The TH Interview: Beth Fetterley of the Urban Ecology Center

The Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has an ambitious goal: to foster life-long appreciation for nature in students who live in an urban environment.

Since its inception in 1991, the Urban Ecology Center has continued to expand its program and services in the local neighborhood. In 2004 the Center opened a new 20,000 square foot environmentally-friendly community center, which enables the Center to practice the environmental awareness it promotes. However, the real focus is on the Center's twelve-acre "outdoor laboratory" of wooded land and riparian habitat.

TreeHugger interviewed Beth Fetterley, the Center's Director of Education, to learn more about this unique program.

TreeHugger: First, the obvious question: What are some of the challenges you face with teaching ecological awareness in an urban environment?

Beth Fetterley: There are several challenges. 1) Urban citizens often feel disconnected from the environment, even though there are rich ecosystems in urban parks, along waterways, throughout the urban canopy, in backyards and other urban green space. For example, in Riverside Park, located in the heart of Milwaukee, 156 species of birds have been recorded.2) The environmental education (EE) field often assumes that schools in low-income areas cannot fund field experiences. Because schools often fund trips through parent fees that are unrealistic for families in crisis, EE providers often overlook this population.

However, using creative approaches to find local sponsors, contracting with principals rather than teachers, and fully integrating into the school system can help overcome these barriers.

3) When setting priorities for energy and funding, urban leadership may be faced with decisions that set social issues such as poverty and crime against preserving green space and providing environmental education. Because advocacy groups are narrowly focused on their specific issue, causes that may compliment each other are often pitted against each other.

For example, the Urban Ecology Center has found that community stewardship of our urban park has resulted in less crime and more positive activity for youth. The University of Illinois at Urbana conducted a study of crime and aggression in urban green spaces and non-green spaces. They found that green space not only reduces aggression and crime, but that is promotes academic achievement in urban students. In addition, Rachel and Steven Kaplan have studied the impact of green space on stress levels and productivity in adult employees. They found that even looking out a window at trees and plants can reduce stress and improve productivity.


TH: In your experience, how are people's perceptions of ecology in an urban environment different from those who live in suburban or rural environments?

BF: While this answer is anecdotal rather than scientific, I do have some perceptions of the differences between urban, suburban and rural communities. I lived in the rural Catskill Mountains of New York for three years and spent much of the rest of my time in cities.

Perhaps because of the environmental field's early focus "on going back to nature," urban dwellers usually do not realize that an urban setting is a diverse ecosystem. Not only is it a complex ecosystem, but it's one in which humans play a significant role.

I believe that people in general become "experts" in what they perceive as the most important aspect of their surroundings. Hence, city dwellers become "street smart," being able to read people and situations that influence their actions and safety. Rural dwellers, on the other hand interact directly with nature on a daily basis, and therefore truly "know" that environment. I don't know if I can generalize suburban dwellers. It seems as though suburban dwellers are looking for the best of both urban and rural worlds, but may not then fully understand the complexities of either...

TH: How did the urban ecology center get started, and what is its mission today? How do you see its mission changing in the future?

BF: In the early 1900's, Riverside Park -- a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park -- was a popular site for seasonal swimming, boating, skating, and curling. Over decades of industrial use, the Milwaukee River reached a level of pollution that discouraged visitor use. The county eventually abandoned the park, and the area became an extremely unsafe and crime-ridden place.

In the 1980's, community meetings were held regarding what to do with the problem park. An inventory of the 15-acre site revealed that years of neglect had turned the park into a rich habitat for local flora and fauna. From the inventory, the idea to use the site as a teaching laboratory for neighborhood schools was born.

A group of volunteer educators began the grassroots effort by leading periodic school visits into the park. In 1991, the Urban Ecology Center was incorporated as a non-profit corporation (then as the Friends of Riverside Nature Center). A small classroom building was acquired in 1993. Both a part-time director and an educator were hired in 1995. In June 1998, the Center embarked on an expanded presence in the community by hiring a full-time executive director and educator.

