Opportunities: Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center

As part of our ongoing series on Opportunities for #OIBIZ, today we wanted to call out somebody who is doing it right and is getting kids outdoors. To this end, check out Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center. These folks are awesome.


The Urban Ecology Center educates and inspires people to understand and value nature as motivation for positive change, neighborhood by neighborhood. Our Environmental Community Centers:

  • Provide outdoor science education for urban youth
  • Protect and use natural areas, making them safe, accessible and vibrant
  • Preserve and enhance these natural areas and their surrounding waters
  • Promote community by offering resources that support learning, volunteerism, stewardship, recreation, and camaraderie
  • Practice and model environmentally responsible behaviors

The Center was founded in 1991, after residents in the neighborhood adjacent to Riverside Park decided to fight the rampant crime and reclaim the space. In a decline typical of parks in dense urban areas, this local park deteriorated from a central community recreation venue to a magnet for crime and vandalism. However, the citizens who founded the Urban Ecology Center saw the park as an opportunity- an opportunity to build community ties by standing together to revitalize this park, an opportunity to create an educational resource that could help boost dismal test scores, and above all, an opportunity to provide the safe, green spaces that families so desperately needed. In the past twenty years, the Urban Ecology Center has grown from a small band of dedicated volunteers leading land stewardship activities to two environmental community centers with a variety of program offerings that reach over 80,000 people annually.

Unlike the majority of environmental education centers, The Urban Ecology Center’s primary focus is making nature accessible to all. Traditional nature centers in rural and suburban locales have done an excellent job of raising public awareness, preserving green space and introducing children to nature. The Urban Ecology Center builds on the success of this model by relying heavily on community engagement, citizen leadership and cross-sector alliances to revitalize dormant assets in urban neighborhoods and lead others in building a new kind of city that encourages healthy and full lives.

The Urban Ecology Center is exclusively focused on urban populations, with an emphasis on the neighborhood. Our two centers each have more than 100,000 people living within two miles of its facility. The Center is perfectly positioned to efficiently serve a high proportion of the city’s residents. We have two operating sites and one in development. Each of these three locales has a unique blend of demographics, resources and challenges:

The Center provides a mechanism for integrating existing assets (i.e. parks, schools, concerned residents) and using these assets to heal the land. The land, in turn, heals the community. We partner with Milwaukee County Parks. We also work closely with local schools and community groups. Our model’s foundation is being a consistent inviting presence in the park. To activate the space seven days a week and meaningfully connect people to the land, we host a wide range of programs, groups and volunteer activities including:

Neighborhood Environmental Education Project
The Neighborhood Environmental Education Project (NEEP) transforms Washington Park into an outdoor laboratory that boosts student achievement while getting kids physically active.  This inquiry-based program provides schools, K-12, with a suite of hands-on learning experiences that are aligned with local and federal science standards. The Urban Ecology Center only works with entire schools within a two-mile radius, as opposed to single classrooms, so there is an opportunity to work consistently with groups of students year after year. Due to the proximity of this natural space to residential areas, the kids are able to return afterschool and on the weekends. NEEP promotes health and wellness by integrating more physical activity into the school program and teaching young people how to enjoy their local natural spaces on their own time.

The National Environmental Education Advancement Project selected NEEP as the most unique and effective programs in the state. For most schools, the bureaucratic changes and financial barriers make implementing this kind of program in-house nearly impossible. By partnering with the Center, schools are able to immediately incorporate rigorous contextual learning experiences that boost student performance in STEM, increase enthusiasm for learning in general and get kids outside and moving. In the past decade, the Center has quadrupled its capacity from 11 to 44 schools to meet the demand. Over 22,000 children participated in the NEEP last year.

Young Scientist Club
The Young Scientist Club (YSC) at the Urban Ecology Center engages our young people in science, research and stewardship projects during critical after school, weekend and summer hours. Students, ages 7-14, are able to drop in to the Center and work with both volunteers and staff to explore the natural world from a scientific perspective. Science comes to life for our participants as they engage in such diverse activities as water quality monitoring, plant collection, identification and pressing, and building forts and igloos. Each day, the activities include an outdoor component that gets kids moving while allowing them to get to know their neighborhood park.  This program promotes a sense of responsibility, both for self and place, and creates a path for local kids to explore alternate lifestyle and career choices. YSC promotes healthy habits and provides a safe environment for risk-taking and leadership development. With its focus on outdoor science education and recreation, the Young Scientist Club is a critical piece of the afterschool puzzle in this neighborhood.

Community Programs
Our community programs, including workshops, festivals, interest groups, membership lending program and volunteer opportunities, keep this park vibrant year-round. To further our mission, we offer programs for a wide range of ages and interests that fall under the “Community Programs” umbrella. Examples include:

  • Festivals: At our free all-day festivals, such as Winterfest and Earth Day Celebration, bring people from all corners of the community together for a free day of fun, learning and camaraderie
  • Urban Adventures: Hiking, skiing, and canoeing in “the great outdoors” is viewed as a dream by many central city youth and their families. Many urban residents, regardless of socioeconomic status, perceive opportunities for nature education and/or outdoor adventures as limited or inaccessible, unless one has the time, transportation and inclination to travel outside the city.  The Urban Ecology Center seeks to connect neighborhood urban dwellers to the wonders of their own “backyard.”  With free use of equipment for members and guidance from our educators, residents of all ages are able to experience a myriad of outdoor recreation activities.
  • Learning Gardens: The Urban Ecology Center maintains display gardens for us to use to educate the public about gardening. Built, planted and tended by the Young Scientist Club, people work with our staff to learn about fruits, vegetables, perennial plants and the soil they need. In addition, we also have community gardens available to residents.

The Urban Ecology Center’s model is an effective way to restore urban natural areas and meaningfully connect the community to the space. We are uniquely positioned to partner with the Kresge Foundation on the Healthy Environments Initiative due to our track record of success in tapping the power of nearby nature and our ambition to lead other communities in developing their natural neighborhood assets.

It’s a powerful model and one that has resonated with cities and countries around the world.

The Urban Ecology Center’s model is an effective way to restore urban natural areas and meaningfully connect the community to the space. It’s a powerful model and one that has resonated with cities and countries around the world. Our leadership team has guided dozens of teams from Racine, Wisconsin to Bucharest, Romania with hopes of creating a similar organization. The beauty of this model is that any urban area has a mix of underused natural space, underserved school children and a potential volunteer base. The Urban Ecology Center’s strategic plans prioritize exploring a flexible framework that supports healthy urban ecosystems that make nature accessible to kids and families.

Comments are closed.