Award-winning Milwaukee partner project builds climate change resilience

The USDA Forest Service distributes grants to agencies and organizations in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to restore and to protect the watersheds of the Great Lakes, the largest system of fresh surface water in the world.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) won multiple awards for a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI)-funded project that has planted well over 400 trees to buffer an urban neighborhood from the increasingly intense rains and heat of a changing climate.

The project, Improving Our Neighborhood One Tree at a Time, planted trees in parks and neighborhoods and along public roadways in a lower-income, predominantly African American community on Milwaukee’s northwest side. Residents of the community have been engaged in deciding where trees are planted and what species are chosen.

The project received a National Environmental Achievement Award from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which recognizes public agencies for their outstanding efforts under the Operations and Environmental Performance or Environmental Protection category. The project also won an International Gold Leaf Award through the Wisconsin Arborist Association.

Trees help mitigate the effects of high temperatures and heavy precipitation in cities, which already tend to be hotter than rural environments and are vulnerable to localized flooding. They provide shade and absorb carbon dioxide, leading to cooler, cleaner air. When trees in Milwaukee absorb rainwater during a storm, they decrease flooding and reduce the stormwater runoff that carries pollutants to Milwaukee River tributaries and, ultimately, to the Great Lakes.

The Forest Service provided a $100,000 GLRI grant to MMSD for the project, which supports GLRI objectives by reducing polluted runoff to the Great Lakes. The matching contribution was $200,000. Additional project partners include the City of Milwaukee Forestry, Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee and Havenwoods Economic Development Corporation.

The project began in January 2019. By the end of 2020, 458 trees had been planted, far more than the 300 or so originally planned. Varieties included oak, elm, hackberry and an assortment of other native tree species. An additional 100-200 trees are planned for summer 2021. Work on the project concludes in December 2021.

MMSD’s commitment to equity and diversity guided their choice of the project’s location and their approach to meaningful engagement with residents. Throughout the process, MMSD and their partners held workshops, sought community input, led educational hikes and provided resources — including free trees — for residents to improve their own property.

Sheela Johnson, Forest Service grant monitor for the project, commended MMSD’s empowering approach to community engagement. “MMSD and its partners recognize that neighbors are the most important part of neighborhood improvement,” Johnson said. “I hope other organizations involved in planting trees will follow this example of working alongside residents every step of the way to agree on what’s best for people and the environment in that space.”

Project partners worked with the community in the following ways:

  • Community Workshops: Partners co-facilitated community design workshops to discuss how climate change was impacting the neighborhood, address concerns and questions about trees and facilitate a robust decision-making process for residents to choose trees. A park design charette provided a way for residents to have input into how a grass parcel with a basketball court could be turned into a space that better served the neighborhood. Residents weighed in on preferred tree types and park amenities, and even helped select a new name for the site: Douglas Park.
  • Environmental Education: A series of three tree hikes introduced residents to natural wonders at the nearby Havenwoods State Forest, Wisconsin’s only urban state forest.
  • Residential Green Infrastructure: Though the pandemic led to cancellation of some in-person workshops, MMSD provided 60 rain barrels and 49 trees to residents through socially distanced delivery, along with tree planting guides and instructional videos for maintenance.
  • Community Jobs and Career Training: As part of a tree installation contract, Milwaukee Community Service Corps (MCSC) successfully planted many of the trees through this grant. MCSC provides young adults with the opportunity to learn new skills, earn a wage, serve the community, obtain a high school equivalency diploma and prepare for college or trade apprenticeships.

MMSD’s project is already exceeding its goal of capturing more than 18,500 gallons of water in a single storm, enough to fill two swimming pools. MMSD has ongoing work as part of their match to capture additional stormwater by installing bioswales and other green infrastructure. Ongoing collaboration will ensure that this investment in stormwater trees is maximized and sustained.

The GLRI was established in 2010 to protect and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem, a drinking water source for more than 30 million people. Multiple U.S. agencies work together with states, tribes and other partners to improve water quality, biological health and human well-being in the Great Lakes basin.

The Forest Service’s roles in the GLRI are to restore ecosystems on national forest lands, to restore and sustain forests through competitive grants to non-federal partners and to fund related research.