The City of Madison is on course to start an exciting initiative. With a planning grant of $25,000 from the Children & Nature Network in partnership with the National League of Cities Institute for Youth several public, non-profit and private institutions are working together to formulate a program to make the many outdoor recreation resources of our community more accessible to kids. With a few organizational meetings already concluded and a collaborative process set in motion, efforts are now underway to make Madison a national leader in nature-based experiential education. Administrated by the Dane County Department of Public Health the Children In Nature Initiative is in the beginning stages of a master plan to impact the lives of young people and their families throughout the region.
“We’re assessing what works locally in connecting children to nature and where there might be gaps, particularly around equitable access,” said Mary Michaud, Division of Policy, Planning & Evaluation director at Public Health. “We have engaged a local nonprofit, the Center for Resilient Cities, to help organize the effort.”
Selected among seven cities across the U.S. Madison is in competition for a much larger implementation grant to put the forthcoming plan into action. Aiming to overcome what Children & Nature Network founder Richard Louv describes as “nature deficient disorder” the cities of Saint Paul, Minnesota; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Providence, Rhode Island; Louisville, Kentucky; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco, California are all vying for the financial resources necessary to get more kids outside.
“Comfort and familiarity with nature is an essential part of our kids’ education. We need to make space for them to experience wild places, including those tucked away within our city blocks,” said Michael Leeson, a father of 5 on Madison’s Northside. “We know this is vital for their well-being, yet also helps them cultivate their creativity, problem-solving and cooperative abilities.”
Taking into consideration the interests of the community as a whole local initiative planners are forging relationships with a broad cross-section of stake holders in the hopes of creating a thoroughly comprehensive and inclusive program. Relying on its strong track record of public engagement the Milwaukee-based Center for Resilient Cities is orchestrating a strategy through which under represented citizens, minority youth in particular, will be able to participate in making their neighborhoods more “nature-friendly”.
“We’re really excited to be part of this process because it’s really what we do,” said the Center’s executive director Marcia Caton Campbell. “But it’s not for us to say what’s important to the communities we want to connect with. We’re going to let the youth and community members tell us how they want to get involved with nature.”
Organizations that already work directly on issues of environmental protection, sustainability, social equity and racial diversity are lending their expertise to make this initiative successful. Local partners include the Madison Parks Department, the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, Community Groundworks, Olbrich Gardens and many others. Maria Moreno the multicultural outreach coordinator of the UW Madison Arboretum, for example, said her organization will help to provide environmental learning curriculum for the community in both English and Spanish. As a collaborative effort the contributions of each organization can complement one another and maximize the program’s overall impact and help to break down institutional obstacles that make access to nature complicated.
“The exciting thing about this initiative is that it will have not only such beautiful short term impacts on the lives of children and families, but these impacts will ripple out to the broader community, moving Madison towards a model of sustainability for the country,” said Julie Jarvis, Program Manager of the Sustainable Schools Initiative at Sustain Dane. “Through bringing together people from all over Madison- people with different skills, experiences and perspectives- the path to reach the goal will hopefully be more creative, and the solutions will be more effective and reach more children.”
But organizers understand that they have a lot of work to do in order to overcome many of the social and cultural barriers that make it difficult for low income families and minorities to spend time outside. They realize that this effort will require those involved to address issues other than setting aside public land for the creation of parks.
“We’re hearing that there are longstanding patterns where people of color feel unwelcome or disconnected to green space, or where there is a healing that needs to happen with respect to developing a healthy relationship with nature,” said Michaud at the Health Department. “There are more practical barriers, too, like safety (real and perceived) and time constraints in families where caregivers work multiple jobs and leisure time is limited.”
A key component of the initiative will be the inclusion of local youth. Six paid positions, supported by the Wanda Fullmore Internship program, will be created to actively engage members of community. Young people will be trained and tasked with conducting interviews in order to craft a series of narratives that detail the priorities of other youth and their neighborhoods as a whole. In the hopes of creating a program that is relevant to the cutlural interests of those least likely to spend time in nature the organizers hope to make the outdoors more accessible to everyone.
“By more fully understanding these narratives, we can shape opportunities for a wider group of stakeholders to take the lead,” Michaud said.