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Natural Awakenings Milwaukee

Learning to Value Nature: Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center preserves childhood while nurturing ecological understanding.

Jun 29, 2012 11:24AM ● By Linda Sechrist

photo by Jeff McAvoy

Ken Leinbach had one thing on his mind during the mid-1990s when he took the helm as executive director of the Urban Ecology Center, located in a doublewide trailer in a crime-ridden, 15-acre city park full of litter and invasive plants.

Inspired by his teaching experience with kids and recent learning about the environmental crisis that faces the planet, Leinbach knew he needed to reach the next generation. Environmental literacy was the key.

Today, the modest trailer that originally served as an education classroom to teach neighborhood students about nature and science has been replaced by a state-of-the-art, $5 million “green” and sustainable community center serving 80,000 visitors annually. Ecofriendly features include re-used materials, a recycled exterior, solar panels, a green roof garden and restrooms with rainwater-flushed toilets, and a plethora of programs makes learning about the environment fun while inspiring positive change. Best of all, the Center helps reconnect children with the endless wonders of nature.

Restoring Urban Green Spaces

Thanks to neighbors that came together to address a problem—could they replace crime and litter with learning—and organize park cleanups, Riverside Park, once an area of urban blight, is now a college-level field research station and grade school outdoor classroom that offers innovative school, adult and community programs created and managed by the Center. The Center’s initiatives, which serve 44 schools, spawned a second branch in 125-acre Washington Park to accommodate communities and schools on Milwaukee’s west side. A third is on its way for Milwaukee’s south side, in the Menomonee Valley.

The Center’s latest project, in partnership with the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, the River Revitalization Foundation, Milwaukee County Parks, private businesses and local landowners, will protect and restore 40 acres of land along the Milwaukee River as an arboretum of native species and improved wildlife habitat. “With the creation of the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum, we will be creating the most biologically diverse space in southeastern Wisconsin and a space for growing our future environmental stewards,” notes Leinbach.

photo by Kelsey Burke
photo by Kelsey Burke

The Arboretum, which will open in 2013, will be situated between the Milwaukee River and the Oak Leaf Recreational Trail and stretch from North Avenue to Locust Street. A green haven, the area will be planted with more than 1,000 trees representing 72 native species. “The Arboretum’s location at the southern end of the Milwaukee River Greenway, an 800-acre green space that has been protected to provide and enhance public access to the Milwaukee River, makes the Arboretum a natural gateway to this valuable resource,” Leinbach advises.

Becoming an Agent for Change

As a certified high school science teacher in Virginia, Leinbach was able to develop an outdoor laboratory that gave him the opportunity to observe a critical phenomenon: how the time that children spent outdoors affected them academically and psychologically. Hungry for more than anecdotal evidence and a more formal understanding of the link between the environment and academic performance, Leinbach enrolled in a distance learning master’s program in Environmental Education at Prescott College, in Arizona, when he moved to Milwaukee.

On the plane ride in October 1996, from Arizona to Wisconsin, all that Leinbach had lived, studied, observed and experienced coalesced in one powerful moment, a rich memory he still easily recollects. “I think that what brought about that epiphany was several things: the anecdotal evidence from observing the marvel of how children are positively impacted by spending time in nature; a formal education with plenty of evidence that supported my observations; a full awareness of the status of our planetary environment; and an image of how humans were running along a path like a group of lemmings, without any awareness of what they were running into,” he says.

Even before climate change became a global issue, Leinbach could see how disconnected humans were from the environment and the significant issues that would negatively impact their future, including energy shortages, freshwater pollution, topsoil depletion and the exhaustion of aquifers as they were used to irrigate land. “Knowing all this, the question in my mind was, what can I do to affect or change the destructive path we are on?” he recalls.

An in-depth self-assessment of his gifts and challenges left Leinbach with yet another question. “I wondered what kind of change agent I could be, since I wasn’t a celebrity, politician Milwaukee Urban Ecology Centeror a writer with a bestselling book,” he says. Taking a closer scrutiny, Leinbach quickly concluded that the only person he could successfully change was himself. “I had a difficult time even trying to change my kids,” he quips.

