Community and the Canopy: What Can Atlanta Learn from Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Experiment?

Photo: The Urban Ecology Center’s Riverside Park facility (taken from website)

What if in Atlanta, the “City in the Forest,” we had a place where we used our green resources to help people and communities? What if the answer to the questions so many of us are asking – questions about equity, and jobs, and health – what if those answers could be harnessed by bringing people together in the shade of the one thing that all Atlantans share: a robust urban canopy? What if by learning about nature, we learned to be neighbors?

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there is a place that for over 25 years has started to answer some of those same questions – the Urban Ecology Center, a nonprofit group of environmental community centers that uses environmental education and understanding as a conduit for positive change, both in the natural world and in the community at large.

It’s hard to separate the story of the Urban Ecology Center from the story of its founder, Ken Leinbach. In the early nineties, a single trailer in Milwaukee’s Riverside Park was all there was to the center, where education programming competed with crime and drugs for the attention of neighborhood youth. When Leinbach arrived in 1998 as the sole employee, he found himself spending as much time picking trash and contraband out of the grass as teaching kids about the outdoors. It was an inauspicious start, to say the least.

A quarter century later, Ken is still there, leading dozens of staff and volunteers, and it’s hard to believe how far they’ve come. The Urban Ecology Center today consists of three environmental community centers – places not just for formal environmental education, but also recreation, community engagement, and developing a wide variety of life skills. Programming is varied, and depends on the needs of the community. One location may focus on recreation and increasing access to outdoor opportunities through a gear-lending program, while another may make science and ecology the focus, leading birding or tree identification hikes. All of the locations couple these natural touchpoints with non-environmental benefits. If you need a sandwich or a place to go, you can get that there too.

These community assets take the broad spectrum of civic issues and examine them through an ecological lens – how can learning about our natural world create jobs, or feed families, or improve our mental and physical health? And in turn, how can we make every member of the community an advocate for our greenspaces?

The growth and success of Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center should serve as an example of how to use nature to improve lives and bring communities together. Though Milwaukee and Atlanta are different in a lot of ways, many of the questions we ask are the same. As we consider answers to those questions, we can and should look to Ken Leinbach and the Urban Ecology Center for inspiration.

Trees Atlanta invites you to join us for a special evening presentation with Ken Leinbach, Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee, WI, and the author of Urban Ecology: A Natural Way to Transform Kids, Parks, Cities and the World. The event will be held on Thursday, February 22nd at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, and will explore the transformative nature of Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center and what Atlanta can learn from their efforts. A Q&A session and book signing with the author will follow the presentation. Books may be purchased on site (or reserved/paid for in advance). For more information, click here.