What is an environmental community center?

Written by Mike Larson
    Wednesday, 26 September 2018
What is an environmental community center?

Environmental: the air, water, minerals, organisms, and all other external factors surrounding and affecting a given organism at any time.

Community: an assemblage of interacting populations occupying a given area

Center: a building used as a meeting place for a particular group or having facilities for certain activities

“What is this place?” is probably the single most frequent question I am asked as a member of the Visitor Services Department at the Urban Ecology Center. For the last ten years, my short answer has been: “We are an environmental community center…” followed up with a description of all of the ways that a person, family, or group can connect to the myriad programs, activities, and resources that we have available to them.

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Young Scientists are helping to paint a new mural in the Menomonee Valley branch

I’ve always thought that this phrase- environmental community center- was a great way to succinctly describe who we are and what we do. But what does it mean? If you read dictionary definitions of the words above, the meaning starts to take shape. Yes, helping people understand the relationship between us and the air, water, minerals, and organisms that surround us is a core component of our mission at the Urban Ecology Center. And yes, these factors do congregate to create a community- not just of humans but of plants, animals, fungi and more. And yes, each of our branches does have a building where people interested in our mission can gather for certain activities. All of this is true, but when you put the three words together it means so much more.

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Families are enjoying some warm treats in the Riverside Park building after participating in our annual Candlelight Walk

An environmental center conjures up images of a log cabin in a state park that has taxidermy animals and nature exhibits. We certainly have those elements, but the main difference between those centers and us is that we have hundreds of thousands of people living within a couple of miles of each of our three branches. This is where “community” comes in. The Urban Ecology Center is an epicenter of activity where people and the natural world come together and build something beautiful. It is a unique, amazing and wonderful experience, and we want everybody to be a part of it.

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The Stage Room at Washington Park is always vibrant and full of members of the community during the Annual Autumn Celebration

What does our human community look like?

  • It looks like a table of amateur birders talking about the unique bird species they saw migrating through the park today.
  • It looks like a group of teenagers sitting around a pizza and enjoying each others company while unwinding in a beautiful, welcoming, and safe space after school.
  • It looks like a group of seasoned volunteers removing buckthorn with professional acuity and sharing jokes with our land stewards outside in the park.
  • It looks like a group of preschoolers and their moms coming in fresh from an adventure outside and playing in our “living room”.
  • It looks like a group of fourth graders who can’t quite believe that their school day includes permission to run and jump and climb trees and do all the other things nine-year-olds are supposed to do.
  • It looks like a business owner meeting with our development staff and taking pride in knowing that her philanthropy is helping to build something so special in the heart of Milwaukee.
  • It looks like a safe place for the young and the old, for the homeless, the biker, the city wanderer to take a break and have a cup of coffee, to relax, to breathe, to feel safe.
  • It looks like you. Come stop in for a visit at any time. We love having you as part of our community.


Mike Larson

Mike Larson

Mike is a happily married man living with his family in Milwaukee. As a young child he spent days playing along the banks of the Rock River, fostering a love for nature which eventually led him to study biology and pursue a career with the Urban Ecology Center. He enjoys connecting people with nature through his role as the Community Programs Manager. He hopes that the work he does can help make it possible for his two sons and other kids in Milwaukee to grow up with similar experiences to those he had as a child.


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