Significant Life Experiences Research and the “Secret Sauce” of the UEC

The Urban Ecology Center was founded on the belief that land can be healed and that urban communities can be transformed by giving people access to nature. In particular, we saw the potential in connecting kids to green spaces when they are provided with consistent access and a caring adult mentor. This belief was grounded in a field of research that explores the impact of “significant life experiences” in childhood.

That was back in the late 1990s, and if we’ve learned anything since then, it is that the evidence for this approach continues to build, both in academic publications and in anecdotal experiences, like those of kids and families around Riverside Park, Washington Park, and the Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee. These are not the only locations where this work is bearing fruit, but the systematic approach to environmental education in the UEC’s branches demonstrates the ongoing potential.

Specifically, the research suggests that two factors serve as the biggest predictors of whether or not a kid will grow into an environmentally conscious adult. The first is access to green space, which is available in parks, woodlands, and restored prairies, as well as in and around lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. The second is access to a mentor who can spend time on a regular basis encouraging exploration and learning. We combine these two in the programming we offer to students (as part of school programs), kids after school and on the weekends, and families throughout the year. As a result, the UEC contributes to the development of attitudes aligned with land stewardship, nature preservation, scientific understanding, and an ethic of care.

In this episode, we learn more about this research and how it became the foundation of the Urban Ecology Center’s environmental education model. The main segment of the episode provides a firsthand account from Ken Leinbach. He reflects on his experience developing programming on land outside of Arlington, Virginia. His decision to pursue a graduate degree emerged from an awareness of how kids learn in nature and the impact it has on them. Ken was introduced to significant life experience research through the work of Professor Louise Chawla. The potential for behavior change in society, he recognized, might have an impact on the planet if it could be aligned with environmental education. This realization propelled Ken to focus on building an organization that would use this approach to transform communities across generations.

Following the conversation with Ken, UEC educator Kelli Johnson took time to interview a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Chris Diehm. Professor Diehm teaches philosophy and environmental ethics, and Kelli was a student in one of his classes. Much like the research they discuss, Kelli’s understanding and attitude was shaped by the learning and mentoring she received.

This approach is so central to the work of the UEC that we offer this episode as a foundation for learning more about the Center. In future episodes, we talk more about programs and activities, and in many cases, the underlying design builds on significant life experiences research. We share the “recipe” of what is sometimes called our secret sauce at every opportunity. If you are looking for a place to begin transforming your neighborhood, or even the world, this is it!

Originally dropped: 11/16/20

Thank you!

Chris Young, Project Manager, Urban Ecology Center Institute

What is the Urban Ecology Center?

The Urban Ecology Podcast – Episode 1

Remember those early months of 2020, when we found ourselves adjusting to life at home, connecting to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors with increasing trepidation? Ken Leinbach hoped that a new venture for the Urban Ecology Center, a podcast, might be yet another way of to share the story of the Center and to keep people linked with the ongoing work, even in the midst of a global pandemic.


Fueled by encouragement from a veteran and expert in this medium, Richie Burke of GGMM, Jeff McEvoy and I began exploring the steps we would take to begin recording and posting an ongoing series of interviews and conversations about the Center. It quickly became clear that another member of the UEC team, Danny Pirtle, had the experience, talent, and focus to take our vague understanding and make it a reality. Danny hosted this episode and seven more that followed.

We decided that the first episode would focus on the most basic (and important!) question that listeners might need answered: what IS the Urban Ecology Center? We suspected that if we asked four people, we might get four different answers (and if we asked forty others, we’d get forty more answers). And while that may be true, we also knew that there would be commonalities among those answers.

So, to start out, we spoke with the first staff member hired at the Center, Carijean Buhk. For dynamic contrast, we also asked the most recent addition to the staff, Van Johnson. We got additional perspectives from one long-time volunteer, Pat Mueller, and from a young and very enthusiastic neighbor who participates and volunteers regularly in the Center’s programming, Analiese Rosales-Garcia. While these views may offer the extremes of UEC staff and membership, they also represent the range and scope of what the Center offers.

