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.
“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.