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"Nature in the City" - a unique partnership to sustain urban open space in the City of Fort Collins

Written by Liba Pejchar and Sarah Reed, Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology and principal investigators for Conservation Development Global Challenges Research Team.

More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Preserving open space in these expanding urban areas is critical for ensuring that both people and wildlife enjoy the benefits of nature. Fort Collins, Colorado is a microcosm of global urbanization trends; the number of city residents is projected to grow from 155,000 today to 240,000 by 2045. Single family homes and informal green spaces are being replaced by multi-family and mixed-use dwellings. As development densities increase, habitats for plants and animals and the ability for all residents to access open space close to where they live and work will be threatened unless citizens take action to ensure these areas are protected and restored. To address this concern and plan for the growing population, the City of Fort Collins launched the Nature in the City initiative in January 2014. The purpose of this initiative is to develop a 100-year vision to provide “a connected open space network accessible to the entire community that provides a variety of experiences and functional habitat for people, plants and wildlife.

To support this vision, our SoGES Global Challenges Research Team on Conservation Development has formed a unique collaboration with Fort Collins to conduct the first citywide assessment of biodiversity across public and private open space. We selected birds and butterflies as focal groups for this assessment because they are groups of species with which citizens interact on a daily basis, they provide important services (e.g., pollination), and they are likely to be responsive to interventions by the City and citizen groups to enhance their habitats. We identified 166 points throughout the City, stratified among diverse land uses ranging from formal City Parks and Natural Areas to informal neighborhood open spaces, urban farms, and community gardens. Two trained field technicians completed the baseline surveys from May to August 2014, documenting a remarkable 88 species of birds and 33 species of butterflies.

We found that land use had the greatest influence on birds and butterflies. The greatest diversity of bird species and the highest proportion of urban-avoiders (birds that are sensitive to human disturbance) were observed in public and private lands managed specifically for their conservation values (e.g., Natural Areas and Certified Natural Areas), whereas the greatest numbers of butterfly species and proportions of native species were detected in City parks and urban farms. Some bird guilds (e.g., grassland specialists, ground nesters, urban avoiders) were also observed more frequently in larger patches of open space. From these findings, we selected a group of 10 birds and butterflies as indicator species. For the purposes of this project, we define an indicator species as a species that is relatively common in Fort Collins and whose presence or relative abundance is correlated with the richness or composition of the overall community; in other words, sites where indicator species are abundant are also sites that support a diversity of sensitive birds or native butterflies.

The results of this biodiversity survey, together with social and economic studies led by the City, are being used to guide implementation of a Strategic Plan, which includes policies and actions to ensure that high-quality natural spaces are preserved in our rapidly growing urban environment. One example of a policy outcome is to analyze the connectivity of open space in Fort Collins from a wildlife perspective, identifying core habitat areas, existing linkages, and places where connectivity could be protected or restored. City Council will consider adoption of the Nature in the City Strategic Plan at their March 17th meeting.

A second example of a policy outcome is the development of science-based design guidelines. These guidelines, which will serve as a reference for developers, private land owners and the city for decades to come, will include design options as varied as green roofs and living walls, community gardens, backyard habitat, courtyards and wetlands. Lindsay Ex, Senior Environmental Planner for the City of Fort Collins and Liba Pejchar, CSU assistant professor of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology are co-leading a graduate seminar to evaluate these options using a triple bottom line approach – how do these options score according to ecological, social and economic values? – and how could we improve each design option to achieve greater sustainability? Eleven graduate students from diverse departments are enrolled in the course and are leading lively discussions, using the best available science, to answer these questions. The City and CSU’s institute for the Built Environment will use the students’ findings to craft the final handbook.

Our GCRT is thrilled to announce the next phase of our partnership with the City of Fort Collins and its residents. In summer 2015, we will launch a new citizen-science monitoring project that will broaden the representation of residents involved in Nature in the City and will assess the effects of alternative development patterns on wildlife over time. First, we will engage local scientific experts to conduct training sessions on birds and butterflies for citizen volunteers. Second, we will implement volunteer surveys at a subset of points surveyed in 2014. Finally, we will solicit proposals and offer small grants to citizen groups interested in enhancing bird and butterfly habitats in their neighborhoods or nearby public spaces. Together with our partners at the City and Wildlife Conservation Society, we seek to increase citizen engagement in Nature in the City and inspire collaborative stewardship to preserve and enhance natural areas. If you are interested in participating in this effort or would like more information, please contact our Research Coordinator, Cooper Farr (cooper.farr@rams.colostate.edu), for more information.

Image captions in order of appearance:

Figure 1. Western Meadowlark.

Image captions in order of appearance:
Image captions in order of appearance:

Figure 2. As our community transitions from a suburban to urban city and densities of housing and businesses increase, the goal of the Nature in the City initiative is to ensure that all residents have access to high-quality natural spaces close to where they live and work.

Figure 3. Distribution of natural open space within Fort Collins’ Growth Management Area (GMA) and monitoring survey locations (n=166) for the baseline ecological assessment of the Nature in the City initiative. The locations were stratified by land use, site area, and habitat type. Nine land uses were represented in the assessment, including City Parks, Natural Areas, Certified Natural Areas, residential open space, institutional open space, urban agriculture and community gardens, schools, trails, and ditches. Birds and butterflies were surveyed between May-August 2014, and vegetation cover and human activity were also recorded.

Figure 4. Land use had the greatest influence on the diversity and composition of bird and butterfly communities in Fort Collins.

Figure 5. Sensitive bird species were observed most often on public and private lands managed specifically for their natural resource values (e.g., Natural Areas and Certified Natural Areas).

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