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January 29, 2024

Bridging Cities and Nature as an Urban Naturalist

By: Benjamin Shine

Sydney Geckler is currently pursuing her fifth (and final!) year of Urban Planning at the University of Cincinnati. Over the last five years, her journey has been filled with growth, exploration, and passion… a lot of which stemmed from the Urban Naturalist program! As an alum, she was able to not only expand her knowledge of plant life and invasive species but also discovered the profound connection between urban planning and environmental conservation.

When Sydney isn’t hitting the books, you can find her fostering community-driven planning processes or dreaming of vibrant neighborhoods that embrace walkability, sustainability, and active recreation.

Keep reading to learn how her outdoor escapades and experiences with the Urban Naturalist program have shaped her career aspirations and influenced her approach to creating meaningful greenspaces.

How did your experience as an Urban Naturalist contribute to your personal and professional growth? Being part of the Urban Naturalist team helped me understand the connection between my field, urban planning, and the environmental field and how I can bridge the two. I have always had an interest in cities and the natural environment, and this experience helped me learn how important they are to each other.  The skills I learned such as plant identification, invasive species removal, and planning for native landscapes always find a way into my work with communities. 

My experience also has helped me teach my parents and friends a thing or two about native and invasive species and what the individual can do to make a difference. My parents always come to me for plant advice, they have since expanded the number of native plants in their back yard, attracting so many wonderful bees, insects, and birds. I loved this experience because I learned so much just day to day on the job and I always get to spread that knowledge with others. 

Spending a summer outdoors and making a difference in Indianapolis is a unique aspect of the Urban Naturalist program. How did the combination of meaningful work and the outdoor environment contribute to your overall experience? I loved spending the summer working outside along with the other Urban Naturalists. We really bonded over our experience and still stay in touch today. Not only were we doing hard work removing invasive species or caring for native landscapes all over Indianapolis parks, but we got to have some fun hiking, exploring neat parks, and learning from environmental professionals while out in the field. 

How has your involvement in the Urban Naturalist program influenced your career path or further studies in the environmental field? The Urban Naturalist program reassured me that I wanted to continue down the path to becoming an urban planner, but it also helped me to understand how I can bring environmental work into planning work. There is a strong connection between the two and cities and communities will be stronger when they focus on the natural environment and the built environment. 

What were the key takeaways from your time as an Urban Naturalist? My key takeaways from my time with the Urban Naturalists is to be open to new experiences and skills. Even if you could never have envisioned yourself doing something (like driving a trailer or using a chainsaw) it is possible, and you’ll learn so much doing it. It is never too late to learn something new. Every day was a fun challenge and I learned so many important skills that I will use in my career and in my day-to-day life. 

How did the skills and knowledge gained during the program benefit you in your future? I used the native plant identification knowledge I know to help plan for a pollinator garden in College Hill, Cincinnati when I worked for a neighborhood development non-profit. The neighborhood business district had used traditional landscaping, and I created a presentation to help persuade leadership of the benefits this would have, what plants to use, and it has since been implemented in one of their parking lot redevelopment projects. 

For those considering applying to the Urban Naturalist program, what advice would you give them so that they make the most out of the opportunity? Don’t be afraid to try something that seems intimidating at first. Being an Urban Naturalist is hard work, but it is so rewarding to see the progress of your work whether you’re weeding, mulching, or removing honeysuckle. You get to see first-hand the impact you are having on a space. I loved seeing the change in seasons in our projects and people enjoying the spaces we worked on. 


Interested in applying?!

Keep scrolling for more information about our Urban Naturalist application.

Are you a college student interested in a career related to the environmental field? Join our Urban Naturalist program and spend your summer gaining hands-on experience in caring for native habitats. As an Urban Naturalist, you’ll work outdoors, focusing on the maintenance of horticultural projects across the city, managing stormwater, and engaging in community-based environmental stewardship.

The Details:

Categories: AES Indiana Project Greenspace, Community Forestry, Education, Engaged Citizens, Habitat Restoration, Trees and Native Habitats, Uncategorized, Urban Naturalists