Re-thinking UWM's Move to the County Grounds

May. 4, 2009
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Jeff Poniewaz, an instructor at UW-Milwaukee, has sent me a response to the Shepherd’s cover story on UWM’s plans to expand its engineering school on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa. Here’s Poniewaz’ take:

Buildings vs. Butterflies—a Classic Case of Land Ethics

I was a student at UWM, earned my degrees at UWM, and since 1989
 have taught a course called “Literature of Ecological Vision” via the UWM English Department. I would be failing my responsibility as an environ-mentor if I did not speak out regarding UWM’s plan for the County Grounds.

Aldo Leopold, who was one of the greatest teachers the UW System ever had, wrote a famous book explaining what he called “land ethics,” now considered a great breakthrough of human enlightenment. John Muir was a student at UW-Madison for a while before he became famous for pioneering an environmental conscience in America, and books by and about him have been proudly published by the University of Wisconsin Press for many years. And Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day, also attended the University of Wisconsin, and the Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison is named after him.

I invoke these three people with significant ties to the UW System because if they were alive today, I can assure you as a scholar of their lives, words and deeds, that they would urge that priority be given to the Monarch butterflies that annually grace a few vestigial undeveloped acres in Wauwatosa. They would tell you this isn’t just about the butterflies, either. The butterflies are a healthy sign, an “indicator species” regarding the health of our environment as a whole, including humans. They would urge UWM to build on a more ethical—land-ethics ethical—location.

An environmentally respectful professor emeritus of civil engineering at UWM told me he always had Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac on the required reading list for his Intro to Civil Engineering classes. The greater Milwaukee area should cherish a Monarch refuge on those relatively few acres of natural land, and UWM should build elsewhere an engineering campus where A Sand County Almanac is included on the ongoing required reading list.

The UW System, where Leopold taught and Muir and Nelson learned and where I now teach what they taught, should not besmirch its honorable association with those eco-sages. Alternative sites do exist, one of them very near the County Grounds. If the county sells this land to UWM, it should not be to the School of Engineering but to the Biology Department to preserve as a Monarch sanctuary. UWM’s determination to build on the County Grounds sounds more like some of the environmentally misguided projects wrought by the Army Corps of Engineers in the past than it does like the enlightened engineering school we trust UWM intends for the future.

Psychological studies have shown and psychotherapists have counseled that urban greenspace is conducive to mental health. Googling “mental health and urban greenspace” I found on one university’s website an article that said: “Access to good quality greenspace provides an effective population-wide strategy for the promotion of good health, well-being and quality of life. Exposure to natural scenes reduces stress. Clear evidence exists that there are positive benefits for mental health and well-being to be gained from both active and passive involvement with natural areas in towns and cities.” How ironic, then, that a county would want to let a university build on a vestige of Monarch-attracting greenspace not far from that county’s mental hospital.

In his recent bestseller Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv warns about the “nature-deficit disorder” our children are suffering due to the relentless marginalization and gradual elimination of all vestiges of natural land. It’s not enough to have a room full of fluttering butterflies inside the Public Museum.

UWM would be a gentler presence on that land than some other entities the county might otherwise sell the land to. Except for the budgetary problems of a dysfunctional system of economy, the county should preserve this land for the environmental education and mental health of its citizens. "Ecology" and "economy" come from the same root word and should be in harmony. If only some local philanthropist like Michael Cudahy would come forward to buy the land for its most land-ethics ethical purpose. 

—Jeff Poniewaz


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