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Growing Up Green

Milwaukee Youth Discover Nature at the Urban Ecology Center

Urban Ecology Director Ken Leinbach shows a butterfly to a group of neighborhood students. Photo credit: TJ Lambert; Stages Photography;

Roger Coleman, a senior at Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, got his first taste of the Urban Ecology Center by “hay sledding” down a hill during their Fall Festival when he was in fifth grade. His second visit to the Center happened a few weeks later when O.W. Holmes Elementary School became a partner in the Center’s Neighborhood Environmental Education Project (NEEP). As NEEP participants, Roger and his classmates made regular trips to the Center to learn about subjects like the geology of Wisconsin and river macro-invertebrates of local waterways. Roger still remembers the geological features—eskers, kettles, moraines—he learned during his first field trip the Center, while at the same time recalling foot races through, and over, the glacial mounds that are part of the Riverside Park Habitat Playground, another community project facilitated by the Center.  

When he was a boy, Roger and his mom lived in an apartment on Oakland Avenue, not far from Riverside Park. He started hanging out at the Center after school and on the weekends. During his time there, Roger made friends with other neighborhood kids, learned to take care of the Center’s animals, and even received help with his homework from older volunteers. In time Roger volunteered to help younger children who visited the Center with their homework. Eventually, in 2008, Roger became a high-school intern at the Center, leading younger children in nature-related games and activities. It’s obvious the Center has had a tremendous influence on Roger: When asked about future plans, Roger says he wants to go to college to study veterinary medicine when he graduates next year.

For thousands of school children in Milwaukee’s central city, the Urban Ecology Center has changed their relationship with the natural world. For some like Roger, the Center has changed their lives. The Center and its Neighborhood Environmental Education Project are ground-breaking programs built around a simple philosophy: a child who has consistent contact with nature and an environmental mentor will become an environmentally aware adult, one who considers how their actions will affect the natural world: What and how much should I consume? Where and of what materials should I build my house? What kind of car should I drive?

Children and young adults who have significant life experiences in nature grow up happier and healthier. Even seemingly non-educational activities like hiking or bird watching are immensely beneficial to young bodies and minds. From an exercise standpoint, the benefits of a walk in the woods are obvious. But a 2008 study by the University of Michigan found the memory and attention span of a child improved by 20% after they spent an hour interacting with nature; no improvement was shown after the same time spent walking down a city street. In 2004, a University of Illinois study reported that children with ADHD displayed a significant reduction of ADHD symptoms after time spent outdoors enjoying nature. 

The Urban Ecology Center has introduced Milwaukee’s children to the natural areas located just a few blocks from their homes, but miles from their reality. By engaging and educating these students, the Center has begun development on what might be the city’s most substantial and sustainable resource: the next generation of Milwaukeeans who will conserve the city’s green spaces and treasure its historic parks.

The Battle for Riverside Park 

Before there was the Urban Ecology Center, there was Riverside Park. In the heart of Milwaukee’s East Side, nestled along the Milwaukee River, sits the 15 acre park. Designed in 1892 by Frederick Law Olmsted (famous for designing New York City’s Central Park), Riverside Park once hosted thousands of visitors each year thanks to its picturesque location above the North Avenue Dam. The dam, constructed in 1850 and used to generate power for the nearby mills and provide ice for Milwaukee breweries, created perfect, still-water conditions for summer swimming, winter skating, and other kinds of family fun. 

Over the years, the same dam that provided such perfect recreational conditions also began to trap and accumulate agricultural and industrial pollutants upriver. By the 1950s, people stopped coming to the park to swim. Fish began to die off in the 1960s. By the 1970s, visitation was so reduced that the county park system, facing steep budget cuts, altogether abandoned the care of Riverside Park.

