Forecasting extreme weather events, Groundwork Milwaukee working to build climate resiliency on the north side

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When a tornado outbreak spanning five states tore through southern Illinois in late December, Young Kim was mindful of Milwaukee’s north side.

Kim, the executive director of nonprofit group Groundwork Milwaukee, is sounding the alarm on the impact of climate change, arguing the city needs to ready itself for the accelerating frequency of extreme weather events.

Since it formed in 2007, Groundwork Milwaukee has been best known for running the Milwaukee Grows Garden Network, an initiative that helps facilitate the conversion of largely city-owned vacant lots into green spaces. Today, Groundwork supports 85 community gardens throughout the city. The organization recently received a $125,860 grant from the state’s Equitable Recovery Grant program to help fund its work and plans to plant 60 fruit trees throughout the city.

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A growing sense of urgency around the possibility of major storm and heat events — and the likelihood that they will disproportionately damage Milwaukee’s north side neighborhoods — has prompted the organization to adopt a new focus on building greater climate resiliency in vulnerable communities.

“We are trying to not only look at garden spaces but other actions we can take to mitigate the effects of climate change that we know are coming down the pike,” Kim said. “I think that our response to climate change has been looking in a rear-view mirror, but we’re starting to see some weather events that we’ve never really seen before.”

Mapping models developed by Groundwork indicate the area stretching from Metcalfe Park’s eastern portion, south to Midtown, east to Lindsay Heights, and north to Park West would be most adversely affected by a 100-year storm, including flooding of more than two feet in some areas. Likewise, models indicate portions of that area would see between 12-24 inches of flooding as the result of a 10-year storm.

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“I believe the 100-year storm will become the 10-year storm and then the five-year storm,” Kim said. “… These storms will happen more and more often.”

The Metcalfe Park neighborhood – the area bordered by North Avenue, Center Street, 27th Street and 38th Street – is also at particular risk of extreme heat events due to the large swaths of impervious pavement and buildings, Groundwork’s mapping indicates. So-called “urban heat islands” experience elevated energy costs, air pollution and heat-related illnesses during major heat events.

“I’m of the opinion that we should be hitting the panic button – we should be jumping on the panic button with both feet,” Kim said.

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To mitigate the effects of climate change, Groundwork is working with Metcalfe Park Community Bridges to develop solutions, such as installing permeable pavers in parking lots to allow water to seep into the ground rather than rush into the sewer system. Planting more trees would also help slow flooding.

The work of building climate resiliency in neighborhoods will progress one project at a time, Kim said.

“As you build a park, as you plant trees, as you manage unmanaged public spaces, you are going to have made a dent in the dangers of climate change,” he said.

Meanwhile, some of the payoff of those efforts are more immediate, he added.

Gardening builds social connections, provides a low-pressure form of exercise and yields produce in areas that would otherwise have limited access to fresh foods.

“There are just so many benefits to gardening, and in a place like Milwaukee where there is a lot of negative news coming out about reckless driving, stolen cars and whatnot, it gives people something to feel proud about their neighborhood or block,” he said.

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