Fund For Lake Michigan

Westlawn Gardens at Ten

A decade ago, Westlawn, a 75-acre public housing development in Milwaukee’s Lincoln Creek Watershed, was ripe for improvement. A combination of public and private funding launched an ambitious community planning process overseen by the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM). Through surveys and neighborhood meetings, residents re-envisioned Wisconsin’s largest public housing development as a healthy and vibrant community with a balance of residential, commercial, and natural spaces. These dreams laid the groundwork for what would be an award-winning sustainable development and the highest LEED-rated neighborhood project in the world.

Priority number one was flooding. Because the outdated, monotonous housing units stood in a sea of concrete, stormwater puddled on sidewalks, streets, and parking lots and flooded homes and businesses. This costly problem extended far beyond Westlawn. Runoff swept dirt, fertilizer, gasoline, and other pollutants into Lincoln Creek, which swelled and carried this pollution downstream to Lake Michigan.

In 2011, at the same time that planning for the Westlawn redevelopment took off, the Fund for Lake Michigan was beginning its work of investing in water quality initiatives that promise tangible near-term and long-term benefits to Wisconsin’s ecosystems and communities.

“We knew this had to be one of our inaugural green infrastructure projects” said Fund for Lake Michigan Executive Director Vicki Elkin. “With the timing of the Westlawn redevelopment, we were handed an ideal opportunity to measurably improve water quality in harmony with community and economic development.”

The Fund awarded $225,000 to HACM for the planning and installation of bioswales, engineered mini-streams that catch dirt and pollutants as water runs through them. Today, bioswales in the neighborhood–now called Westlawn Gardens–capture 158,000 gallons of stormwater for each inch of rain and filter the runoff through their permeable bases. The clean water makes its way to a pond along Lincoln Creek and, eventually, down the creek and into Lake Michigan. No longer is Lincoln Creek a conduit for sediment and pollution into Lake Michigan. No longer is the neighborhood battered by floods, rainfall after rainfall.

In the ten years since FFLM funded the bioswales, the dreams and plans for Westlawn Gardens have bloomed. Today, parks, playgrounds, and community gardens surround commercial spaces and over 450 green-built mixed-income homes, which vary in size, layout, and style to accommodate a range of residents. Hundreds more homes are under construction or pre-development phases. Complete streets minimize automobile traffic counts and speeds, so children and others can safely move about the vibrant neighborhood on foot and bicycle.

Warren Jones, P.E., Vice President of Construction for Travaux, Inc., the development arm of HACM, has overseen the decade’s worth of construction and reflects on FFLM’s impact in the early stages: “FFLM’s grant was a seed that over the past ten years has helped Westlawn Gardens grow into a healthy, sustainable, and beautiful place to live. This success illustrates the relationship between water quality, conservation, equity, and stronger communities.”

In 2018, Westlawn Gardens received the prestigious Opportunity and Empowerment Award from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and American Planning Association (APA), in recognition of creative community development that fosters public-private partnership to improve quality of life for low- and moderate-income residents. Westlawn Gardens also achieved LEED-ND Stage 3 Silver certification, making it the highest LEED-rated neighborhood project in the world.

Take a quick virtual tour of Westland Gardens, including the bioswales, here, produced by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District in honor of Westlawn Gardens’ Green Luminary award.

Photo Credits: Brian Tomaino, Glen Radford, Brian Tomaino