We chose to have various staff and volunteers involved in the process of interviewing. It was an experiment that has helped to shape our ongoing method. Danny pulled it all together, with wit and a lively charm. They (Danny’s pronouns are they/them) also added a depth of production skill that raised the level to a height we did not anticipate but immediately appreciated.

One element that we believed would be critical to the podcast is Ken’s voice and insight. We considered the possibility of having him host the episodes, but we soon realized that even with his abundant energy, there are only so many hours in the day. We opted for a concluding message that we now variously refer to as “The Final Word with Ken” or “Final Thoughts with Ken.” You’ll want to listen to the end of every episode to hear how the many topics we explore relate back to the mission of the Center, to connect people in cities to nature and each other.

If you haven’t already had a chance to listen to this pioneering effort, please tune in soon! And we hope you will leave a review on your favorite podcast app to support the work of sharing this story.

Originally dropped: 11/16/20

Thank you!

Chris Young, Project Manager, Urban Ecology Center Institute

Sharing the Urban Ecology Center model

The Urban Ecology Center Institute encompasses an ongoing effort to help people in cities around the world transform their communities by connecting to nature and each other. We have been building a network over the past four years in a deliberate attempt to share the model developed at the Urban Ecology Center‘s three branches in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This effort actually has a longer history. Visitors to the Center have, over the years, asked how it came to be. In some cases, they have asked for more detail about particular aspects of the environmental education programs. Others have been curious about how the parks and green spaces around the Center were restored. Every aspect of our programming has attracted attention, and we have been eager to tell the story… and what a story it is!

And what a storyteller we have, in Ken Leinbach!

Off we go, to explore nature in the city with Ken as the guide for the day, the week, the summer!

People have come back to the Center to meet Ken, to ask more questions, to interview the staff, to see the community gather, to understand how the land is healed, and to imagine this happening in their own neighborhoods.

By the time the original Urban Ecology Center branch in Riverside Park got settled in a new building in 2004, there were already requests for more locations. After careful consideration and invitations from the neighbors around Washington Park, the Center opened a second branch. When multiple partners looking to create new green space in the Menomonee Valley helped create a path to a third location, another branch opened there. The model, it turns out, can be replicated in different communities.

Ken was encouraged to write Urban Ecology as a way to capture the story for readers. Since the book appeared in 2018, we’ve been adding more details and sharing new case studies.

The story of the Urban Ecology Center Institute is just beginning. We have offered “Intensive” training sessions on site as well as online. We established a network of participants from these sessions, and folks have gathered teams from their home communities and come back for more. We offer Workshops and Classes for people nearby and from farther afield. New sessions are in the works.

We launched the Urban Ecology Podcast in fall 2020. Each episode provides a fresh look at how the Center functions, goes into detail with a featured staff member, or introduces a vital community partner.

Ken and other staff members are available for special Speaking Engagements. They demonstrate the abundance and excitement of this work in ways that are engaging and fun, but also filled with insight and inspiration.

For individuals or groups who are looking for a more detailed, on-the-ground look at our model, we arrange Tours of the three branches, led by Ken and experienced staff members, who are eager to share the special quality of these places. This also gives us a chance to get to know folks who have ambitions to replicate the model in more neighborhoods.

And if that is not enough (and people tell us, it is not!), we invite groups to join us for Customized Consulting, where we can dig into the details of what is missing in other communities and how they can meet those needs by implementing our model.

To be clear, we cannot claim to be experts who will solve whatever problems a park or neighborhood may face, but we have experience in multiple urban situations and have overcome a wide range of obstacles to make this model work. We can and do offer case studies to help others explore options for what is worth trying, what might work best, and what resources are needed to get started.

As others succeed in these efforts in more cities, we are learning even deeper lessons. We are excited to be partnering actively with groups across the U.S., in Atlanta, Rochester, La Crosse, Baltimore, Columbus, Madison, Washington DC, and Denver. In Mexico, we are working with groups in La Paz, Saltillo, Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Culiacan. We have also helped a group establish programming based on our model in Tiberias, Israel, and provided training and expertise in Karachi, Pakistan, and in Medellín, Colombia.

Visit any of the links above to learn more, or browse the Urban Ecology Center Institute pages.

Written and posted by Chris Young, Ph.D., Urban Ecology Center Institute Project Manager