Each year since 1998 has been marked by an expansion of programs, staff and corresponding operating budget. In September 2004, we opened our new 20,000 square foot state-of-the-art environmental community center. The facility incorporates recycled building materials, water conservation systems, and energy conserving and generating systems that allow us to model the environmental awareness we promote.

Looking towards the future, we are working to refine a model of environmental education that directly connects urban communities to their local ecosystem. Pivoting on, but not limited to our school program "Neighborhood Environmental Education Project," we think that our program can be taken to scale across the country (even internationally). Our hope is that every student develops environmental literacy so that they can make informed decisions about their communities, our country, and our planet in the future.

Ambitious, yes, but still possible.

TH: Was the Urban Ecology Center modeled after anyone else? Is anyone modeling themselves after you in another city?

BF: The foundation of our program is based in research, not a program. We were not able to find a model that was quite the same.

The research we used (led by Louise Chawla and called "significant life experience" research) shows that people who have consistent contact with nature and have a mentor who shows respect for the environment tend to be more environmentally aware. This means that easy and repeated access to green space is critical. Because of this, our teaching staff focuses on mentoring a ecological mentoring in their approach to teaching. Our students not only come to Riverside Park many times throughout each year and throughout their school career, but are able to return with family and friends after school and on weekends. We only work with schools that are within a two-mile radius of the Center so that most students live within walking, biking, or city-bus distance.

TH: Can you describe the philosophy behind the educational program at the Urban Ecology Center and how it's guided the Center's practices?

BF: The following is taken from documents that the leadership team at UEC developed to communicate with our Board.

Educational Philosophy — Research indicates that consistent contact with a piece of land throughout one's childhood, coupled with a mentor relationship with an interested adult, results in respectful and responsible behavior towards land in general. The foundation of the Center's education programs is this research. In this way a given student will develop relationships with our staff and have consistent contact with Riverside Park and the Milwaukee River -- natural sanctuaries that lie within their own neighborhood -- throughout their entire K-12 career.

Educational Program Goals - To encourage responsible behavior toward the environment as a lifestyle choice and to instill a sense of awe and personal connection to nature; to touch the heart of students as well as the mind.

Methods used to achieve these goals:


  • Contact: Maximize contact with nature in an ongoing and consistent way throughout one's life

  • Mentoring: Provide environmentally respectful mentoring relationships from within the community

  • Resource: Share information and resources related to mission, issues and program goals

  • Modeling: Center staff, volunteers and organization as a whole model environmentally responsible behavior

Examples of programs that meet the above goals:

Neighborhood Environmental Education Project:
Driven by school curriculum guidelines, we use grade-specific environmental science programs to connect neighborhood students to local green spaces. The program is structured to allow for multiple visits each year throughout a student's schooling. Educators and volunteers model environmentally responsible behavior and serve as mentors.

Urban Adventures:
Focusing on outdoor skills, we use outdoor adventures to connect our community to natural land in Milwaukee and the surrounding regions. Trip leaders and volunteers model environmentally responsible behavior and serve as mentors.

Citizen Science:
Research is the tool by which we further understanding and connections to the land in Riverside Park. The research liaison, researchers, and volunteers serve as mentors. Information and data resulting from research is shared with the community.

TH: What role does the Urban Ecology Center play in the local community? What are some of the benefits (ecological and otherwise) that the community gains through the Center?

BF: We are a community Center. This means that we are open at no charge to visitors to come relax, sit on the tower, or by our wood stove. We encourage neighborhood groups to meet here for free. Since our inception there has been a proportional and indirect relationship between our growth and crime. As we've grown crime has reduced from well above the city average to below the city average. Property values have increased.

We help to bridge the social, economic and cultural divides between neighborhoods on the east and west side of the Milwaukee River. Not only do these two adjacent communities support the Center through volunteerism and fund support, but they connect at least four times a year to complete large projects at the Center through our "community build" activities.