Graffiti used to be a regular sight in the park. Photo courtesy of the Urban Ecology CenterAs Milwaukee became more economically segregated over this same period of time, Riverside Park became a sort of dividing line, separating different economic classes: the lower-income Riverwest and the mostly affluent East Side. Regardless of the forces that caused the segregation of this part of the city, the park, trapped in the middle, turned into an unkempt no man’s land with an active drug trade that resulted in more serious criminal behavior. By 1986 the crime in Riverside Park had escalated to twice the city average; the problem could no longer be ignored by the City of Milwaukee.

Something had to be done. Nearby University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee proposed using land in Riverside Park to build housing for their growing student population. The idea was attractive to city leaders, but neighborhood residents argued that crime was the issue here and not the park itself. Simply building over the land might not mitigate the problem, and many in the community had fond memories of the years when the park was vibrant with family activity. People who had not otherwise known each other began to gather around a common cause: saving Riverside Park from crime, pollution, and now the threat of development. 

The Friends of Riverside Park was officially established in 1991 to clean up the park. “The park really was an abandoned, scary place in the years before the Friends [of Riverside Park] became active,” says Dennis Grzezinski, an East Side Milwaukee resident and long-time Urban Ecology Center board member. “Homeless people were encamped beneath the Locust Street Bridge, and . . . drug dealers and gang members pretty much held sway. The pathways were clogged with tree limbs, trash, and litter, and few law-abiding neighborhood residents made use of the area west of the bike path.” Local churches, synagogues, civic organizations, Boy Scout and other youth groups engaged in myriad activities: graffiti was scraped from trees, trash was pulled from the river, and homeless encampments were removed. However, Riverside Park was still an isolated, heavily wooded area in the most densely populated city in the state. Short of a constant police presence, something else would need to happen to keep the crime away. The park needed some kind of consistent and positive activation if it was to again become a hub for the community.

A Community Experiment

During the 1990s clean-up of Riverside Park two interesting things occurred that helped to decide its future. First, UW–Milwaukee students conducted a plant inventory and discovered a surprisingly rich ecosystem had flourished in the park during its years of abandonment. Second, the grassroots effort of the Friends of Riverside Park served as a catalyst for a city- and state-supported, multi-million dollar revitalization effort for the Milwaukee River. 

This confluence of events, along with the help of concerned friends and neighbors, revitalized Riverside Park. Yet the neighborhoods surrounding the park were in need of assistance, too. Drop-out rates in neighborhood schools were extremely high, and many of the students were from low-income homes. Nearly 90% of their students from the Riverwest neighborhoods bordering the park were in the federal school lunch program. Most of these students had never even explored the park that was only blocks from their homes. Thanks to the leadership of Dr. Else Ankel, a local environmental scientist and neighbor of the park, an idea was born: Perhaps the best use of the park is as a destination for daily field trips from neighborhood schools—schools whose science scores were abysmal—so students could learn environmental science right in their own neighborhood.

Under Ankel’s direction, the Riverside Urban Environmental Center was established in 1991. They didn’t yet have a headquarters, so school field trips were conducted by volunteer naturalists from the Milwaukee County Cooperative Extension. Students walked with teachers or volunteers from their schools to the park and met the volunteer naturalists at a preestablished spot. The naturalists would then lead the group on a nature walk, pointing out interesting insects, plants, and animals, along the way. After a group was soaked to the bone from a summer rainstorm, program coordinators quickly realized that some sort of shelter or facility was necessary—and that a bathroom was imperative. In 1993, an old, portable classroom unit was purchased and relocated from a suburban school. The double-wide trailer was parked thirty yards from a graffiti-covered park bathroom which, with a key provided by the county, served for ten years as the fledgling Center’s “outhouse.”

The trailer became a place to host programs for schools and neighborhood organizations alike. Riverside Urban Environmental Center board members facilitated community programs and committed teachers began to use the site on a regular basis. Board members also wrote small grants and hired a part time educator as more funds became available. The Center was beginning to have a regular course of programs and their daily use of the park continued for the next several years.

