Feature Article - October 2013
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Programming: Trails

Path to Nature
Programming Trends in Environmental Education

By Chris Gelbach


Ecology Goes Urban

According to the 2010 Census, more than 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas. Accompanying this population shift, environmental education is also moving from a traditional emphasis on nature areas to a focus on local ecology.

"Working in public spaces that are located in community—like the local public park—helps to expand people's sense of home," Chin said. "It gets away from the romanticizing that environment is beyond city boundaries. It focuses more on the continuum from urban to wild as a single landscape."

The Green Seattle Partnerships Urban Forestry Project is a hands-on community-based program that includes a curriculum for teachers that also includes a field component.

"The in-field experiences happen at places that are within walking distances of schools, which helps the schools out because they don't have to pay for buses," Chin said. "And you get into child development values such as sense of place. When children have sense of place, that helps build their self-identity and their self-esteem and their confidence."

According to Chin, getting children involved can also result in them bringing their families and friends to the parks, helping to further build community, while also enhancing public safety by putting more eyes on these parcels of public land.

The program is just one element of the larger Green Seattle Partnership, which includes thousands of community volunteers who actively work to restore and maintain Seattle's forested parklands.

Meanwhile, the Morton Arboretum is training urban environmentalists through its Openlands TreeKeeper program, which teaches Chicago area volunteers how to keep city trees healthy through mulching, watering and spotting harmful pests.

Community Gardening

Also related to the urban ecology trend is an increase in programming focused on community gardening. In Seattle, Chin noted that team leaders in some local community centers have started above-ground gardening boxes that area youth plant and harvest, even taking part in a teen chef program afterward that includes a Food Network-style competition.

"We're working with under-resourced youth because they can be subjected to food deserts," said Chin. "And then the gardens become gathering places and you get to meet your neighbors and before you know it, people are also outside walking more, too."

At the Morton Arboretum, Dunning is seeing a similar spike in interest in urban agriculture in the popularity of certain horticultural courses offered there. "We are seeing people be interested in what they can do in small spaces, indoors, in containers—in creative ways they can bring more garden into whatever space they have," she said.

For example, this fall the arboretum will have classes on gardening 101, planting an easy-care garden, backyard fruit tree basics and winter containers. Dunning has also seen a growing interest in the arboretum's beekeeping programs, from honey and bee dinners to more formal classes like beehive tours and intro to beekeeping.