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“You wanna see my fish?”

Eighteen participants sat in a circle of camp chairs looking at Ken, then at the small girl with the bucket. She was about five years old and on a mission.

Ken had not noticed her as she walked toward the circle. He continued to focus on the session-topic of volunteerism at the Urban Ecology Center. The group had gathered as part of a multi-day introduction to the model — connecting people in cities to nature and each other — pioneered in Milwaukee. The UEC staff was bringing their expertise as an urban environmental education and community center to people from cities across the U.S. and other countries.

Imagine a place where folks of all ages can get outside and explore nature near their home every day of every season of every year of their life. Everyone can join together in this endeavor – at a neighborhood ecology and community center in a nearby park; a center whose purpose is to facilitate child-adult interaction, heal the land, promote outdoor play, and educate and inspire people to understand and value nature as motivation for positive change.

Beginning as early as the 1850s and continuing for over a century, urban planners increasingly focused on grand designs for parks that would restore communities by providing a place of leisure and recreation. Seeing the transformation of rural America and the expansion of urban populations, it seemed that the loss of contact with open spaces created pathological conditions in cities. 

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