A Natural Ken

From humble beginnings, the Urban Ecology Center has grown into a national model for revitalizing civic landscapes and bringing nature to city-dwellers. Ken Leinbach has quietly directed the nonprofit’s rise, inspired originally by an Arizona epiphany that involved whales.

In the early ’90s, most of the recreation that took place in Riverside Park on the East Side was not of a wholesome variety. Fires from homeless encampments and teenage drinking parties burned through the night. Gangs of neighborhood youth roamed, and drug dealers did their deals. Sexual assault victims sometimes staggered out of the park and banged on neighbors’ doors, begging for help.

In the midst of this, the Urban Ecology Center was attempting to serve neighborhood schoolchildren with environmental education classes. “Before the kids arrived, we would have to do a ‘park scan’: pick up condoms and needles, scoop up the dog poop, put out the fires and bring a can of paint to cover up the graffiti,” recalls Ken Leinbach, executive director. “It still looked and felt like a park – with beautiful old oak trees and indigo buntings flitting around –but it was an urban wasteland.”

A quarter-century later, Riverside Park is transformed. On a typical Thursday in April, a group of second-graders is participating in a program called “Fantastic Frogs,” where they learn about the life cycle of amphibians and have a chance to hold the two resident specimens in the native Wisconsin animal room.

A college student intern named Joe takes down a banjo from a lending wall of stringed instruments and strums it in front of the potbellied stove. Steve, a neighbor, returns a bike he borrowed from the Center’s free equipment lending program.

Around 10:30 a.m., a group of birdwatchers, mostly retirees, returns from a walk through the park. Dennis, Elaine, Anne and I – I’ve volunteered at the center for more than a decade – take mugs of coffee to a big table on the second floor, where we count the number of each species we’ve seen. We’re actually considered “citizen scientists,” as each week’s count gets logged into a national database.

Enter Leinbach, who has just parked his unicycle in the front of the building.

TREKKING: A younger Leinbach on a solo hike in the California wilderness, circa 1988. Photo courtesy of Ken Leinbach.
TREKKING: A younger Leinbach on a solo hike in the California wilderness, circa 1988. Photo courtesy of Ken Leinbach.

“It’s an 11-minute commute from my house in Riverwest,” Leinbach says. Tall and loose-limbed, with a receding hairline and a wide smile, he’s a man rarely seen in a coat and tie. “It’s only six by regular bicycle,” he continues. “A kayak takes longer.” Every day that UEC employees commute without using fossil fuels, an “eco-buck” gets added to their paycheck.

Leinbach’s is an unorthodox commute, but then, he’s an unorthodox guy. And under his leadership, the Center has experienced phenomenal growth.

The Urban Ecology Center, now with three branches around the city, has several identities. It is an environmental educational facility, a nature center and a community center that hosts lectures, meetings, potlucks, interest groups and recreational activities. It began in 1991 as the Friends of Riverside Park, when a group of concerned neighbors wanted to “take back” the 15-acre park which, true to its name, resides along the Milwaukee River not far from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus. Designed in 1892 by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park, the space had deteriorated due to decades of neglect.

Leinbach was hired in 1998, when the Center consisted of a double-wide classroom trailer, sans running water, and a handful of programs to teach neighborhood kids about nature and science. As the sole employee, he had to raise his own salary.

“It was ground zero, and I wondered whether we could do environmental education here,” he says. “But then I thought, ‘If we could make this work, we could do it anywhere.’”

Today, Riverside Park is a healthy riparian forest that hums with visitors. The Urban Ecology Center’s Riverside branch is now housed in a $5 million, state-of-the-art “green” facility with multiple classrooms and activity spaces. Attached to the building is a 40-foot climbing wall, and a green roof garden holds a tipi in winter. A secret entrance allows kids to slide into the building. Adjacent land was acquired for the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum, which opened in fall 2013. This urban oasis contains 70 samples of trees indigenous to Southeastern Wisconsin, as well as hundreds of native wildflowers, grasses and shrubs.

The Center has opened two additional branches, one in Washington Park and one in the Menomonee Valley. In 2014-15, more than 215,000 people visited the branches and their parks, including about 28,000 students from 53 partner schools on educational field trips. Thousands of adults and families participated in programs as varied as the community vegan potluck and an owl prowl for families. The staff has grown to about 80.

