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."

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.

In Atlanta, Park Pride is a 501(c)(3) organization that first began as a committee from the parks commissioner 30 years ago before splitting to become a nonprofit. To this day, it functions in an embedded model, working in the same environment as the parks department.

"Our job is to engage communities with the goal that every park should have a friends-of-the-park group or a conservancy," said Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride. The group also manages larger-scale service projects that bring in church groups, corporate groups and other partners for volunteer efforts that can bring in 50 to 200 volunteers or more.

The organization's community-focused approach includes other components, such as matching grant programs that ensure that communities have some skin in the fundraising game, and a fiscal partners program that enables community groups in Atlanta and DeKalb County to raise funds for park improvements without forming their own 510(c)(3). As a nonprofit, the group additionally provides a means to access money for parks improvement that governmental entities cannot access.

Park Pride even has a park visioning program that includes two on-staff landscape architects. "It's more typical for landscape architects to be the park professionals who will show the community what they need," Halicki said. "Our approach is to come in with a blank sheet of paper and try to get the community to prioritize and articulate their wants and needs to work with us to come up with what their vision is."

Halicki believes this bottom-up approach has been a key to the organization's success. "It's really an interesting model," he said. "When you partner with the community not just to check the box in terms of engagement, but you actually involve them as collaborative partners, you can do far more than you can do working from a top-down approach."

McCabe noted that The Trust for Public Land has worked with the Natural Areas Conservancy on a survey of the largest 100 cities that will soon be released, and that shows that more cities are employing specialists inside their parks departments, both to manage natural areas and to draw on volunteer resources.

He also recommends engaging community residents through things like park tours for residents during different seasons to get people more knowledgeable about their local public lands, what's going on in them, and how they need to evolve. "Just getting people on the land and learning how to read and understand it is a big thing," McCabe said. "And seeing it in different seasons is also a big thing."

Leveraging Community Expertise

Expertise in conservation is often outside the core expertise of many parks departments, and these departments can often accomplish more in the area by partnering with outside groups. Halicki noted that this has been the case with a few nature parks in Atlanta that do educational programming.

One is the Outdoor Activity Center (OAC), a 26-acre urban forest preserve and nature center operated by the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance. This all-volunteer organization led predominantly by African-American environmental scientists, ecologists and environmentalists first arose from community efforts to halt discriminatory wastewater treatment practices in West Atlanta. Today, it also protects green space while educating residents about important environmental issues that affect their communities.

The OAC works to engage local youth through environmental education programs that include field trips and interpretive hikes through the old-growth forest that teach participants about the importance of their role as stewards of a healthy and sustainable environment.

Also in Atlanta, the Blue Heron Nature Preserve in the Buckhead neighborhood conducts environmental education, including immersive outdoor play and learning experiences for younger children, field trips for all grade levels, camps and nature weeks, and scouting programs.


"These are examples where the city has been able to leverage the ecological assets on that public area, but the kinds of programming that those groups do is not conducive to the culture within the parks department, nor are they playing to the strengths of what the parks department does well," Halicki said. "Similarly, a lot of these groups, if they had to wait until they could actually purchase a building and an environment with rich ecological resources, would still be moving around and working out of their homes because they couldn't afford that kind of thing."

Recreation departments can also boost conservation by partnering with subject-matter experts who are willing to help manage and sustain programs in their knowledge area. This can include partnering with your local Audubon chapter on creating bird habitats or with your local river-focused group on tactics for better stormwater management. It should include calling on environmental experts at your local universities, local agricultural extension offices and local branch of the Forest Service.

It can also make sense to look beyond these natural partners to think more unconventionally. "We've found that sometimes the best partnerships are the ones that are least like us," Leinbach said. "You should be thinking broadly."

Given the Urban Ecology Center's focus on making nature-based environmental education more accessible, Leinbach found such a partnership with an economic development group that wanted to figure out how to use some land it had. "That ultimately led to a $25 million greenfield redevelopment where we together built a 26-acre park, a new ecology center and seven miles of bicycle trail," Leinbach said.

Creating Events and More

Conservation-focused events can be a great way to attract new constituents and get people more environmentally aware. But they work best as part of a larger, committed approach.

"I think the piece that is often missing is the consistency of contact. It's great to have 60 people come, but in terms of long-term impact, what you're really looking for is consistency of contact so that people who do the tree planting come back next week and engage in a different way," Leinbach said. "Events are awesome. It's just that in our case it's part of a collection of events so it's an opportunity for people to come back and have repeat business for us."

One way the Urban Ecology Center does this is through memberships that support the environmental education of urban youth, but also provide members free access to equipment lending of canoes, kayaks, snowshoes, tents, bicycles and more. "I think it's about access," Leinbach said. "So, having equipment to lend out to people is a huge, wonderful thing for that access."

The center also keeps people engaged through events that reach out to different constituencies that may not otherwise be primary users of the educational programming. Recent examples of such events included one called "Eco I Do" that teaches people how to have a more sustainable wedding, and a candlelight walk that was done in partnership with the Young Professionals of Milwaukee. Others included a partnership with the Milwaukee Brewers on a bicycle ride, and eco-travel vacation opportunities that Leinbach refers to as "friendraisers" that are targeted to the center's donor base.

Seeing Local Nature in a New Way

External partners can also help people see the natural world around them in a different light. Wilderness Inquiry is helping parks departments do this around the country through its Canoemobile program. The program has five different rigs that can go around the country. Each rig has six 24-foot 10-person Voyageur canoes and is accompanied by a staff of eight outdoor educators.

Wilderness Inquiry Executive Director Greg Lais estimates that the Canoemobile served more than 75,000 kids last year. "The idea is to bring the outdoors to where people live, and specifically to the densest part of the city with a waterway of some kind and take people out in the canoes where they learn about different things like water quality and invasive species," Lais said. The curriculum is adaptable to the needs of the local community and can cover everything from STEM to history to language arts.

This year, Lais says the Canoemobile program will hit 60 to 70 sites, from San Francisco to the Bronx, and give a wide variety of kids an experience they've never had before. "So many kids have never been in a boat, have never been in a life jacket, have never done anything like this before," Lais said. "And they come back totally stoked having mastered that environment."

Lais noted that it doesn't have to be an excessively expensive program when done at a larger scale, estimating that in those instances it runs $20 to $25 a head. He said it also provides an opportunity for students of all abilities to go on the same trips and boats together. "And that's really what our mission is, to use the outdoors to integrate diverse groups of people," Lais said. "That's what we're doing."

A Gradual Approach

Sometimes, choices that create environmental, social justice and economic benefits don't have to even involve additional expense. Lee noted the example of making different choices when doing a planting.

"Instead of planting a crape myrtle that provides zero ecological benefit and is just an ornamental tree, you can instead plant a serviceberry tree or an oak that provides habitat for our native species," Lee said.

The Conservation Fund is expanding significantly upon this concept with its work creating an urban food forest on 7.1 acres of land in southeast Atlanta. The forest will ultimately produce a wide selection of healthy nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and mushrooms that will be available for public consumption.

The organization has also been implementing smaller-scale versions of the idea in recent stormwater parks. "They include serviceberry trees and blueberries as the shrubs and strawberries as the ground cover," Lee said. "So, these parks can provide a whole array of benefits if you just stop and think about how you can incorporate them."

Beyond a focus on conserving what's already there, the focus on making improvements can be an incremental one that leads to positive change over time. "The idea of going down this path of exploration is that you don't have to swallow the elephant all in one bite. Our program has evolved over 30 years," Halicki said. "We've developed a fairly robust series of different programs, but it was very organic and developed over time."



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