mayor Barret’s opening statement in the ReFresh Milwaukee plan he says, ‘the climate is telling us the old ways won’t work anymore’, what does he mean by this and how do you see climate change affecting Milwaukee in the future?”.

“Well, the biggest thing is flooding. With the massive flooding we experienced in 2008, 2010 we realized that so-called 100-year storms are going to be more frequent.”

“And by ‘old ways’, what does he mean by that?”

“I think the old ways of industrial development in the early part of the 20th century was parasitic. Some companies would build factories, pollute the surrounding area, go bankrupt and the city was left with all this undevelopable land and no jobs. Companies later shied away from redeveloping these areas because it would be cheaper to develop land further outside the city. “The Menonomee Valley eco-industrial district is a new paradigm. We have recycled the land, incorporated green infrastructure, attracted new industry, and reconnected the area with the surrounding neighborhoods. But we are also grateful to Milwaukee’s long-standing manufacturing companies that have been responsible, stayed in Milwaukee, and have retooled to become more sustainable over time.”

“Interesting. Well, Erick, I must say I am impressed by the holistic approach you and the Environmental Collaboration Office are taking to address Milwaukee’s environmental and economic needs. Anthropologists are always complaining about the myopic view politicians tend to take towards issues like health and poverty, it’s refreshing to see the City take a different course.”

“Thank you.”

As our conversation came to a close, the sun makes its first appearance in a couple days and my mind turns to all the great amenities Milwaukee has to offer, the rivers, woods, lake, and parks. Erick then reiterated that the vision is to make Milwaukee a world-class Eco city, on par with other progressive cities like Copenhagen and Vancouver.

“We want to establish a global brand,” Erick says as he polished off his coffee like a champ.

It seems that for now, Milwaukee is well on its way to becoming a world-class Eco city. The deft leadership of Mayor Tom Barrett, Director Erick Shambarger and the City’s Environmental Collaboration Office is inspiring, but Milwaukee’s success truly depends on the support of the people of Milwaukee. I encourage readers to get involved by exploring the MEConnect website, visiting ECO’s website and/or by following their Twitter account @ecoCityMKE.

Pete Geraci has a Master’s degree in Anthropology and is a volunteer contributor to the Milwaukee Environmental Connection. He has been with MEConnect since 2016.

The Environmental Collaboration Office, or ECO, strives to make Milwaukee a world class eco-city.