Once the students started going into the park, others in the neighborhood felt it was safe enough to use as well; dog walkers, bicyclists, even those just out for a stroll slowly began coming into the park on a regular basis. Dr. Ankel’s idea was working its magic: the structured, daily visits of students for hands-on environmental education in an area deemed “unsafe” actually helped keep away the homeless encampments and other criminal activities because of the constant traffic and supervision. “Now, nearby neighborhoods are flourishing, in part because of the work of the Center in revitalizing the park and the numerous community organizations and groups which use [it] as a meeting place,” says Grzezinski, noting that “the crime rate in the Park has dropped well below the city’s average.” 

The indexed graph clearly shows a correlation between more Urban Ecology Center programming and less crime.

The graph to the right shows the crime rate for the small census tract which is encompassed largely by Riverside Park. The line indicates the average crime rate for the city of Milwaukee overall, and the vertical bars indicate the number of crimes in the Riverside Park area. The drop in crime illustrated by this data correlates to the time the Friends of Riverside Park began their efforts in the late 1980s. Since the Riverside Urban Environmental Center (now the Urban Ecology Center) was incorporated in 1991, city crime has declined, but crime in Riverside Park has declined at a faster rate. In this small tract, the growth of the Center is the only significant variable. This evidence speaks to the success of the innovative experiment the Riverside Park-area citizens devised to solve their own community problems.

Play with a Purpose

In 1998 Dr. Ankel turned seventy years old. Hoping to soon retire, she began the search for someone new to head the Riverside Urban Environmental Center. At the same time, former science teacher Ken Leinbach was looking for a nature center where he could apply the theories from his Master’s research in environmental education. Leinbach had been transfixed by the significant life experience research of Louise Chawla. Chawla’s research identified the key ingredients for composing an environmentally aware and active individual. Thanks to a conversation with a local county supervisor, Leinbach connected with Ankel. In July of 1998, Leinbach became the first full-time executive director of the soon-to-be Urban Ecology Center.

As the new executive director, the first thing Leinbach did was contact the schools within a two-mile radius of the Center to see if they would have an interest in participating a new program. Based on the discussions he and Beth Fetterley, the Center’s director of education (hired just after Leinbach), had with the schools, a program called the Neighborhood Environmental Education Project was developed. Starting as a pilot program in 1999, NEEP was created specifically to serve schools—public or private—within the communities bordering the park. The Center limits particpation in NEEP to schools within two miles of the park, so students can also walk to the Center. Each of the partnering schools contributes $4,000 a year from their annual budget. While this amount is less than half the total program cost per school (including transportation) of $9,000, local businesses and foundations sponsor the additional amount. The program is relatively easy to fund in part because it is easy to explain: Your donation will allow students from a school to experience hands-on environmental science through at least 24 field trips this year. These students would never have this experience any other way. 

Each partner school receives a baseline 24 half-day field trips, distributed throughout the seasons, and unlimited access to such Center resources as grade-specific environmental activity trunks, nature exhibits, and the reserach library. Additionally, partner schools receive priority enrollment in the teacher training programs offered through the Center. Often additional funds are donated to add extra days or field trips to other nature centers and science museums.

On the hunt for butterflies and other insects in the tall grasses of Riverside Park. Photo courtesy of the Urban Ecology CenterVery critical to the success of the program is the Center’s transportation plan, which utilizes fifteen-passenger minibuses. Center teachers are the bus drivers, so NEEP programming begins the moment students step in the bus. Every program is enhanced with a bus-ride activity. Having flexible transportation options means the whole neighborhood has an equal opportunity to use this learning resource.

All of the education programs are tied to grade-specific learning goals. Each grade has five to ten programs to choose from, with a “create a program” option for teachers to connect the field trip into what the students are learning in their classroom. And finally, a maximum of a 1:14 teacher/student ratio is guaranteed. Volunteer educators augment the experience and help to give even more personal attention to students.

