At the intersection of equity and planning, there are many approaches planners can take to incorporate inclusiveness and accessibility into projects for municipalities. In Fort Collins, Colorado, Bernadette Kuhn, senior environmental planner and restoration project manager, has developed the Habitat Equity Tool, a new analysis and decision making tool to prioritize habitat improvements in neighborhoods historically underserved by the local government.
The tool goes beyond identifying parcels of land for habitat restoration and improvement by also utilizing community data (such as race, wealth, age) to aid in prioritizing which areas would best benefit neighborhoods and residents previously overlooked by the city.
The tool is a work in progress, and its model is shared by Kuhn to enable planners across the country to adopt it in their planning efforts. We spoke with Kuhn about the Habitat Equity tool, how it was developed, and the impact it has had on Fort Collins. The conversation has been edited.
DINA WALTERS: Why don't you start by telling us about yourself and what you do for the City of Fort Collins?
BERNADETTE KUHN: I am a senior environmental planner and a restoration project manager at the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department.
In Fort Collins, we have 36,000 acres of open space that our department manages in collaboration with the community. My job as a planner is to help work with the community and our partners to create a strategy around how we're going to manage those lands. And that results in products like the management plan.
The project management side of what I do involves large scale restoration projects on the Cache la Poudre River, which runs through the heart of Fort Collins. Right now I'm working on a large-scale river restoration project. It's a $5 million project to help restore a floodplain area that also involves recreating a diversion structure in a low impact way to protect river health. The city has an instream flow of water that actually helps keep water in the Poudre River. My job is to oversee that project with a bunch of partners and co-manage it with our city utilities department. I have a really amazing team of people that I get to work with and our planning team, led by Julia Feder, is 10 strong now. We have really incredible talent on our team — it makes my job really fun.
Habitat restoration in Fort Collins along the Poudre River Trail. Credit: iStock/Getty Images Plus - RiverNorthPhotography.
WALTERS: Fort Collins has launched a new decision making tool to prioritize habitat improvements in neighborhoods that have previously been underserved by your local government. Why don't you tell us about the tool and how it works?
KUHN: It is a multi-criteria, decision analysis tool. I built it off an existing free downloadable tool that was created by the National Resource Leadership Institute to build a community pool. I brought together a team of interdisciplinary folks, people like rangers, biologists, trail builders, and public engagement people to say, how can we create habitat restoration projects throughout the city that serve the whole community?
So the idea is about access to nature; we want to take it like a step further and say, we don't just want everybody to have access to green space, we want everybody to have access to high-quality habitat, because that's a different experience.
Experiencing biodiversity, or a native ecosystem, is a completely different experience than, say a park. We structured the tool with all these different criteria, such as improving structural diversity for birds to nearest conserved patch of land, or threatened and endangered species, but we integrated in things like visitor use and aesthetics.
When we first started doing habitat restoration in my department, before my time, we pretty much just looked at what areas have the most chance of becoming ecologically uplifted. We just didn't look at the human side of it. What about kids near the site? What about low-income communities of color? How do we serve the most disadvantaged group first in a way that meets their expressed needs? Why shouldn't that be as important? We started one by one adding in these bits about equity [into the tool]. It is not perfect, we have a long way to go, but I'm excited that we started thinking about these elements of community. How can we provide this habitat equity for everybody in town?
WALTERS: It makes perfect sense. By thinking about the human aspect, you're also expanding the human investment in these spaces. Can you speak more about what initially inspired you to develop the tool itself?
KUHN: When I first started, we didn't have a prioritization list of projects. We had this restoration plan that I worked on as a contributing author when I worked at the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. My job was to scope the projects and understand on a really high level what they might cost, and then figure out what our priorities are. That's why I built the tool.
I was operating in a space of, how do we serve everybody? How do we serve the people who we typically have underserved first and best? I worked with our GIS analyst Brian Meyer, and he made the data layers about low-income residents serving children under 19. We worked with our DEI coordinator, Katsí Peña; she was our partner in that space to say, what are we missing? What layers do you think we should put in here? We built that together, the three of us and then we put it in the tool, and I think it's just a starting place.
WALTERS: Your tool has a ranked list of 21 sites in order of community and ecological benefit to guide Fort Collins' habitat restoration work. What's the next step?
KUHN: We don't know if the people in the neighborhoods even want this, so the harder work now is to go engage those neighborhoods. We always learn so much more about what people's true needs are when we engage in that kind of one-on-one. I don't like to just use data and walk away and say we solved the problem. We have a whole team doing community engagement.