Much of this growth is due to Leinbach, a gregarious yet laid-back leader. His relaxed demeanor, however, belies his passions: urban education, environmental sustainability and “nearby nature.” His ability to ignite those passions in others has attracted loyal staff, thousands of volunteers and donors large and small, including some very well-to-do Milwaukeeans.

NIGHT LIGHTS: The Urban Ecology Center’s Riverside Park “green building” opened in 2004. Photo by Valo Photography.
NIGHT LIGHTS: The Urban Ecology Center’s Riverside Park “green building” opened in 2004. Photo by Valo Photography.

Leinbach came by his love of the land early, having grown up at a camp and conference center run by his family in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The youngest of five, he spent a lot of time alone, kayaking on Lake Michigan, cross-country skiing, searching for Petoskey stones. “As a young kid, I knew that land better than just about anyone,” says Leinbach, now 53.

His predilection for unicycles dates to second grade, when he found one in his family’s garage and taught himself how to ride it. He trained a chicken to perch on his shoulder, and the pair traversed a mile and a half each day down a country road to get the mail. Over the years, he kept riding it, around college campuses, to work and in community parades. “I once rode in the Great Circus Parade in a tumbling outfit that made me look like a Hershey’s Kiss,” he recalls.

He received a bachelor’s degree from Antioch College in Ohio and, later, a master’s in environmental education from Prescott College in Arizona. He came to the fledgling UEC at age 35 after stints as a counselor at an international youth camp, a science museum educator, the founding director of an outdoor science laboratory in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and a stay-at-home dad.

Sidebar text and photos by Tom Conroy.
Sidebar text and photos by Tom Conroy.

Now divorced, Leinbach has two children: a son, 24, who leads wilderness trips for high school students, and a daughter, 21, a junior at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

As part of his independently designed master’s program, Leinbach “took a deeper dive,” as he puts it, into environmental work, grounding himself in the writings of environmentalists Rachel Carson, John Muir, Aldo Leopold and developmental psychologist Howard (“multiple intelligences”) Gardner. All of this coalesced into a big “aha!” moment.

Leinbach had been at an environmental conference in Prescott, where he learned about the largest human-engineered release of water ever. Conceived of as an experiment to “scour” the Grand Canyon and undo the damage that had been done by dams that were changing its ecological balance, the gates between Lake Powell and the Colorado River were opened. The experiment worked, but what struck Leinbach was that none of this water made it to the Sea of Cortez, all being used up by irrigation, swimming pools and energy downriver from the canyon.

At a brew pub after the conference, Leinbach met a professor and his students who had just been kayaking on the Sea of Cortez. A whale emerged about 20 feet away, departed, and returned with another whale and two babies, which calmly circled them for 15 minutes, then left. The kayakers were awestruck.

As his plane took off over Phoenix, he looked down on the city lights, the grocery stores and the swimming pools, and thought, “If we don’t stop abusing the river, the whales won’t last much longer, as they will not get the nutrients they require from the Colorado/Sea of Cortez estuary.” It angered him. He concluded that the ecological crisis wasn’t anybody’s “fault,” but rather a system of bad decisions where the full picture was not understood. He realized he needed to figure out how to get regular people more connected to their environment so they could understand the larger system and the impact of their decisions.

“For religious people, I say it was an epiphanal moment,” Leinbach says. “For non-religious people, I say it was an ‘oh, shit!’ moment. That’s when the reality of the environmental crisis hit home, and I began to feel the pain of the planet. And what was I, Ken, going to do about it?”

Leinbach didn’t share his revelation with anyone but his then-wife, Shauna; he just let his new awareness stew. After that, he developed an action plan that was both personal – growing worms in his basement to decompose organic food waste, getting rid of his car – and professional, when his career path intersected with the double-wide trailer that then housed the UEC. He did not have a vision that he would someday oversee such a vastly influential organization, just the hunch that if humans could work in concert with nature, the natural world could rebound.

He based that hunch on his master’s research, which had revealed that if children have consistent contact with nature starting at an early age, they’re much more likely to develop a respectful environmental ethic. If the same children have caring adult environmental mentors, chances increase significantly of developing that ethic. “That’s the foundation of everything we do here,” he says.

