On long walks with my grandfather in the Western Ghats of India, he taught me to identify, respect and care for the flora and fauna around me. I have fond memories of the aroma of crushed lemon grass in his gnarled hands as he held it up to my nose. He took on the most terrible task of checking for leeches between our toes after our excursions.
There, as a child, I first considered biodiversity, the relationship between people and wildlife, and the stressors of agriculture and unplanned development. I developed a sense of belonging outdoors, both in wild places and in the manicured front yard. Like most of my cousins, I didn’t follow in my grandfather’s agricultural footsteps or become an environmental scientist. But, I did become a professional, a voter and a mother with strong conservation values.
My children are growing up in a city. Where my grandfather blanketed hillsides with tea, coffee, spice plants and shade trees, we have a few potted herbs and vegetables. How will my urban children — and their peers — find nature and their own beginnings as the young conservationists so desperately needed today?
One of the strategies cities can employ to connect young people to nature provides unique opportunities for extended time in nature, outdoor mentorship and conservation skill-building. Cities are following in the footsteps of counties and states to partner with youth corps and engage teens in nature experiences and hands-on service that promote personal and environmental health.
In the city of Pittsburgh, leaders partnered with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and the city/county workforce investment board, Partner4Work, to offer local teenagers six weeks of paid work on local conservation projects. In some cases, young corps members entered their neighborhood and city parks — like Frick, Riverview and South Side — for the very first time. Participants enter the corps program with little prior exposure to conservation, environmental education or outdoor recreation and leave the program gaining all three, demonstrating stronger conservation values and increasing their self-identification as conservation leaders.
AmaRece Davis served as an SCA Community Crew corps member for two summers and one school year in high school, and the experiences compelled him to pursue community college, internships and return home “to be a beacon for young people…I’m living the dream now as one of the first African-American park rangers for the city of Pittsburgh.”
The author, Priya Cook, is Program Manager of the Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative at the National League of Cities, and an SCA board member and alumna.