When the health, safety, education, and welfare of an entire community fall upon your shoulders, you probably know a thing or two about prioritizing. On any given day, leaders of local government must formulate policy, develop and manage budgets, decide on ordinances and resolutions, and oversee services ranging from criminal justice to waste treatment to disaster assistance. Is there room on such a full plate for the service of connecting constituents with nature? Is it even regarded as a public service?
It is if you are Howard County (Maryland) Executive, Ken Ulman. “Connecting children to nature is absolutely critical,” said the County Executive. “As we have all gotten accustomed to multiple electronic devices, we have lost touch with the nature around us.”
Since his early days serving as a member of the County Council, Mr. Ulman dreamed of helping reestablish that connection by building Howard County’s first nature center. Along with other county officials and citizens, Ulman envisioned a center that would serve as a launching pad for exploration of the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area (MPEA), a 1,021-acre expanse of forest, meadows and river valley. Rich in biodiversity, the MPEA is one of the largest undeveloped tracts in this county that is located in the middle of the bustling Baltimore-Washington corridor.
Constructing a nature center in a protected area was not an option, but when the county acquired 18 acres of adjacent land through a generous arrangement with the James and Anne Robinson Foundation, County Executive Ulman jumped at the chance to bring the Robinson Nature Center to life.
“We wanted to make sure it had that wow factor to inspire the next generation of environmentally conscious citizens,” said the County Executive, “but we also wanted the outdoor spaces to reflect the Middle Patuxent.”
The Robinson Nature Center opened in the fall of 2011, and by all measures, it has achieved wow-worthiness. The three-story, 25,000-square-foot building houses museum-quality exhibits on topics ranging from the Chesapeake Bay to nocturnal forest to the history of Simpsonville, the mill town that once existed on the site. The Center also features a state-of-the-art digital planetarium, a children’s discovery room, and several meandering, wooded trails. An amphitheater, butterfly house and more trails are planned for the future.
For five-year-old visitor, Henry Nelson, the showstopper was a multi-level, interactive exhibit called “The Life of the Forest.” As Henry put it, “You get to see what lives at the top, the middle, the bottom, and even underneath the tree!”
Outdoor experiences at the Robinson Nature Center include the opportunity to visit a mill race and participate in a real archaeological dig at the site of the Simpsonville mill. “The Center also teaches people about the history of the region and the state,” said the County Executive, “because so many of our towns really evolved around mills located on the bank of our rivers.”
According to Stacey Yankee, Director of the Center, more than 35,000 people visited the Robinson Nature Center in its first year.
Facilitating visitors’ enjoyment and understanding of natural resources is central to the Center’s mission. Doing so in a hands-on away that bridges the gap between people and nature makes it all the more meaningful.
“Children can hold a caterpillar at our Insect Extravaganza program in the summer, use a dip net to catch insects in the Middle Patuxent River during a field trip, or see live hawks and owls at our annual open house event,” said Yankee.
“My kids, who are 13, 10 and 7, love to walk the trails down to the river,” said Howard County resident Amie Sevrin “They compare rocks, look for funny faces in the tree bark, inspect the downed trees to see what might be living in the hollow logs, and even make note of what new thing is growing or in bloom.”
It’s not only children who benefit from the Robinson Nature Center. The Center strives to connect people of all ages with nature.
Stacey Yankee shared a recent story. “One lady once asked why the ground seemed to sparkle everywhere on the grounds at the nature center, as if it looked like fairy dust. I smiled and explained that it was actually a substance called mica that is found naturally in our soil. What I admired most about the question was that an adult had asked me. It just confirmed in my mind that the sense of awe, wonder and imagination is not lost in adults, especially when they are aware of their surroundings in nature.”
The Robinson Center not only encourages environmental stewardship through its grounds, programs and exhibits; the building itself was designed with energy conservation and sustainability in mind. Nestled into a hillside, the LEED Platinum-certified center features geothermal heating and air conditioning, solar panels which generate 15% of the electric needs, and innovative stormwater management and water conservation practices.
Outside, atop a portion of the building’s bottom floor, visitors have a rare opportunity to walk onto, explore, and learn about a green roof.
“I want people to come and be able to touch and feel these techniques and know that they actually work.,” said County Executive Ulman. “I want developers to be able to come out and say, ‘How does pervious pavement really work? Do the pores get clogged during bad weather? How do you salt it or keep it from icing over in the winter?’”
And they are. The County has hosted many tours and meetings for developers, homebuilder groups, and others in the development community. The County is also beginning to link the Center with other regional institutions such as the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center to begin to offer a broad, complementary services and programming.
Not surprisingly, one of the Robinson Nature Center’s most frequent visitors is County Executive Ulman. He brought his daughters to the site every weekend during its construction, and his family continues to enjoy it regularly. But to Ulman, the Center is more than a personal dream fulfilled. It’s a vital public service.
“While there is a budgetary expense to building and operating facilities like this, it is very important to the quality of life for citizens,” he said. “At the end of the day, people pay taxes and they expect to get value in return. When they get to experience places like the Robinson Nature Center, I think they appreciate what their government is doing in partnership with them.”
Ami Sevrin certainly does. “Living so close to a place that allows us to experience the natural world,” she said, “encourages my children to remember that in our fast-paced, urban-centered universe, there is still an ecosystem on which we all depend.”