The Urban Ecology Center's Neighborhood Environmental Education Project (NEEP)

What if all students, regardless of their economic status, had access to green spaces and the critical thinking skills embedded in science?

Photo of Gillian Spence
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Riverside Park, a Frederick Law Olmsted park, sunk to its nadir in the late 1980’s. Neighborhood residents organized in the early 90’s to reclaim the park and rid it of crime and pollution. The Urban Ecology Center was born of this effort. The Neighborhood Environmental Education Project (NEEP) grew out of a desire to turn litter into learning by preserving Riverside Park as a safe urban green space for families and children to learn and discover together.


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Wisconsin

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Milwaukee, WI

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Wisconsin

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Milwaukee, WI

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

In the 2014-2015 school year the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reported that statewide 20.9% of students scored at a Basic or Minimal Performance level in science. In the Milwaukee Public School district, a startling 49.9% of students did not perform above Basic.

Through the critical thinking skills embedded in science, the Urban Ecology Center’s signature program, the Neighborhood Environmental Education Project (NEEP), empowers the next generation of leaders.  NEEP educates young people and helps them gain the skills needed to succeed later in life. One study, Improving Science Inquiry with Elementary Students of Diverse Backgrounds, showed that a similar program helped students improve their ability to engage in inquiry by 25%. The greatest gains were made by students with a history of low achievement, low socioeconomic status and limited English proficiency. With that in mind, the Urban Ecology Center NEEP program works exclusively with schools in urban neighborhoods, serving predominantly Milwaukee Public School students. Historically, these students have been ignored by programs with an environmental focus though they have the potential to benefit the most. This is a powerful model that has a broad impact: every urban area has a mix of underused natural space and underserved school children. NEEP fuses these components to create a framework that supports healthy urban ecosystems and grows the next generation of leaders through a research-based, cost-effective solution that can reach all types of learners, at all grade levels.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Established (the solution has passed the previous stages, and has demonstrated success)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Glenna Holstein, Menomonee Valley Branch Manager, had this experience with a NEEP class: “One of the kids in the class was particularly taken with the grape vines. He jokingly pretended to be a grape-vine-obsessed-Mr. Hyde-like monster every time we came upon some. He was so excited about all of the activities that as we were walking I said to him, “You know, if you came back for our Young Scientist Club, you could do this kind of thing all the time after school.” He said, “Whoa...that would be like HEAVEN to me!” Later, as we were walking through the park he said, “Miss, I wish I lived here.” I laughed, and was happy to tell him, “You DO live here! This park is right in your neighborhood, and it’s yours! You can come whenever you want!”

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

A goal of the Center’s education programming is to increase children’s comfort levels in natural spaces. Research shows that, especially for children, environmental-based recreation and education is beneficial in every major way -- intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically. By creating safe, accessible and vibrant hubs in neighborhood parks, the Center is providing tangible health benefits to children and families. Additionally, 99% of surveyed teachers and students reported that NEEP increased the students’ connection to nature. Students reported that through NEEP they saw that there was nature in their own neighborhood and had fun in nature during the program. By familiarizing young people with nature and helping them to see the ease with which they can access it, the Center opens the door for a lifetime of outdoor exploration.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The Urban Ecology Center receives financial support for NEEP through grant funding, individual contributions and program fees paid by the partner schools. For each school, a yearlong NEEP contract is $11,500, $4,400 of which is paid by partner schools. The remaining $7,100 is contributed by generous donors and corporate partners. The Center has built a strong network of supporters and has a strong track record of financially sound practices.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Traditional nature centers in rural and suburban locales have done an excellent job of raising public awareness, preserving green space and introducing children to nature. The Urban Ecology Center leverages the power of urban public lands, builds on the success of these organizations and is centered on the notion that green space is so much more than a recreational area or educational laboratory, magnifying the impact. The Center believes green space can serve as an anchoring hub around which communities come together to build healthy neighborhoods and livelihoods.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Extensive research highlights the broad benefits that can be realized from simply being outdoors. However, nationwide, children are increasingly confined indoors, with low rates of physical activity. A growing body of evidence illuminates the benefits of regularly spending time outdoors in a natural area and supports the assertion that context is critical to health and wellness. Access to green space and natural areas, like those created by the Urban Ecology Center, can have important implications for health by reducing stress and increasing social connectedness and physical activity.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kirstin Anglea

Thank you, Gillian, for putting together a great profile of what our NEEP program does and how it supports the UEC's efforts to work with urban schools to develop environmental amazing experience after another.  With 55 urban school partners, the 27,000 students we serve annually is surely to influence the health of our community over time.  

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