It’s easy to understand why every school in the 1999 pilot year wanted to renew their contract with the Center. Four more schools were added in 2000 and the single trailer/classroom was fully booked by 2001. Today the Center serves forty schools in Milwaukee, reaching even further beyond the neighborhood to teachers in the Earth Partnership for Schools Institute through the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum. As part of the institute, Madison teachers attend a summer program at the Center where they learn to incorporate native greening elements into their curricula. From art teachers making leaf prints to science teachers planting native grasses in their schoolyards, their students will be learning about the natural world in new ways thanks to the Urban Ecology Center. 

And learning in new ways is a prime directive for the Center. “A playful approach is the key to our success,” said Leinbach. While environmental problems in this world are severe and the issues surrounding them contentious, Center staff strives to bring a sense of play and wonder to students and adult volunteers alike. Whether operating the pedal pump from Kenya to aerate the pond, finding the “camouflage room” (a classroom hidden behind a secret door), or holding a bird in their hands during a bird-banding session, everyone is charmed by the magic of the Center. As Michael Weilbacher, a nationally recognized environmental educator once wrote, “Eight-year-olds should not be asked to become warriors or worriers. Children have much more important work to do: Watch ants. Grow flowers. Dance between the raindrops. This is sacred work, and childhood needs to be preserved just as much as rain forests and wetlands.”

Walking the Walk

Leinbach considers NEEP to be but one leg in a “three-legged stool” of educational programming the Center utilizes to promote environmentally conscious behavior. The other two legs are the Center’s sustainable education programs and its community programs for kids and adults alike. The sustainable education program got its biggest “show and tell” moment with the opening of a new building five years ago. Between 2001 and 2004 the Center conducted a capital campaign that raised $5,000,000 from local sources. The following year they built a 20,000 square foot “green” community center, complete with offices and classrooms.

 From it’s recycled-brick construction and 100-year-old gym floor to it’s solar panel-covered roof, every part of the Urban Ecology Center tells a story of sustainability. Photo courtesy of Urban Ecology CenterThe new building not only houses Center programs, but also acts as a teaching tool for those interested in “green building” and sustainability. Constructed of recycled and reused materials throughout, powered by the sun, and utilizing rainwater for its toilets, the building was intended to model environmental behavior not as a demonstration but as a call to action. They didn’t get just one solar panel to power a computer or classroom, but instead made the commitment to power the entire building. “We underestimated the positive impact this role-modeling philosophy would have on our students, our city, our support base, our marketing, and even ourselves. Through this project we have come to believe that any future environmental community center must incorporate the culture of sustainability as an explicit core value,” says Leinbach.

“An environmental sustainability ethic is emphasized throughout all of our programs and structural systems at the Center,” says Leinbach. “Every decision made, no matter how trivial, goes though an environmental filter. Our mantra is, ‘How can we improve, or limit the impact on, the environment with this decision?’ Thus, our vans are alternatively fueled, staff get a dollar—or eco-buck—added to their paycheck every day they bike to work and rental guests must use our dishes—no paper or plastic. We even recycle our paper towels when hand washing. These kinds of little acts permeate our culture.”

Success in Milwaukee, Success in the World

The Center’s community programs make it a fast-growing point of recreational, educational, and ecological interest, serving bikers, skiers, hikers, canoeists, fishermen, astronomers, rock climbers, school groups, bird watchers, university researchers, overnight groups, seminar and lecture attendees, and ecologists. The little trailer in a lonely park has become an international destination with 60,000 visitors annually, including 25,000 visits from neighborhood school children.

“It is our belief that the formula provided by the Urban Ecology Center is replicable,” says Leinbach. “There appears to be an almost symbiotic relationship between a strong school program that fosters consistent visitation and a strong community program that fosters relationship building. The experiential school program leads to parent and adult curiosity and engagement, while the active and vibrant community program expands the support base and provides mentors to youth.”

