How Local Leaders Can Improve the Quality of Life for All Children Through Nature Access

By Eric Knepp, Parks Superintendent at the City of Madison, WI

As the Superintendent of Madison Parks, I often say, and strongly believe, that the future of parks is partnerships. The mission of Madison’s Parks Department is to enhance the quality of life for everyone in Madison, WI. Quality of life is an overlapping array of factors, which include making connections, increasing physical activity, sustaining our environment, enhancing learning, and much more. We cannot achieve that mission without collaboration across the city and beyond.

I am proud to support Madison’s involvement as a Nature Everywhere Community because it allows me to do just that – build partnerships that help improve the quality of life for all children through nature access. I am also privileged to support the Madison team in hosting the Children & Nature Network’s Nature Everywhere International Conference on May 28 – 31.

Eric Knepp, Madison, WI

Nature Everywhere Communities, led in partnership with NLC, Children & Nature Network, and KABOOM!, aims to advance equitable access to nature everywhere children live, learn and play. The Madison Region was recently selected as one of the inaugural 19 Nature Everywhere Communities.  Madison will receive two years of strategic planning, technical support and start-up funding to develop and implement community-driven plans for connecting children to nature-based experiences and learning.

This isn’t the first time our city has embarked on these efforts. Madison joined the Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) initiative in 2014. The CCCN Madison team brought partners together to implement seven nature play spaces in child care centers with the potential to get 200 children into nature daily. These nature play spaces supported the city’s priority to address childhood obesity and focus on early learning and play environments. With the COVID-19 pandemic, limited staff resources were redirected to public health emergency response efforts. Yet, the commitment to this work remained and is reignited through our participation as a Nature Everywhere Community.

The Madison Nature Everywhere team is focused on ensuring that all kids, regardless of race or zip code, can grow up with regular access to the many proven benefits of nature. To do this, we must find common ground through collaboration and partnerships. That is why a priority for Madison’s Nature Everywhere Community team is to develop a unified vision for our work, a vision driven by community and youth voices.

Our city is lush with natural resources, from parks to gardens to our amazing waterways. As a city, we score pretty well on all kinds of parks, health, and green indicators. But that story looks different when you disaggregate by race. Too often, people of color are limited in their access to Madison’s resources. That is why Madison’s Nature Everywhere Community team is committed to including their voices in this process.

We have many great people doing amazing work to improve the quality of life through health and nature access. The Nature Everywhere Community team is a perfect example. It is a passionate, cross-sector team, including representatives from Public Health Madison & Dane County, Aldo Leopold Nature Center & Nature Net, and Olbrich Botanical Gardens with Madison Parks.

As you can see from her recent quote, we also have the strong backing of our city’s mayor, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway:

“The City of Madison is excited to be a part of the Nature Everywhere program. We’ve been doing the work to get kids into nature for a long time and are happy to continue it via this partnership with the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, Nature Net,  and the Madison Metropolitan School District. This issue is important to me personally – I grew up climbing trees and wading in streams, and I know how beneficial it is for us to get outside. We all spend too much time in front of screens – research shows that children spend up to 44 hours a week in front of a screen and less than 10 minutes a day playing outdoors. By working in collaboration, we are taking tangible steps towards ensuring that every resident, regardless of background or circumstance, has equal opportunities to connect with and benefit from the natural world. This is important because we know that spending time in nature provides a wide range of benefits, including healthier eyes, increased physical activity, improved relationship skills, reduced stress and aggression, and improved ability to focus. This partnership embodies our city’s commitment to sustainability and equity, recognizing that access to nature is not only a fundamental human right but also a cornerstone of public health and well-being. I’m looking forward to continuing this critical work as part of our efforts to make Madison a place where everyone can thrive.” – Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway

As our mayor clearly understands, regular access to nature and the outdoors is a direct way of improving the quality of life for our community. While all of us are working on ways to get kids and the community outside, we are not coming up with specific ideas of what the Madison region needs. Instead, we plan to bring folks together, to listen to their voices, to hear where gaps exist and what we can do together to close those gaps. This process will help us identify local assets, resources and partnerships that can further our efforts.

This is where local leaders can and should step in. Our community partners need city leaders at the table who can bring needed attention and support to these issues. In the City of Madison, there is a strong commitment to improving the quality of all children’s lives through nature-based solutions. My role is to encourage, support, and remove the obstacles that allow community leaders to come together to include resident voices and find common ground in our efforts.

I encourage other local leaders to learn more about your role in improving your residents’ quality of life through nature access. Here are a few opportunities:

1. Come to Madison, WI, and see it for yourself! Register for the Children & Nature Network’s Nature Everywhere Conference. The Nature Everywhere Conference brings together cross-sector leaders from around the world to advance programs, practices, and policies for advancing equitable access to nature everywhere children live, learn, and play. The Madison Nature Everywhere Community team will be there and we are more than happy to talk to you about what we are doing.

2. Download and read the Cities Connecting Children to Nature’s Municipal Action Guide. This guide was developed for the first cohort of CCCN cities, which included Madison, with an emphasis on helping cities align children and nature strategies to other city goals. It was a helpful tool for Madison and it could be a helpful tool for your community.

3. Sign up for the CCCN/ Nature Everywhere Communities newsletter. This monthly newsletter covers tools, resources, opportunities, and success stories of communities across the country working towards equitable access to nature for all children.

4. Stay tuned! Nature Everywhere Community will soon expand to announce two new opportunities to join the initiative. These are perfect opportunities for local leaders to step up and support nature-based strategies in their communities.

Learn More About Connecting Children To Nature

Learn how Prescott, AZ, used GIS mapping and data analysis to identify underserved parts of the city where residents – children and young families especially – could better connect with the natural world around them.

About the Authors