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Milwaukee's Urban Ecology Center Strikes on a Formula that Works

Susan Bence
Writer Caroly Kott Washburne describes Ken Leinbach - here on unicycle - as a visionary.

For people familiar with the Urban Ecology Center, the name Ken Leinbach is often mentioned in the same breathe.

Today, the center shines bright as a model of environmental education and stewardship. However, a quarter century ago, the Urban Ecology Center, or UEC, began humbly in a trailer plunked above the Milwaukee River near Riverside High School.

Leinbach is credited with building its super-green flagship complex, as well as additional centers in Washington Park and the Menomonee Valley.

Serving as an outdoor laboratory is central to UEC’s mission. Each center works with schools within a two-mile radius of the branch. 

“The (UEC) education staff works with the teachers at the schools to make sure what the children are learning here meshes with the science curriculum in the schools,” Carolyn Kott Washburne says.

Credit Susan Bence
Carolyn Kott Washburne arrives at the Urban Ecology Center for her weekly bird watching activity.

A writer, Washburne penned a story about the UEC and Ken Leinbach’s role in its evolution for the July issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

“I interviewed three MPS teachers, all of them from low income neighborhoods, and many of the children have never been in a park like this. And at first they’re a little trepidatious, is that a word?,” Washburne says.

The UEC staff works to make the kids feel comfortable outdoors.

“And one of the teachers said to me, the last time we were in Riverside Park one of my students said ‘oh it just feels so good to be outside.’ And she said you can’t measure that, you can’t quantify it, but it’s very real,” Washburne says.

She already knew a bit about the UEC before she wrote the story. Washburne has been a UEC member and volunteer for over a decade.

Credit Susan Bence
A flock of birders.

“What I love about it is that it’s gotten me back in touch with my inner naturalist, which has not surfaced since Girl Scout camp which was a long time ago,” Washburne says.

She bird watches every week. The activity is more than a hobby; it’s citizen science at work.

“We count the number of species and how many birds within the species and then someone files that in a national database and that’s used to track bird migration patterns and nesting patterns,” Washburne says.

UEC also monitors bats, snakes and butterflies, “and probably a few other things I’m forgetting,” she says.

Why did she decide to write a story about Urban Ecology Center?

“I was giving a tour of the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum (just steps away from UEC above the Milwaukee River) and I asked how many people knew about the Urban Ecology Center and only about a third of the people knew of it and I thought this is not right. So I pitched the story to the magazine and they let me write it,” Washburne says.

She decided to approach the story as a profile.

“As opposed to write a historical piece about the center because I think people are interested in people and Ken is certainly an interesting guy.” Washburne adds, “But in telling his story I was able to tell the story of the growth of the center.”

One of her most interesting Leinbach anecdotes? Growing up in Michigan, the youngest of five, he trained his pet chicken to perch on his shoulder. Together, they’d fetch the mail.

“Every day he’d have to ride down a mile and a half (by bike) to get the mail with the chicken on his shoulder. Unfortunately he never got a photo of that; that would have been a great illustration,” Washburne says.

Years later, Leinbach’s epiphanal moment strikes a much more serious note.

Credit Susan Bence
Kids wait arrive early for UEC summer camp.

“When he realized that the planet is threatened and what could he, Ken, who at a time was an unemployed, stay-at-home dad, what could he do about it. And just that moment and how he’s been able to turn that into this, the Urban Ecology Center with three branches,” Washburne says.

She says the UEC model is spreading.

"Organizations and individuals are bringing in the senior staff here to consult with them on how they can create urban ecology centers all around the U.S. and in some international locations," Washburne says.

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.