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The magic of civic ecology

I first felt the leap from learning to magic in 2015. At that time, I was working at the River Bend Nature Center and the nearby Cannon River STEM School. I was leading fourth graders along a river. 

That year, one of my programs was working with the STEM school fourth graders teaching about water quality. Every day, I took a different group of three youth down to the Straight River to measure the turbidity of the water. We collected the data and sent it off to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as part of the Citizen Water Monitoring program. 

Together, the students and teachers decided to end the year with a Straight River Stewardship Day. On that day, I saw teams of fourth grade stewards working together to clean litter from the riverbanks. I watched watershed professionals lead groups of youth and adults to clean leaves and debris from stormwater catch basins. I heard fourth graders explain to parents how they do turbidity testing and where the data is sent. I appreciated that what I was witnessing was magic in the form of learning, community-building, and ecological restoration. That magic is called civic ecology.

In practice, civic ecology integrates the values of civic engagement and land-ethics with hands-on stewardship activities. Community gardens, tree planting efforts, watershed restoration, and clean-up efforts are all civic ecology practices. It's distinct from citizen science, which can contribute to civic ecology, as the data collected can be used by the community. Collectively, civic ecology practices create powerful socio-ecological learning environments. They do this in several rich ways. 

Learning from other participants

Civic ecology practices can create social learning environments. Young people's stewardship activities connect them with professionals in the field. This gives them social connections and a peek at a potential future career. As they do civic ecology, students teach adults - including their own parents -- about scientific processes and data collection. All participants work as a team and achieve their goals through an authentic and cooperative experience. 

Learning from natural and built environments

Participants also learn by interacting with the environment. As they walk the riverbanks, they see racoons, birds and wildflowers. They begin to understand who else shares their communal space. They draw connections between their non-human neighbors and the human-built storm drains that flow from the streets into the river. Their interactions with the living and non-living things around them help them to see how they are part of -- not separate from -- their environment.

Civic ecology asks us to let go of some of our control as educators, and allow the participants and the land to interact and create dynamic learning spaces. Having led them to the space and given them the tools to appreciate their surroundings, we can let them loose to learn from and begin to care for nature and each other.

Over the coming months I will be working with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s GreenCorps program and community partners in Carlton County, to create new civic ecology opportunities for 4-H youth. I look forward to witnessing magic in action yet again.

Where in your personal or professional life have you experienced the magic of civic ecology? Where do you see opportunities in your community to put civic ecology into practice?

-- Dylan Kelly, Extension Educator, 4-H Youth Development, Carlton County

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  1. Hi, Dylan, thanks for the blog post! Civic ecology is a new term for me that I'm happy to learn more about. It seems as if part of what you're saying is that civic ecology is about being active participants of ecology itself?

    1. Hi Jessica, thank you reading and commenting! "Being active participants of ecology itself" is a great way to think of it! It is about bringing together the concepts of civic engagement and ecological stewardship in a way that promotes resilience in both people and place.

      Marianne Krasny sums it up beautifully in the book cited above: "The people - civic ecology stewards - envision places where humans are neither divorced from nature nor separated from each other. The understand how our future depends on understanding that humans - like other living beings - are all part of a larger nature. And armed with this understanding, they seek to restore green spaces as civic spaces - and civic spaces as green spaces.

      One more example of civic ecology in practice: I visited the George Floyd Memorial on 38th and Chicago last week. The community there has come together and built beautiful community gardens right in the street. The action of building and tending these gardens is healing both people and place, and strengthening the resilience of the entire community.

      If you want to dive a little deeper, I suggest checking out the Cornell's Civic Ecology Lab at


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