By NATALIE GUYETTE
Surrounded by natural beauty, breathtaking photo opportunities, and hidden crevices to explore, the Milwaukee-based Urban Ecology Center provides a unique indoor and outdoor experience to its visitors.
“The first thing I would tell someone who walked in our doors and asked what they could do here, would be to tell them it’s a beautiful day, go explore the trails,” said John Ela, community program educator at the Riverside Park Branch. “Number two, go down the slide.
Kindergarteners get just as excited as high school students about that. It’s another thing that bridges the ages here. The third thing would be to check out our equipment lending program. Strap on some skis and go explore.”
Urban Ecology Center works to provide Milwaukee’s children and adults regardless of ability to explore and learn about what the outdoors has to offer.
“Originally conceived as a crime prevention, in the early ‘90s some neighbors were upset by the way Riverside Park was being used, so they started using the park more and eventually brought kids into it, and that’s where the Urban Ecology Center evolved from,” Ela said.
The Riverside Park Branch started from a modest trailer home and is now a beautiful self-sustaining building.
Today, the Urban Ecology Center has three locations: Washington Park, Riverside Park and Menomonee Valley, each with its own special offerings, such as Urban Stargazers Group, Astronomy Club and Friends of Real Food group. The Young Scientist Club is an after-school program that is active at all branches, providing a space for kids to experience the outdoors with guidance.
“It’s fun to witness the kids making discoveries outside and to watch kids explore and discover new things,” Ela said. “Things that to me are ordinary, that I already know about, can be really mind-blowing in their eyes.”
On Sept. 28, Riverside Park opened the new Milwaukee Centennial Rotary Arboretum, expanding this 15-acre park to 41 acres. Approximately 2,200 trees were planted along the area bordering the Milwaukee River, working to restore lands that were overtaken by industry and invasive species. The Arboretum is a place to run, bike, hike, ski and socialize.
“It’s cool because you don’t have to tell them [the public] how to use them [the lands],” Ela said. “They [people] just show up.”
All of the branches work to improve neighborhood conditions by offering a place of positiveness where everyone can feel at home, whether it’s planting trees, attending holiday festivities, or stopping by to say hello to the animals.
The centers also bring environmental education to schools around Milwaukee that allow students to experience hands-on adventures, such as taking walks in the woods or using large rubber boots, called waders, in the river. The Urban Ecology Center partners with Milwaukee’s Neighborhood Environmental Education Program to come together with more than 44 schools and educate their students on the importance of environmental conservation.
A yearly membership is available to students, families or individuals and provides outdoor equipment rental, including winter items such as skis, snowshoes and sleds. It also includes discounts on Urban Ecology Center programs. The student year-long membership costs $12.
If you’d like to volunteer at the Urban Ecology Center, register at urbanecologycenter.org.