For example, over 100 people helped raise a playground element (a larger-than-life spider web) to improve a run-down playground now used year-round by local families. We have a photo that caught the power of that activity with a major donor, a homeless man, a student, and a city alderman all in a row pulling on the rope to hoist the element. The groups that took charge of improving the playground that day represented every economic, racial, and political group we have in the city.

TH: How many kids does the Urban Ecology Center serve each week? What do you find lights up their faces the most, and what do you think they take home? Can you see a difference being made?

BF: We serve about 600 children per week during the school year. In summer, we have about 60 kids per week for week-long programs. What lights up their face the most when they are on site is discovery...discovering a plant that smells good, hearing a beautiful bird song, that they find something they remembered from the last visit.

TH: Can you talk about the building that houses the Center and the role it plays in education and the Center's overall mission?

The building, while wonderful and beautiful and green, is something we hope not to use very often, as the connection to nature is so important to environmental education. That being said, I could practically write a dissertation about our building.

Educationally, each floor has a theme. On the main level, the theme is "knowing your place." There is a giant hydrologic map painted on the floor. To compliment that exhibit we are installing a aerial photograph of the city printed on 2 ft x 2 ft square tiles. Kids (and adults) can then put together the tile "puzzle," building the city of Milwaukee as it relates to the waterways. A nice urban planning lesson.

We also had to build into a berm. Rather than ask the children to walk down stairs to enter the building from the north side, they can open a small door and slide down "riverside falls" into the main lobby of our facility. Painted onto the walls of the slide is a mural of the Milwaukee River.

Another key feature of the first floor is the Native Wisconsin Animal Room. In this room, all of the eco-zones found in Riverside park are showcased, with tanks full of frogs, snakes, turtles, and fish lining the walls. Included in this is a 16-foot-long tank system, providing a cross section of the aquatic life found in the Milwaukee river.

The second floor of the center is home to many other rooms. The theme is a question "How do we know about nature?" Among these are the Tula Erskine memorial library, dedicated to the life of one of the UEC's supporters. Tula was a talented artist and mycologist whose art and observations are highlighted in the library. Also located on the second floor is the citizen science lab, where our members, university students, and local scientists base the research that they do out in the park. In addition, the camouflage room provides a unique classroom for school programs. With its hidden door (camouflaged to look like the wall) and murals of camouflaged animals, the room is designed to teach through its décor.

Several doors on the second floor lead out onto the balcony area, where visitors can access the green roof or the observation tower. The green roof is a sensory garden of native plants, and helps to manage excess water. The observation tower, visible from the Oak Leaf trail, provides a great view of the east side of Milwaukee and of Riverside park. Its 75-foot structure provides a frame for the recently installed climbing wall and is the home of a smart weather station from Channel 6 (local FOX station). It also provides a view of our photovoltaic panels, soon to be the largest array in the state.

The Community Room, located in the basement of the center, is used for lectures, community programs, and party rentals. This multi-purpose room is connected to the restaurant-grade kitchen. The theme of the lower level is community. The basement is also home to a Staff Woodshop, a student project room, and a tunnel to the bike path.

Along the tunnel we store recreational equipment for our lending library. The goal of the lending library is to decrease consumerism and promote community sharing. UEC members can borrow gardening tools, bikes, canoes, kayaks, skis, snowshoe and much more. We also have rooms for UEC staff and volunteers to shower.

We model environmentally sound behavior by encourage all staff to avoid using additional fossil fuels to get to work. For each day they bike, walk, ski, ride the bus, or kayak (I hope to be the first staff member to commute by kayak) they earn a dollar. By the end of the week staff can use their extra earnings to treat themselves to lunch.

Beth Fetterley is the Director of Education for the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

[Interview conducted by Treehugger intern Dave Chiu]

Tags: Milwaukee | TH Interview