GATEWAY: Leinbach rides his “parade unicycle” under a stone arch near Riverside Park. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
GATEWAY: Leinbach rides his “parade unicycle” under a stone arch near Riverside Park. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

The first program, which is still central to the Center’s mission, was the Neighborhood Environmental Education Program, or NEEP. Its “outdoor laboratories” consist of a full year of trips, on average three or four per student per year, for students at schools within a two-mile radius of one of the Center’s three branches. The students return over and over, establishing a connection to a natural place throughout the seasons. There is a waiting list for schools wanting to participate.

Jeff Spence was on the Milwaukee Public Schools’ Board of School Directors when the Center was developing NEEP. “A number of schools and central administration saw the value in the work they were doing, and relationships just bloomed,” says Spence, who’s now community outreach director for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

Christa Marlowe, a teacher at Milwaukee College Prep, finds many pluses in her school’s partnership with the Center. “Part of what’s so great about the trips to Urban Ecology is that the kids benefit from simply being in the out-of-doors. On my last trip, I was walking behind a kid who took a deep breath and said, ‘It feels so good to be outside.’ It’s hard to put that into data, or show it on a standardized test, but it’s real.”

Also early on, the Center created partnerships with well-known environmental organizations such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum and the Cornell (NY) University Lab of Ornithology. “People thought we were much more than a trailer,” Leinbach recalls with a laugh.

Early funds from several philanthropists, including the late Jane Bradley Pettit and the late Dick Burke of Trek Bicycle, helped the Center emerge from the double-wide. Dick Burke told Leinbach he was thinking too small, and challenged him to figure out what the Center needed to really serve the neighborhood.

“Jane Pettit literally laughed when I asked her for money for a second trailer,” Leinbach says. “She said, ‘Ken, you need to do a capital campaign. Here is $250,000 to launch it.’”

That campaign resulted in the Riverside Park branch’s 20,000-square-foot “green building,” opened in 2004. “The building is so cool, built so well, that it garnered a lot of attention,” Leinbach says. “It gave us a platform. Suddenly corporations were interested, the Walton (Family) Foundation, the mayor, the governor.”

Today, educators and urban planners from San Diego to Syracuse, from Bangladesh to Guadalajara, request training from Leinbach and his staff in creating similar programs.

Mission-based leadership is a current buzz phrase in business management, but it has been Leinbach’s approach from the start. That sense of purpose, combined with his natural humility, enabled him to accomplish all that he has. “One of the advantages I had is that I had no training – I just wanted to get something done,” he says, “and doing that required skills I didn’t have. So I had to ask for help.”

Ed Krishok, current president of the UEC board and assistant general counsel for Harley-Davidson Motor Company, concurs. “Ken isn’t afraid to admit what he doesn’t know or to ask for help. His openness and inquisitiveness invite people to help.”

He is known for hiring people who are knowledgeable and committed to the Center’s mission, then letting them do their jobs. “Ken is definitely not into ‘seagull management,’” says Bob Bourgeois, a current UEC board member and director at Penzeys Spices. “You know: swoop in, crap all over everything, then fly off. The place is structured so that everybody’s gifts come to the forefront.”

He also attracts astute, hard-working board members. “The Center has an extremely active board,” says Susan Lloyd, executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation. “At each meeting, board members report on the progress they’ve made toward specific, measurable goals. This does not happen in nonprofits very often.”

During the 2014-15 fiscal year, more than 5,000 volunteers helped out with everything from pulling up invasive species to serving ice cream at the summer Ice Cream Social. Nancy Aten, a landscape architect from Mequon, chairs the art committee. “I’m doing the things I do well in a way that is useful and appreciated,” she says.

Leinbach says he has “one good capital campaign left in me” that would set up an endowment. He also would like to see tax dollars supporting the educational work, and the recently purchased land adjacent to the Arboretum used to help the Center’s bottom line.

“In five or six years, I’d like to be writing about my philosophy of peace,” he says. “I’ve landed on some ways of being that could be useful to some.” His stewardship of the UEC has landed him a place in the city’s history books, as well. The story might begin: It started with a double-wide trailer in a left-for-dead city park.

Carolyn Kott Washburne is a Milwaukee freelance writer.