Clean Energy Journey

Community at the Heart: Valley Park’s Resilience Against Highway Plans

Milwaukee County, WI – Valley Park in Milwaukee County was just a field of tall grass and overgrown bushes until resident Janet Haas decided enough was enough and took to rebuilding the park. For the last two decades, Haas has grown a following in the community composed of families and individuals who help keep the park tidy and looking beautiful. 

“We all know each other, we look out for each other,” said Moses Mcknight, a resident of 17 years, to Inside Climate News. “We like to fix things up, and keep it that way.”

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District constructed the park as a significant initiative to safeguard the locality from floods. However, after its 2001 completion, the park deteriorated. Today, Valley Park stands as a well-kept community hub, boasting walking and biking paths, a playground, and shaded trees. The community’s dedication to the park is evident in their regular clean-up activities, like the event on June 22nd that saw participation from numerous local residents.

However, a $1.2 billion dollar planned expansion on the I-94 highway has residents worrying about the park and all of the progress that has been made over the years. Valley Park is positioned at the heart of the proposed expansion. Residents are concerned not just about the heightened noise and air pollution from the influx of cars on an expanded highway, but also about the addition of roughly 29 acres of asphalt, which is comparable to over twenty football fields. This could potentially amplify stormwater runoff into The Valley and nearby areas prone to flooding.

“Who’s going to benefit? Because it’s not going to be us,” Haas said to Inside Climate News. “The soil is going to be crummier and more polluted. We worked on this park; why should we give it back?”

Valley Park’s volunteer master naturalist, Ann Bowe, raised other concerns outside of flooding, including how the expansion will affect the health of children in the area. Living in close proximity to cars and highway traffic can increase the risk of heart and lung disease in kids and teens, according to the American Lung Association.

A report from the Institute for Nonprofit New collaboration partners highlights that cities in the Great Lakes region are grappling with challenges stemming from heavy rainfall, outdated wastewater systems, deteriorating infrastructure, and segregated housing. This combination is amplifying the risks of flooding and environmental inequality. Additionally, rural regions, Indigenous communities, and Great Lakes ecosystems are under threat from flooding, which jeopardizes the progress made in environmental rejuvenation and community growth.

Peggy Falsetti, 75-year old resident of The Valley, has lived there for over 48 years and can recall a time when flooding from the Menomonee River was so bad children were playing in it in the streets. “I remember waking up one morning and the water was all the way up to 39th Street,” she said to Inside Climate News.

Following the 1997 and 1998 floods which affected around 130 homes in The Valley, the sewerage district invested $12 million to establish Valley Park. They built a levee and floodwall at the park’s boundary with the Menomonee River to safeguard local residences — part of multiple efforts to manage the river’s flooding potential.

While locals believe that the Valley Park initiative has successfully reduced runoff, there’s a growing concern that expanding the nearby highway might undo some of these benefits. Although the I-94 expansion won’t directly displace any residents, the expanded road will be nearer to their homes and recreational areas.