Where we're at right now is we have a site that is ranked number one, in the second version [of the tool]. In the first version, it would have been toward the bottom, because it was small, it was very urban. It has a creek flowing through it, but it doesn't have any endangered species or anything like that. When we put the DEI metrics in, it came to the top, because there really are no other good access to nature points in that neighborhood. It serves a lot of low income residents, and a lot of kids. It was really cool to see the tool totally change our priorities.
The next step of that project would be authentic community engagement, where we go knock on doors and say, "What would you like to see in that space? What are your concerns?"
Sometimes there's safety that we have to think about, such as if we plant a bunch of trees, some people might not feel safe if they cannot see around vegetation. How do we understand their needs? Then blend that with ecological needs to say, how can this space serve its greatest purpose for everybody in the neighborhood? We are working in an urban context, so that would be the next step for that project.
WALTERS: What does the community engagement process look like?
KUHN: Our public engagement team does community events almost weekly. They do stargazing events, bald eagle watching; they're doing programming daily, they do tons of outreach. They do programs for K-12 kids, and coordinate volunteers. Then on the planning side, for a zone update engagement, we do all these events throughout town, where we set up a table and we talk to people, and we try to meet them where they're at. This is a more adaptive model, these are community events where we're going to go try to reach a more diverse audience. We also have an online portal that's open all the time that you can email us.
WALTERS: What recommendations do you have for other planners, given your experience with this project? What are the benefits for a community implementing a project like this?
KUHN: Well, there's three things. First of all, if you're working in the ecological space, always ask yourself, how does equity play into my work? I might be a wildlife biologist, a plant ecologist, or I might be a forester. That doesn't mean that my work doesn't have an equity component. Ask yourself every day who's benefiting from my time working for my community?
The second thing I would say is if you're going to build a tool like this, you have to have an interdisciplinary group of people who are invested. Sometimes those conversations are going to be hard, because you're all coming from different knowledge bases, or different perspectives.
The more diverse viewpoints, the better your tool is going to be, but that doesn't mean that the conversations are going to be comfortable. Allow yourself to have those hard conversations and allow for the tool to serve multiple purposes. I am also making sure [the tool] is adaptive. I'm redoing this every year, because every year we learn something new. We are trying to do solid intersectional work, and I am always trying to make it better.
The last thing I would say is, this is just the starting point for the DEI components. I hope in five years, my thoughts on this are much more evolved. We're going to go out in the community and talk to people and understand how we see things versus how they see these spaces, right? Because that's where the real learning for us comes in.
How do I learn from them what they need? We are making sure that we don't just rely on the data to give us the answers, but we actually rely on authentic community engagement to understand how we can improve the space.
Dry Creek is a tributary of the Poudre River. It is primarily rangeland and irrigated hay meadows and pastures. Photo by Field Technician Alyssa Armbuster.
WALTERS: Can I ask you one more question? Are there any historians that you're working with?
KUHN: We just added Kelly Smith, who is a senior environmental planner with a background in anthropology. She is working with cultural resource type work and they are going to take this tool and make a [similar tool] for trails. They can bring that kind of cultural resource perspective into this.
WALTERS: Yes, because in some of these areas there may be significant [historical] events that have happened. I think it also increases the likelihood of human engagement, because if there's an informational placard that says in this spot this major event happened, it builds a human connection to that space.
KUHN: Yes, authentic engagement is the next step. [Fort Collins] is working on figuring out how we do tribal engagement. Our Native American and Indigenous community here is very diverse. We need to understand better how to meet their needs, their cultural needs, support their cultural practices, honor their connections to the past.
Someday, I would love to have a criteria in [the tool] that asks is this a high priority for the Native American indigenous community? It's a relationship and trust that we have to build.
WALTERS: Bernadette, this has been wonderful. Thank you.
KUHN: Thank you so much. This was such a fun conversation.
Download and view the Habitat Equity tool (spreadsheet). It can also be accessed under Fort Collin's Research Tools webpage.
The interdisciplinary team who worked with Kuhn on the Habitat Equity tool included Brian Meyer, Katsí Peña, Barb Brock, Norm Keally, Jen Shanahan, Ryan Vincent, Crystal Strouse, Aran Meyer, Matt Parker, Julia Feder, Ryan Kogut, and Aaron Reed.
Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - RiverNorthPhotography
About the author
Dina Walters is part of APA's Prioritize Equity team.