Taking Steps to Make a Difference

From this new perspective, Leinbach knew one sure thing: He no longer wanted to be a contributor to the world’s problems. The next step was to determine where and how he could disengage from his own negative participation. “I started with simple things, such as planting a backyard garden, using worm compost made in my basement for fertilizer, selling my car and riding a bike to work, as well as reducing our household garbage to less than a grocery bag a week—all the things we do at the Center,” he notes.

A deep interest in learning systems, as well as how and why behavioral changes occur, led Leinbach to a body of research compiled by Louise Chawla. Fascinated by Chawla’s research question for the white paper report, Significant Life Experience Research—why one individual has an environmental ethic and another does not—Leinbach read the work from cover to cover and then researched its footnotes and bibliography.

What he concluded from Chawla’s work is that if, from an early age, children have consistent contact with a natural land and an environmental mentor, they will develop an environmental ethic and carry it into adulthood. “If these things are absent, it will be more challenging,” says Leinbach. After reading Chawla’s conclusions, he decided that introducing school children to environmental mentors would be the foundation for the Center’s work in the community.

“I knew that if we could engage environmental mentors to build crossgenerational relationships and provide consistency of contact with the natural land, magic would happen, and it

photo by Kelly Peloza
photo by Kelly Peloza
has,” advises Leinbach.

Utilizing a Unique Approach

Unlike programs offered at traditional nature centers, the Urban Ecology Center’s Neighborhood Environment Education Project (NEEP) works only with schools that are within a two-miles radius of the Center. NEEP is the cornerstone initiative in a multi-pronged approach to keep Milwaukee’s parks safe, teach neighborhood kids about the natural world, and improve the neighborhoods in which the Center operates. Before, during and after-school programs, as well as weekend activities, help maximize students’ contact with the natural land in Riverside and Washington parks. When the Menomonee Valley branch is completed, programs will be offered there, as well.

“Young people today spend an increasing amount of time confined indoors, while green spaces in and around cities are under-used and often abused,” observes Leinbach. “The increased lack of exposure to nature and outdoor time during childhood has adverse effects on development, environmentally sound behavior and retaining science concepts.”

NEEP combats these problems by offering local K-12 schools a program for students to enjoy and learn from the forests and wetlands in their own neighborhoods. They receive high-quality science and environmental education in the natural setting of Riverside and Washington parks. Because most of the schools have no natural land of their own, these parks become their permanent outdoor laboratories.

The Center contracts with entire schools, rather than just a single class, in order to work consistently with groups of students year after year. In this way, NEEP is designed to establish

Ken Leinbach
Ken Leinbach
lasting relationships with children by partnering with neighborhood schools. During multiple visits throughout the year under the guidance of an experienced environmental educator, students become familiar with the parks and build upon science concepts introduced in the classroom.

Focusing on Sacred Work

“We hire charismatic and skilled teachers to facilitate NEEP programs, and their goal is to make sure the kids have a rocking good time,” says Leinbach, adding that the Center has more than 2,000 volunteers and is a financially sustainable model. Contracts with schools provide an income stream as well as an abundance of public and school programs. Seeking to leverage the achievements of the Center to impact, educate and inspire an even larger sphere, Leinbach and others from the Center have engaged with individuals from urban areas across the nation that have expressed an interest in creating their own urban ecology facility.

A playful approach is key to the Center’s success. “While the world’s environmental problems are severe and the issues surrounding them contentious, the heart of a child’s existence should be play and wonder,” notes Leinbach, who points to a favorite quote by environmental educator and writer Mike Weilbacher: “‘Eight-year-olds should not be asked to become warriors or worriers. Children have much more important work to do—play—which should be done outdoors. Watch ants. Grow flowers. Dance between the raindrops. This is sacred work, and childhood is a resource as fully in need of preservation as rainforests and wetlands.’”

Urban Ecology Center, Riverside Park, 1500 E. Park Place, Milwaukee; 414-964-8505. Washington Park, 1859 N. 40th St., Milwaukee; 414-344-5460. Also visit