Students and high-school interns take a break with students on a Urban Ecology Center-sponsored farm visit. Photo courtesy of Urban Ecology Center

Mentoring plays a huge role in the Center’s success as many  students keep coming back until they get a job at the Center. “I applied for every job opening they had—whether I was qualified or not,” says Jeanne Salmon, an Urban Adventures assistant (and former high school Outdoor Leader) at the Center. For Salmon, the chance to bring nature to children with little or no natural experience is exciting. “It’s so cool being part of a growing organization that affects so many people,” she says. “When I do a program on insects, I can see the transformation that occurs in just an hour. At the beginning, the kids are freaking out about bugs; by the end, they are holding them and remembering the names of each kind of insect we studied.”

Salmon’s sentiment is echoed in the words of seventeen-year-old Urban Ecology Center intern Markesha Harris, who began coming to the Center when she was seven. “I remember coming here when this place was a trailer,” says Harris with a giggle. “I came every day when I was a kid, and eventually became an Outdoor Leader.” Harris recalls a little girl who would help her feed the animals during summer camp last year. “When [summer camp] was over, she came up to me and gave me a little drawing of Peanut [the Center’s painted turtle] and said she would miss me. I still have the drawing on my bedroom wall.”

Leinbach can point to at least a dozen neighborhood kids who started coming to the Center with their schools, became high school Outdoor Leaders, and now are back working as college interns, studying such diverse topics as invasive species removal and Monarch butterfly migration patterns. This is all part of the Urban Ecology Center’s goal to develop a career path for children from non-traditional backgrounds to enter environmental education and/or science fields.

Leinbach and the Center staff are not just talking the talk when it comes to replication. In 2007, a second branch of the Urban Ecology Center opened in another transitional park located in a largely African-American neighborhood on the west side of the city. It is going strong and growing of its own accord. A third branch is slated to open in a south side, largely Latino neighborhood in 2011. “It has been a remarkable ride for everyone involved,” says Leinbach.

Urban Ecology Center environmental educator Matt Flower places a recently-banded wren in the hand of a nervous (but excited) student. Photo courtesy of Urban Ecology CenterNo matter one’s racial, ethnic, economic, or political background, the work that the Center is doing in the community and for Milwaukee’s parks appears to be universally accepted as positive. This fact can be a powerful asset towards community building. The Center has become a safe place to form relationships that cross traditional lines, a neutral place to engage in sometimes difficult conversations. “Our summer camps and youth programs are intentionally crafted to offer racial mixing. Our Interfaith Earth Network engages Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. in service projects, conferences and discourse. Our board leadership and our support base cross all lines as well,” says Leinbach

Across the state, this egalitarian model has been shared with other urban areas in Bayfield, Beloit, La Crosse, and Sheboygan. The city of Racine is already implementing a NEEP-based program in an urban park there. On the national front, the Center receives frequent calls and periodic visits from researchers and civic leaders from other cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Los Angeles, Columbus, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. Consulting is rapidly becoming a new revenue stream for the Center. Columbus, Ohio, is the furthest along, with a $10 million Audubon Society-sponsored center under construction in the city’s downtown. This project is modeled directly after the Urban Ecology Center and their NEEP program. Internationally, the Minister for the Environment of Romania has visited the Center twice, bringing other leaders in the hope of creating something similar in Bucharest. 

While it’s flattering to see Urban Ecology Center programs being replicated in places around the world, Leinbach keeps a local perspective.  Whether you are a child or an adult, he says, “getting out in the natural world is important and nature really is as near as your backyard or your neighborhood park.  In Wisconsin, a lot of people leave the cities and head north [to get back to nature]. … But for those who can’t we have created a spot here in the middle of the city that can feed the soul.”


Theresa J. Lins grew up on a dairy farm in southern Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in Grow, Milwaukee Home, Wisconsin Natural Resources, and Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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