Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center

Midterm reading period is usually a time for Lawrentians to catch up on sleep and watch Netflix for two extra days without feeling any guilt. On May 4 and 5, a group of six other students and myself decided to use our Midterm Reading Period for serving and learning about environmental sustainability in Milwaukee.

Our main focus was working with Milwaukee’s Urban Ecology Center, or UEC for short. The Urban Ecology Center has three locations within Milwaukee and we were lucky enough to visit all of them.

Our first stop was to the Menomonee Valley location on Friday morning where we did prairie restoration work along the Menomonee River. After working for most of the afternoon, we visited UEC’s Washington Park location where we talked with Emily Bablitch, a 2013 Lawrence alumna, about everything from her work with the nonprofit to stories about Lawrence and beyond. Emily showed us around the park which was designed by the architect who created Central Park in New York City.

The next morning we had the honor of talking to Lawrence alumna Beth Heller who is one of the founding members of the Urban Ecology Center. She told us the history of this amazing non-profit and what they are currently up to.

The UEC was created when community members noticed deteriorating conditions of Milwaukee’s Riverside Park. Teachers and volunteers came together to create the UEC which now partners with Milwaukee Public Schools to educate and inspire a love of the environment in a program called Neighborhood Environmental Education Project (NEEP).

UEC is unlike a lot of other environmental programs for a variety of reasons. Schools within a two-mile radius of each park have ongoing opportunities throughout the school year for field trips.

The philosophy behind the UEC’s school programs is based on research which shows that two things make a person environmentally aware: constant contact with nature early in life and an adult mentor (parent, teacher, friend) who demonstrates positive behavior toward the environment.

Schools can contact the UEC and ask the environmental educators to create special programming for their classroom. On the day of the field trip, UEC environmental educators drive buses to the schools to pick the students up and bring them back to the UEC. For low income schools, this helps eliminate the huge barrier of transportation cost that might inhibit them from going on field trips.

Programs are not just for schools. Families can sign up to be members of UEC and for $45 a year they gain access to gear rental from mountain bikes and kayaks to garden supplies and tents. A unique physical feature of the park is that UEC has made sure that all trails are handicap accessible.

What was so unique about our talk with Beth Heller was that she went beyond the normal spiel about the company. She told us her life experiences, her struggle to find who she was and what she wanted to do with her life.

We were encouraged to take time for ourselves and not be afraid to connect with others. Beth even gave us her business card so we can contact her about meditation practices.

Although there are no programs quite like the UEC in the Fox Valley, Lawrentians can get involved in environmentally focused practices more easily than one might think. The UEC has small signs all around their buildings with eco-tips. One included, “Instead of throwing away dryer lint, collect it to use for a quick fire starter.”

An easy eco-tip for Lawrentians could be writing “TOLBY” (Turn Off Lights Behind You) on a piece of masking tape and putting it above a light switch. UEC-Riverside Park has a rain collecting system and reuses the rainwater for their toilets. How cool is that! Lawrence does not have the ability to do that, but something like limiting shower time helps to conserve water.

Helping out local environmentally focused groups is equally important. Riverview Gardens does much more than grow vegetables, they grow people. There are so many opportunities to help out the Appleton community.

Stop in to the Volunteer and Community Service Center behind the library to learn about ways to get involved outside of the Lawrence bubble and the impacts that you can create to better the Fox Valley.

Allie Horton