1 Dec 2012
Research: Milwaukee World Water Hub

The UN Global Compact Cities Programme (UNGCCP) has commenced the first stage of research to map the development of Milwaukee’s progression to a World Water Hub.

As a lead innovating city, Milwaukee’s holistic cross-sectoral approach has seen an initiative, that was initially economic development-focused, span the full spectrum of urban sustainability; economic, ecological, political and cultural.

We are looking at how that has been achieved and what models can be drawn from this impressive breadth of collaboration.

In September 2012, UNGCCP Researcher and Project Officer  Julia Laidlaw, supported by the city of Milwaukee, visited the city to gather information on the Milwaukee water initiative and to conduct research into Urban Aquaponics – a naturally organic food producing technology, suited to the urban environment that is being being experimented with in Milwaukee as a way of addressing food insecurity in the city. She also attended the Growing Power Urban and Small Farmers Conference.

The city of Milwaukee is situated on the shores of the Great Lakes where 25% of the world’s fresh water is found. In 2008 the then M7 Water Council successfully applied to become an Innovating City with the UNGCCP based on the economic development plan it had designed focusing on the sustainable use and management of water. Given the exponential growth and effectiveness of the, now named, Water Council over the last 4 years the UNGCCP has decided to explore this success by mapping the history and development of the initiative to date.

Ms Laidlaw conducted interviews with numerous people involved in the cross-sectoral initiative, amongst them the Senior Vice-President Corporate Technology of A. O. Smith Corporation, Robert Heideman, the President of the Water Council, Dean Amhaus, Dean of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, David Garman, and the Director of Hanging Gardens, Anthony Meyers. AO Smith is a multinational corporation specialising in water heating technology that was founded in Milwaukee in 1874 and Hanging Gardens is a two year old green roofing company recognised and supported by the Council due to its innovation in storm water retention.

Milwaukee has a long history of close association with water. An indigenous name, Milwaukee, means ‘resting place by the water’. When colonists settled the area it was its proximity and abundance of fresh water that attracted them and the city was built and thrived on account of its water intensive industries such as tanning and brewing. Over the last century however the larger more conspicuous water companies moved away, the local economy slowed down and Milwaukee’s population began to decline. While it might seem obvious Milwaukee’s relationship with water, motivation for the water initiative was only initiated when studies were conducted in 2007 of existing industry in the Milwaukee region for the purpose of identifying potential themes for economic development. It was discovered that more than 130 water related companies and around 100 freshwater focused researchers were based there. This knowledge triggered industry, academics and civil society to come together and discuss what this might mean for the city.

In 2008 Associate Dean of the School for Continuing Education at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Sammis White wrote the Water Summit White Paper outlining the huge potential in Milwaukee to become a World Water Hub. He claimed that Milwaukee, based on its existing industry, talent, and desire to grow, had the potential to become a water hub if it received the required leadership and financial investment.

The Water Council is focused on stimulating economic growth through the development of talent and technology for the sustainable use and cleaning of water. With board members representative of all sectors the Water Council has evolved as the leading force acting as key facilitator and cross-sectoral collaborative relationship developer, identifying and removing what Water Council President, Dean Amhaus calls “roadblocks”. Already, strong foundations for Milwaukee’s economic development are being laid through the streamlining of education programs between schools, technical colleges, universities and industry. Investment in research has ballooned with a group of local water companies investing $50,000 each annually through the National Science Foundation (NSF) supported Industry University Collaborative Research Center (IUCRC). The recently formed UWM School Of Freshwater Sciences is about to undergo a 50 million dollar renovation and the Water Council is soon to move to the ‘Accelerator Center’ – a renovated 5 storey warehouse which will see different water focused industries, research and development organisations renting space under the same roof so as to maximise on the collaborative force that has driven the initiative so far.

The impact of the water initiative can also be seen at a national and international level, over the past couple of years more than 20 international delegations have made the trip to Milwaukee to learn about water with the Water Council about to open their second office in Nevada – which has significant but distinct water issue to Milwaukee.

“Being recognised by the UNGCCP as an Innovating City has provided us with a significant level of endorsement so as to be taken seriously as international players,” says Dean Amhaus, President of the Water Council.

“On all accounts the story is extremely positive and one that continues to gain momentum”, says Ms Laidlaw. “There is a lot we could learn from Milwaukee that could be used to support collaborative and sustainable economic development in other cities.”

Initial outputs from this research will include a mapping of the history and networks growing out of Milwaukee water cluster. Based on the data collected and the relationships forged the Cities Programme will also look to conduct a collaborative study on the impact of the Water Council on the culture of water in Milwaukee’s population.

While in Milwaukee Ms Laidlaw also undertook research as a part of her thesis, into the economic sustainability of community focused, market oriented, urban aquaponics enterprises. Milwaukee offers a number of examples of where this water efficient technology, which incorporates the farming of fish and vegetables in a closed loop system, is being used to address food insecurity, unemployment and urban decay by transforming abandoned factories and land into urban farms. This research will be completed in mid 2013.

The two week visit was punctuated by the Urban and Small Farmers Conference organised by Milwaukees model Urban Farm, Growing Power. The event was attended by thousands of small farmers from around the States and the world looking and working to create a more sustainable and equitable food system. With real estate prices and the national economy at an all time low in the USA many people are taking the opportunity to buy blocks and establish farms in depressed urban areas. This is not only making fresh food available to areas that are essentially food deserts, it builds community and creates potential employment opportunities.

“Though still at its early stages, these actions have the potential to transform US cities,” says Ms Laidlaw, who has a history in urban food security and community development. “Definitely a movement I’m keeping my eyes on”

Since starting at the UNGCCP in 2011 Ms Laidlaw’s role has involved facilitating the engagement of Milwaukee’s Water Council with the Cities Programme. A post-graduate research student at RMIT, she is also writing a thesis on Urban Aquaponics – a naturally organic food producing technology, suited to the urban environment that is being being experimented with in Milwaukee as a way of addressing food insecurity in the city.


Reporter: Julia Laidlaw, UN Global Compact Cities Programme



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