Feature Article - April 2019
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Conservation Conversations

How to Get Your Department and Community More Environmentally Aware

By Chris Gelbach


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 80 percent of Americans now live in urban environments, and the nation's population will be majority nonwhite by 2045. As the nation also looks to combat the effects of climate change, local parks and recreation departments figure to play a critical role in fostering a conservation-focused mindset in the nation's increasingly urban and diverse population.

"Our recreation managers and the folks who manage our parks, be that in urban areas or more suburban-style parks, are at the front lines of what people perceive as green spaces and protected public lands," said Shannon Lee, urban conservation manager for The Conservation Fund. "If you don't have green spaces in your community that you are connected to, then you are never going to be worried about Yellowstone National Park or other beloved landscapes across our country that many national organizations like ours work so hard to protect."

The Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee is working to do this at the local level through three branches that started with park cleanups and environmental education from a trailer in the city's Riverside Park in 1991. The program has since expanded to become a $5 million operation with three locations and a wealth of programming that includes environmental education, land stewardship, community science, equipment lending, community gardens and much more.

"Our work is based around research that asks the question, 'What makes someone interested in or aware of the environment?' said Ken Leinbach, executive director for the Urban Ecology Center. "And it turns out, when you dig into the research, that if a kid grows up with consistent contact with natural land from an early age, that's a key ingredient toward environmental awareness."

The second key ingredient, according to Leinbach, is mentorship from interested adults who demonstrate proper behavior toward the land and a love of nature. "If you have access to land and a mentor, that is a sure-fire way to care about the environment," Leinbach said. "And that's the foundation of the work that we do."

Leinbach noted that while many people doing environmental education are inclined to turn to pristine land to do so, this isn't necessary and can even sometimes be counterproductive. "You're almost better looking at the land that needs help," he said. "Because where engagement comes in is through volunteers working with the land and seeing the impact that they're having."

When the Urban Ecology Center contributed to an effort to clean up the Milwaukee River by removing invasive plants and adding native plants after a larger DNR project removing toxic waste, the land came back in a way that compellingly reinforced the value of conservation.

"The number of species of birds, insects, amphibians and the rate at which they came back was faster than any of the experts expected," Leinbach said. "So that's exciting learning. If we do the right thing, nature's an awesome partner."

The Importance of Community Input

In vulnerable urban communities that traditionally have been left behind and that don't already have green spaces, Lee noted that it's critical to listen to the needs of the community up front and to be thoughtful about issues related to social, racial and environmental justice. This can even extend to the basic words you use to describe potential conservation efforts.

"Many of these communities have been impacted by pollution and contamination combined sewer impacts," said Lee. "When you go into a community where there is no protected green space and no beautiful space in their neighborhood, if you come in and you talk about conservation, people look at you like you're crazy. Because they think, 'What do you see around me that I want to conserve?'"

In these instances, Lee noted the importance of instead talking about restoration and improvement—language and behavior that breaks down barriers instead of minimizing the concerns of residents. Working to build these deeper relationships can also reaffirm that the green space you are building is for the people who already live there.

"There is a real fear in many communities of what is perceived as green gentrification," Lee said. "You come in and you build this nice new park, but if you don't talk to the residents who are in those spaces, the perception is never that you're building it for them. It's that you're building it for the people that are going to come once they're displaced."

Building a Volunteer Corps

According to The Trust for Public Land's 2017 City Facts Report, city parks have seen a 40 percent increase in volunteer hours since 2008. According to Charlie McCabe, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land, this rise in volunteerism has been an important way for parks and rec departments to offset the strains of reduced budgets that still haven't fully rebounded in the wake of the Great Recession.

"Really tapping into community interest and community volunteerism is a good way to do that," McCabe said. "You really have to staff for it a little bit. You need a volunteer coordinator that's integrated with the organization, and the organization needs to understand that they need to think about ways in which they can work with volunteers. But you also need to build up confidence over time. You start with small things and you work up to bigger and bigger ones."

When it comes to conservation-related activities, McCabe stressed that it often comes down to just understanding what the best practices are locally and regionally, and then applying those. "And the good news about a lot of these types of activities and techniques is that you can do a lot of that work with volunteers with pretty little training," McCabe said. "If you're looking at removing non-native trees and plants, it takes a little more training, but you still can do that with just hand tools."

According to Leinbach, the key to building a successful volunteer program is to have systems in place to properly match volunteers with the right jobs. "If the match is good, then they stick around," Leinbach said. "The other thing is that we have a culture of kindness. Our first instinct is to say yes versus no, and then it's about having fun and being good to people."