Our Piece of the Puzzle

Written by Ken Leinbach
    Monday, 02 May 2016
Our Piece of the Puzzle

Have you ever tried to put a puzzle together without looking at the picture on the box? You spend a lot of time trying to figure out if the blue piece is sky or water. Without the seeing the whole picture you don’t understand how that piece fits in.

I was reminded of this idea during a recent conversation with a well-meaning and inquisitive young man who was trying to understand what the Center was all about. “Why on earth are you in the city?” he asked. “I mean, what kind of nature can you find there?”

It seemed strange to him that we work in the most densely populated part of Wisconsin instead of the north woods. For him “nature” is out there, far away, and an ecology center should be out there as well. He was only seeing one part of the picture.

We are so grateful for the centers that teach in “out there” places. In fact, some of us began our environmental careers in pristine woods. But, as I explained to him, we claim a different piece of the puzzle — a part of the whole that we gratefully and enthusiastically embrace!

Our piece of the puzzle works with the other pieces to expand the definition of “nature center” to include “community center,” “safe place,” and “living room.” Where others see brownfields, vacant lots and concrete, we see potential and life – and lots of it! We design our indoor and outdoor spaces to be welcoming, safe places for people and animals alike. Kids and teens stop by after school just to hang out. Animals have returned to our restored lands. We want everyone to think of us as home.

I love visiting all of our branches. Each is a bee hive of activity, with volunteers of all ages and stripes happily engaged in stewarding their shared greenspace. By having our branches embedded in the community in which we live, we develop long-lasting partnerships with residents, businesses and nonprofits. Together we are addressing issues directly affecting our neighborhoods. So much life from our neighbors in action!

And like the “out there” ecology centers, we’re having an impact on the land. Plants and animals no one expects to find in the city are returning. We are seeing salamanders where we’ve never seen them before, birds are stopping to nest which have by passed the city in the past and beavers are back in force on our reclaimed rivers. Nature is confirming our work.

There is something about being amidst so much life, the life that nature provides, which soothes our soul. Research shows over and over again the positive change that occurs when people are exposed to the natural environment on a regular basis. A recent study in Japan showed repeatedly that a walk in nature demonstrably reduces stress more than an equally distanced walk in a highly urbanized setting. A study in Finland produced the same results. Another shows that time in nature results in people being more generous and kind. Early analyses of EEG readings done by David Strayer of the University of Utah support the theory that hiking in nature seems to rest people’s attention and “lets the prefrontal cortex recover.” The result? “Bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.”

This is what an Urban Ecology Center offers and this is why our piece of the puzzle is so essential. We’re offering opportunities to steward, learn from and experience nature “near-by” — in the very neighborhoods in which we live. And the result: A stress-free, happy, attentive, creative, kind, generous, life-filled city – what’s not to like!

Photo Credit: Jared Tarbell,
Ken Leinbach

Ken Leinbach

Ken is a nationally recognized educator and leader in community-based environmental education. He currently serves as the Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center. With his contagious energy, Ken speaks on a number of topics including: urban education, community organizing, environmental issues, finding abundance, the power of story, sustainable design, the need for "near-by" nature, leadership, fundraising, and green living. Ken holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Antioch College in Ohio, a Masters degree in Environmental Education from Prescott College in Arizona and received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Milwaukee Instituted of Art and Design.

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