The UM-Dearborn’s Environmental Interpretive Center (EIC) is a research and education center that encompasses diverse natural habitats and educates the public about the environment in myriad ways.The EIC’s Environmental Study Area includes three types of forest, meadows, an 8-acre lake, and part of the Rouge River.
“It’s an interesting collection of micro-communities that you’re not going to find in many other spaces, especially a highly developed area like southeastern Michigan,” says Dr. David Susko, the center’s director and an associate professor at the university’s Department of Natural Sciences. The center’s mature beech-maple forest is an “intact parcel of forest that hasn’t been cut or managed in any way for hundreds of years. We have huge beech trees and maple trees that are hundreds of years old,” he says.
David Susko. Photo by Doug Coombe.
And the Rouge River Bird Observatory is the longest-running, full-time urban bird research station in North America, and it focuses on how birds use urban areas as stopover sites as they migrate.
Not all greenery is created equal
Green spaces like mowed lawns may enrich the community but aren’t as valuable to ecosystems as areas that are rich in native vegetation and wildlife, so it’s important to protect them, Susko explains. “The amount of wetlands that we’ve got in this area, the amount of intact forest—all of those are shrinking more and more every year,” he says. Wetlands are being drained for development, and “this is one of the few spaces where people can see what natural habitats would look like had they been here 100 or 200 years ago.”
Dearborn residents “might not be aware that there’s an incredible amount of plant and animal diversity in this space,” Susko says. “We’ve documented hundreds of different species of birds migrating through Dearborn.”
The center’s mandate to be a public resource for the community has grown over the years, Susko says. It delivers more than 300 educational programs each year—reaching 12,000 to 13,000 kids. “We want to get them experiencing the outdoors in a natural setting, and to help foster their commitment to the environment and understand that they have a role to play in local conservation and stewardship activities.” He noted that some kids who visited as elementary school students later returned to study at the University.
Sometimes, kids who visit get to experience something out of the ordinary, like hearing coyotes call to each other in the distance. When that happens, they’re likely to go home and talk to their family members about the experience, and their teacher may be able to incorporate it into a lesson, Susko says.
Susko remembers a young girl, in about second grade, coming to his office to thank him after her school’s visit. They talked about her day at the center, and he asked if she had been there before. She responded, “No, I’ve never been to a park.”
Many of the kids who visit might lack opportunities to be in natural settings and “to develop an appreciation of our unique natural resources in southeast Michigan,” Susko says.
Integrating natural and urban places
The city has enhanced existing trails and parks and opened up new ones to give residents more opportunities to enjoy green spaces. Even in neighborhoods without much space to work with, pocket parks can be valuable, Norwood says. In one neighborhood, for example, “the lots are narrow, but we’ve worked hard to keep parks there.”
Dave Norwood. Photo by Doug Coombe.
Norwood adds that Dearborn Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. “has been very deliberate about using green spaces to attract residents to Dearborn” and to retain existing residents and make sure they have opportunities to enjoy green spaces. The city has been working with Healthy Dearborn to “leverage our parks for health and wellness,” Norwood says.
Healthy Dearborn connects people to green spaces, parks, and recreation venues so that they have safe, convenient places to be active. Also, Dearborn’s first resident-driven bike share is set to launch in mid-June.
Dearborn residents might harbor some misperceptions, and they might be unaware of how spaces and waterways are interconnected. For example, “people think the river is nasty and dirty, but it’s not,” Norwood says. He notes that more people have been fishing on the river, and some have even caught salmon.
Marie McCormick, executive director of Friends of the Rouge, says that although the Rouge River is not swimmable, the water quality has improved vastly.
“The Rouge River underwent an incredible turnaround in the last 30 years,” she says. “The river provides an intrinsic value to residents, beyond the dollar value of real estate in the area.” The group organizes two paddling trips per year—September 17 and October 7 this year—which teach participants about the watershed and the urban landscape.
Marie McCormick. Photo by Doug Coombe.
Friends of the Rouge works to preserve and protect the river, “but not just for the river itself—also for the people in the community, the plants, and the animals,” McCormick says. She praises the mayor’s and the city’s efforts to “conceptualize walking green space” and to “draw people back to the river.”
Along with its programs for kids, the EIC holds educational programs for the public on topics such as understanding invasive species, as well as sustainability projects that promote sustainable urban living. They teach people how to compost, create organic gardens and rain gardens, grow and harvest mushrooms, and keep bees, for example. These activities are relatively easy and inexpensive, according to Susko.
“We’re trying to demonstrate sustainable ways of doing urban living activities,” so that people can do it themselves in their own backyards, she says.