Research on Effective Community-Centered Environmental Outreach Informs UW Arboretum Programs

Four people planting a terrace rain garden at Neighborhood House

Installing a terrace rain garden at Neighborhood House Community Center (Photo: Emma Wenman / Friends of the Arboretum)

Environmental outreach can help neighbors learn to address environmental issues, such as urban stormwater, that affect their communities. Residents who are well-respected within their social networks can play a role in promoting environmentally responsible behaviors that support healthier environments.

Research led by Theresa Vander Woude, as part of her master’s degree at UW–Madison, focused on understanding the beliefs that motivate these influential residents, or opinion leaders, and what shapes their willingness to participate in environmental outreach efforts around issues of urban water quality.

The findings suggest that it’s more important to build opinion leaders’ confidence in outreach than to persuade them about the benefits of specific conservation behaviors. The research, co-authored by Bret Shaw, UW–Madison, and Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum, was recently published in the journal Society and Natural Resources.

While influential community members may believe it is good to help neighbors change a behavior to support environmental health, that belief alone will not necessarily motivate them to get involved in environmental outreach. They are more likely to participate in an outreach effort if they also feel the desired behavior is relatively easy to adopt and if they are supported with information and training to help them talk with people in their community.

The study provides insights about constructive ways environmental organizations can support community members in environmental outreach. And the Arboretum, which supported Vander Woude with a research fellowship, has already begun to apply the valuable findings.

Vander Woude was an Arboretum Research Fellow and a member of the program’s first cohort in 2019–20. Her research influenced Arboretum’s community engagement efforts even before it was in print.

The Arboretum is located near the lowest point of the urbanized Lake Wingra watershed and has long contended with a high volume of stormwater, which is increasing due to climate change. Nearly 500 million gallons of rainwater and snowmelt drain annually from the sidewalks, parking lots, and roofs in surrounding neighborhoods. As stormwater drains from these neighborhoods, it carries pollutants, sediment, and excess nutrients, including petroleum products, salt, fertilizers, and trash.

A flooded service lane after a major rain storm.
A firelane – and popular foot trail – near Teal Pond Wetlands flooded with runoff after a storm.

The water enters the Arboretum and courses through stormwater ponds, wetlands, and drainage channels on the way to Lake Wingra. These built and natural features help clean the water before it enters the lake.

Thoughtful environmental engineering and neighborhood engagement can work together for better stormwater management. The Arboretum, along with other local agencies and organizations, have enhanced efforts to engage residents in taking actions that support cleaner water in their own yards and communities.

As part of these efforts, the Arboretum developed a grant-funded community engagement program called the WATER Project (water action to encourage responsibility), funded initially by a two-year grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The project included stormwater trainings for community ambassadors to support their outreach efforts, and also provided mini-grants to help groups implement neighborhood-based stormwater mitigation projects.

The WATER Project is embarking on a new phase, funded by a Wisconsin Idea Collaboration grant. The project will again offer trainings and mini-grants and will partner with Wisconsin EcoLatinos and Water Action Volunteers to broaden outreach and engagement with Spanish-speaking opinion leaders and communities.

Vander Woude’s work has provided an important foundation for research-based outreach efforts at the Arboretum, and we hope it will inform environmental outreach efforts in communities around Wisconsin and beyond. Oberhauser notes that “Theresa’s initial work ensured that we have engaged community members in effective ways, benefitting the people in the Lake Wingra Watershed and the lake itself. And this publication means that environmental organizations everywhere will be able to learn from our example.”

—Susan Day, communications manager

Vander Woude’s research was supported by the UW–Madison Arboretum and the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute.