By Colin Flanner, Intern & Student Chapter Liaison for The Water Council
Over the summer, I earned two credits towards my Urban Studies degree at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee while working at The Water Council. During that time I was to write a paper for Urban Studies 489 about the organization, its history and development, its work (in Milwaukee and abroad), as well as my work within the organization. The paper was to detail why The Water Council’s work is particularly important to cities in the 21st century. In a three-part blog series, I’ll be sharing my report with you.
Water in an Urban World: Part 1
Water is critical to human life in many regards: hydration, relaxation, business and commerce. This importance is shared in both urban and rural contexts. Given the increasing rate of urbanization in the world, it is water in the urban context that is defining human life. Water determines the short- and long-term existence of cities, and cities also determine the short- and long-term existence of their water resources.
The world’s urban areas are now beginning to fully appreciate and understand the power of water. Water not only affects all economic activity, but business and commerce also affects water. Often, when water resources become scarce or endangered from pollution or mismanagement, cities and their economies are forced to adapt. Milwaukee is an example of this. Though it has abundant access to fresh water, the area still suffers from relatively poor infrastructure and legacies of pollution and environmental abuse. It also was home to the worst outbreak of a waterborne illness in U.S. history – cryptosporidium – in 1993. Through these challenges Milwaukee is working to become a more resilient city. Recently, a movement has been underway to accelerate the region’s knowledge and expertise in water to not only better its own water future, but to help other cities do so as well.
The Water Council has been helping to coordinate Milwaukee’s water economy; bringing to light emerging solutions to urban water issues by coalescing public and private resources around water technology and innovation. The nonprofit that is The Water Council originally started as a meeting among Milwaukee area government and business leaders during the Great Recession. In that meeting people looked at the region’s economic strengths in energy, food and beverage, and finance; but they found a new economic strength that was right under our noses: water technology. From manufacturers that make meters, valves and heaters, to universities that monitor the largest freshwater system on the planet – metro Milwaukee has over 150 companies and organizations that work with water in some way. This cluster has been here for decades and only now have we begun to appreciate it for what it is. The Water Council (TWC) was established to take this industry from its fragmented, separated “silos” and turn it into an integrated economic cluster – “One Water.” One TWC project that has helped align Milwaukee’s water cluster so well is the Global Water Center in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, a 98,000 square foot office and research facility.
The Global Water Center, located at 247 West Freshwater Way, is a water technology facility located in the new City of Milwaukee business park: The Reed Street Yards. In the building are over 40 organizations: startup companies, large corporations, nonprofits, state and city agencies, and three 4-year universities. Nonprofits, universities and environmental engineering firms protect and study water for environmental and human health while engaging with and educating Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites. Companies (young and old, large and small) clean wastewater for return to the environment or onsite reuse. Some make tools that track water use; others treat water so it is fit for human consumption. What is a key driver of Milwaukee’s water cluster is that these groups talk to and work with one another more than they have done so in the past. The fact that so many water-related organizations in the same building makes collaboration and knowledge sharing between industry, government and academia more simple and easily done, as opposed to having these organizations geographically spread out across the metro area. The physical presence of the building is also a statement – making an ambiguous economic sector visible and prominent.
Water is not just an economic sector all its own. The entire world economy – any segment of which you can think of – depends, either directly or indirectly, on having access to water. Everything that exists today needs water in its manufacturing process – laptops, buildings, cars, clothes and food. In an urban context, water will limit or enable economic success for cities in the near and long term. The reciprocal relationship between cities and water will define human development across the globe in the 21st century.
Colin started with The Water Council as a high school intern in 2014 and has grown to serve The Water Council team in assisting with various projects: from database projects and assisting at events, to building tours and helping coordinate talent-related activities. As Student Chapter Liaison, Colin serves as the point of contact between The Water Council and our network of student chapters. Colin is studying Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is the Professional Development Coordinator for the School of Freshwater Sciences’ Student Water Council.