Several years ago I had an opportunity to chat with someone who grew up and still lives near Ivanhoe Dune & Swale, a 105-acre nature preserve along Hobart Street and 5th Avenue in Gary, owned by The Nature Conservancy. While I blathered on about all the wildlife in the preserve, like pink lady slipper orchids, his own experience with the site was personally more meaningful — playing ice hockey on a wetland as a kid.
Here I was, touting the wildness of the place. Meanwhile, he was gently telling me that we need to “meet people where they are” to effectively engage urban residents in nature.
Thankfully, for that person’s sake, I didn’t dismiss his sentiments. Inspiring people to love nature is not as easy as it appears, as several organizations are finding, including TNC, Brown Faces Green Spaces and Audubon Great Lakes, to name a few.
Building community of nature-lovers
Now that the pandemic seems to be waning, these and other organizations are hard at work building a community of people inspired to support nature-based solutions, like trees as green infrastructure and other urban conservation efforts. Recently, I gathered representatives from these organizations to discuss how they are striving to make nature relevant to residents of Gary, East Chicago and Hammond.
During my conversation, I learned that nature can be a scary place for some people. To overcome that fear, we can encourage small steps, like getting people to observe nature in their own backyards or through events that are fun, like kayaking. Activities like these can provide a great foundation to build upon.
“People don’t always realize how much nature is actually around them,” Joel Perez, TNC’s project director in Merrillville, said.
“Small interactions, like pointing out native bees in a pollinator garden, go a long way and brings out curiosity that inspires people to want to explore more,” he said.
Jennifer Johnson, a wild indigo associate with Audubon Great Lakes, helps people feel more comfortable by first pointing out things they may be familiar with.
“I’ve suggested trying to see something like a robin in a different light. Look at the color, the bird’s shape, what they are doing and be observant,” she said.
Kimmie Gordon, founder and director of Brown Faces Green Spaces, is successfully helping organize innovative programs, like horseback riding and archery, that are attracting new participants. At an event held during Juneteenth celebrations, they had 36 people show up to kayak on the Marquette Park lagoons in Gary, expertly assisted by the National Park Service.
Making people welcome
To be effective in urban conservation, it’s important to make sure city nature experiences are inclusive.
“When I was growing up, I sometimes felt like people looked at me and thought I did not belong in nature. We want to show people that it’s OK to be in nature,” Perez said.
“I’m looking forward to bringing people to preserves and changing the perceptions of these places,” he added.
“The more we share our experiences in these greenspaces, the more people are aware that they are there for them to also enjoy,” Gordon said.
Everyone agreed they are excited to be developing a group of nature enthusiasts they can identify with for the long term.
“I’m really glad to be doing this work. It’s something I enjoy and can be a role model for someone else,” Johnson said.
“Having these opportunities available to People of Color in urban communities makes a huge difference because for a long time I was the only face of color doing these activities,” Gordon said.
Inclusivity also means providing equitable and easy access to natural areas. That is why TNC’s Lakeshore office in Merrillville supports initiatives like the Marquette Greenway, which will allow residents to ride their bike or hike to managed natural areas such as Roxana Marsh, the Grand Calumet River Conservation Area, Ivanhoe Dune & Swale Nature Preserve, the Indiana Dunes National Park and even the Indiana Dunes State Park — when completed.
For those unable to hike or bike on a trail, parks and greenspaces in neighborhoods are great places for residents to enjoy nature, hopefully providing incentive to these cities to maintain them.
“A park says a lot about a neighborhood; how well it’s maintained, loved and cared for and it brings a sense of community to any neighborhood,” said Gordon.
“Visit your local park or beach or the playground, spend time learning about the trees and plants there, use all your senses and be a little more observant of the nature around you,” Johnson said.
Now that is surely an example of “meeting people where they are.”
Want to join in the fun? Look for and “Like” The Nature Conservancy in Indiana, Brown Faces Green Spaces and Wild Indigo Nature Explorations on Facebook.
Susan MiHalo is a lifelong, nature-loving Northwest Indiana resident who works for The Nature Conservancy in Indiana. The opinions are the writer's.