Research brings more community voices to the restoration conversation

November 18th, 2015 by

Environmental clean-ups can revitalize a waterway and nearby neighborhoods, but are they always good for everyone in a community? Are there people left behind, or worse, negatively impacted by the process or the results?

Bethany Cutts and Andrew Greenlee (pictured here left, with a Milwaukee resident), both University of Illinois researchers, are investigating these questions in conjunction with Great Lakes Legacy Act clean ups in Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park and the Grand Calumet River in northwest Indiana. In Milwaukee, they have been interviewing residents, as well as representatives from businesses and grassroots organizations that have a stake in river management activities to learn how the remediation experience is playing out for more vulnerable members of the community.

Social vulnerability is a measure that is typically used when a community goes through turbulent change, which is mostly disasters. Vulnerable populations are defined by census categories—low income, minorities, single mothers, the elderly, for example.
“Socially vulnerable populations generally have a lack of capacity to recover from these setbacks or do not have a voice during the community decision process,” said Cutts. The interviews provide an opportunity to inform how vulnerable populations are characterized and it can help target outreach during remediation projects.
According to El Lower, a Master’s student working on this project, one preliminary finding in these taped interviews is that generally, residents tend to think about different river restoration projects together. They don’t separate them in terms of who is funding the work or the different project goals.
In the Milwaukee area, this means that the Great Lakes Legacy Act project, which has led to the removal of many cubic yards of contaminated sediment, may become viewed by residents as connected to a controversial plan to remove the Estabrook Dam upstream.
Caitie Nigrelli, IISG social scientist, affirmed that at public meetings for the Lincoln Park sediment remediation project, discussions were overtly steered away from the contentious dam.  

Through listening to residents and their strong opinions on the dam, the research team has come to have some advice for environmental organizations and agencies involved in other nearby restoration projects. “The conflict the dam generates may help outreach coordinators more successfully address residents’ questions and concerns regarding the Milwaukee River as a whole,” said Cutts.

Also, the dam project provides a ripe opportunity to hear from vulnerable populations. For her Master’s project, student Kaitlyn Hornik (pictured on right with El Lower) will create a video from interviews and focus groups to share the opinions of those who are not typically heard, which will be shown at a community meeting. “Public forums can be intimidating. The video can open people’s eyes to different points of view,” she explained. “It helps create a level playing field.”
Next, the researchers will turn their sights to northwest Indiana where the Grand Calumet River has been undergoing remediation for several years to learn how this is impacting residents.

“We need to think about socially vulnerable groups and if possible include them in the process,” said Cutts. “Analyzing how change can occur is important. The remediation process can be opportunity to have more compassion regarding how this process impacts people.”

To learn more about this project you can find videos and reports at Urban Environment Equity Research.

-Irene Miles

Intern Update: Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park celebrates a remediation milestone

October 12th, 2015 by

Lincoln Park and I are both coming to the end of an exciting chapter this fall. As my internship with

IISG comes to a close, Phase 2 sediment remediation work in in Lincoln Park in Milwaukee is also finishing up.

Four years and more than 170,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment later, Lincoln Park is looking to reap the benefits of the newly cleaned Milwaukee River. As contractors work to remove equipment, sediment samples are being taken to ensure no contamination has been missed.
To commemorate this truly historic milestone, IISG environmental social scientist Caitie Nigrelli and I traveled to Milwaukee to spend some time on the river and celebrate the success with our clean-up partners. Hospitable as usual, Friends of Lincoln Park members took us around the city allowing us to catch a glimpse of the possibilities that environmental reinvestment holds for community revitalization.
Within the park, we took advantage of the warm fall weather for a canoe trip through the remediated portion of the river. As we paddled, perennial grasses and beaver-cut branches secluded us from Lincoln Park’s urban setting. We were not the only ones out experiencing the newly restored park; kill-deer, great blue herons, and other wildlife were also enjoying a clean habitat.
Although remediation work is complete, there is still much to be done within the park. Much like sediment remediation, successful ecosystem restoration is a long process. Started in 2012, the 11-acre Phase 1 restoration work is finally showing the fruits of its labor.
Many bees could be seen buzzing around native asters (see photo) and goldenrod on the shoreline at the west end of the park. Like Phase 1, restoration work in the East Oxbow of the river will bring a diversity of native plant species, stabilize the shoreline, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.
After watching the sun set over the river, Caitie and I completed our day at the Friends of Lincoln Park restoration celebration. Over cake and ice cream, representatives from the Milwaukee County Parks and CH2M, an environmental consulting company, presented information on the remediation and restoration progress.
The neighborhood unity fostered through this river cleanup is impressive. As a new chapter begins for the river, park, and neighbors alike, seeds of passion and park investment are spreading, akin to the native seeds of restoration to come.
For more information on the cleanup of Lincoln Park, visit
-Carly Norris

Social science leads to community stewardship in Wisconsin’s Lincoln Park

September 18th, 2014 by
Exciting changes are coming to Wisconsin’s Lincoln Park, part of the Milwaukee River Area of Concern. Phase two of Great Lakes Legacy Act efforts to remove historical contaminants from the river bottom is set to begin next month. And park neighbors and stakeholders from across Milwaukee County are already well on their way to launching a Friends of Lincoln Park group that will help foster greater community stewardship.
More than 20 neighbors came together for the first time earlier this month to get to know each other, discuss potential group goals, and brainstorm ways to achieve them. They were joined by numerous local and regional organizations interested in protecting Lincoln Park, including University of Wisconsin Extension, Milwaukee County Parks, the Park People, and the Illinois-Indiana and Wisconsin Sea Grant programs.
Nothing is official yet, but the meeting ended with two main goals on everyone’s mind: fostering a sense of community with the park at the center and protecting the local environment.
“For a long time, the park was very community centered, but it has become more of an outsider attraction in the last few decades,” said Caitie McCoy, IISG’s social scientists and co-host of the meeting. “The group had great ideas for re-energizing community interest with events that bring locals out to enjoy all the resources the park has to offer.”
The idea for a Friends group took shape during focus groups conducted this spring by Caitie and UW-Extension’s Gail Epping-Overholt. They spoke with a variety of people living or working near Lincoln Park to better understand community perceptions of the park and ongoing sediment remediation efforts. When the results of the needs assessment were in, it was clear that residents were interested in forming the Friends of Lincoln Park.
The results will also play a key role in shaping public outreach and project messaging as dredging kicks off again this fall for phase two of the remediation. More than 120,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment have already been removed from the Lincoln Park segments of the Milwaukee River, and this next round of dredging is expected to remove another 35,000 cubic yards. Together with cleanup efforts in nearby Blatz Pavilion lagoon, the two Lincoln Park projects are expected to reduce the amount toxic PCBs flowing into the Milwaukee River system by 70 percent, a drop that will go a long way towards delisting the AOC. 
To learn more about recommendations to come out of the needs assessment, download the full report from our products page. And if you live in the area and are interested in joining the Friends of Lincoln Park, come out to the next meeting on October 9. Contact Caitie McCoy at for more information.   
Special thanks to IISG interns Erika Lower and Mark Krupa for their help analyzing and the results of the needs assessment and to Jane Harrison at Wisconsin Sea Grant for taking notes during the focus groups and helping to coordinate the Friends meetings. 

***Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Extension.
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