'What's an Audubon?'

Urban families usually see more graffiti than bird nests. But as the venerable environmental organization moves its mission to cities, the most- asked question is:

At first glance, it's not exactly the kind of place where you'd expect to find the Audubon Society. At second glance, it still isn't. In fact, it takes a good five minutes or so to get a handle on what's going on here, in this little corner storefront operation, on a busy intersection, in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, not 10 minutes from the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.

El Centro Audubon? That's what the sign says, along with the English words, Audubon Center. There's another phrase in Spanish above the door - "Disfrutando y cuidando de la naturaleza" (Discovering and protecting nature). Why is the Audubon Society helping to protect nature in an inner-city, non-white neighborhood? In a place where one of the most-frequently asked questions at the center has been, "What's an Audubon?"?

Welcome to the changing face of the environmental movement, as envisioned in a sweeping, nationwide, 20-year plan now being pursued by the National Audubon Society. Under an initiative that calls for building 100 nature centers in mostly urban neighborhoods by the year 2005 (with 900 more centers to follow over the next 15 years, half of them in urban or underserved areas), the Audubon Society

is taking a whole new look at nature - as well as a new look at the people whose help will be needed to defend it.

"We believe the greatest challenge we face in conservation in the future is diversifying the environmental movement," says John Flicker, president of Audubon. "If we're going to be effective, our constituency needs to reflect the face of America, and it's clear the face of America is changing. Our movement needs to change accordingly."

Here in Highland Park, which hugs the 110 freeway north of downtown Los Angeles, Audubon's efforts have taken shape in a $16 million public-private venture. The plan involves the renovation of Debs Park, an old and underused city park, and the establishment of an endowment to ensure the long-term success of the project.

Under a lease agreement with the city announced two months ago, Audubon will also build and staff a nature center at the park to open in 2003. It will offer a variety of educational programs to the community, with an emphasis on involving parents and their children. Already, some 132 species of birds have been identified in the park, and local residents have participated in bird walks and other events.

"Part of our thinking was that if we could do this in Los Angeles, we could do it anywhere," says Melanie Ingalls, director of the Los Angeles Audubon Center, as the new center will be known.

Audubon's 2020 plan, as its nature-center initiative is known, is part of a growing awareness among environmentalists that urban areas present a sort of next frontier for the movement. Instead of regarding nature as something that you go to, this new thinking promotes the value of nature wherever it is found. It also recognizes the role of local residents, many of whom may have never seen the ocean, let alone a wildlife refuge.

Prospect Park in Brooklyn

"If people don't become stewards of the environment here [in urban parks], they won't become stewards of the larger environment," says Tupper Thomas, president of the Prospect Park Alliance in Brooklyn, New York. "It's got to happen in the cities."

Along with urban parks in Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Prospect Park is among the first group of urban nature sites announced by Audubon. Unlike Debs Park, which is a mostly untamed terrain, Prospect Park is a landscaped park, created by the great 19th-century designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Wild or not, says Ms. Thomas, the park provides a perfect setting for teaching local residents, many of them recent immigrants, about nature.

"People are comfortable in a public park," she says. "They might not go to the Museum of Natural History as comfortably, or to a science museum. But nobody thinks they don't know how to behave in a park."

As part of its partnership with Audubon, a Beaux Art boathouse on the grounds of Prospect Park will be turned into a learning center. The park itself has been designated as "an important bird area" by Audubon, because it's a resting spot for migrating birds.

"Using birds as an example of why you need nature is a great way to teach," says Thomas. "Birds are a great way to lead into the concept of water and air and trees and insects and the whole business."

Even before the formal nature centers have opened, say Audubon staffers, learning opportunities have presented themselves through every step of the process. In the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Ms. Ingalls has spent the past three years building relationships with community organizations, local politicians, and neighborhood activists, learning from them and working to earn their trust. Over and over, she says, she has encountered the question, "What is Audubon?"

Though she started out explaining the history of the society and its interest in birds and educating the public, she says she quickly found people's eyes glazing over at the historical detail, and learned instead to be much more direct.

"When people ask who we are, we say, 'We really like birds and nature and we'd like to share that with you,' " she says. "And once you say birds, they say, 'Oh, I have this bird in my backyard that sings all night. What is it?'

"That's right where we want to be," she says. "We want to be there at the moment of somebody saying, 'Oh, I've got this bird.' " She's equally happy to help local school children who wander in with homework assignments about nature, or to identify bird nests brought in from a neighbor's yard.

Local resident Laura Mora, an insurance agent who grew up with 10 brothers and sisters in Highland Park, was one of many people who were initially skeptical about Audubon. Outside organizations with big plans had come and gone, but once Audubon opened its storefront, she realized the group was serious. She became an active supporter of Audubon's project - and made her first venture into Debs Park on a bird walk with Ingalls.

"I was in awe of this natural wonder in our backyard," she says. "I always knew of the park, but I'd never been there in my entire life. And I thought, why didn't I come up here before? I think it would have made a change in my life if I'd come here as a child.

"I would have asked more questions," she says, "more of the 'how comes' and the 'whys.' I noticed myself asking questions while I was up there, wondering how many species of birds and plants live there."

Opening up kids' imaginations

Ms. Mora, who didn't see the ocean, some 20 miles away, until she was in college, is particularly enthusiastic about what the park and nature center will offer the children in her neighborhood. "Kids here play in the street," she says. "Their imagination is limited to buildings and graffiti and alleyways. I think this will change the way they think and how they view life."

Audubon is banking on having that kind of impact - investing millions of dollars in each nature center, with the goal of educating generations of children as future environmentalists. According to Flicker, Audubon's president, recent research shows that children who participate in problem-solving in nature - exploring the consequences of things as simple as the impact of an oil drip from a car - do better in school than children who haven't had that kind of learning opportunity.

In fact, he says, he sees each planned nature center as a kind of community library, an institution as essential to the future of society as the public libraries that Andrew Carnegie built around the country a century ago, in the belief that literacy was essential to making democracy work.

"In the next century, we believe that environmental literacy will be essential for us to be good citizens of our planet," says Flicker. "We are building these libraries of nature, these permanent institutions, to build environmental literacy so that we can learn how to live sustainably on this planet."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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