Centering Community in Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, located just outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is recognized as the first urban national wildlife refuge in the Southwest. Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge has intentionally integrated environmental and economic justice into its strategic plan. As part of their journey to transform 570 acres of former farmland into a safe space for both people and wildlife to thrive, refuge staff joined forces with the National Wildlife Federation’s Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) initiative to co-create a nature play space at the refuge. This space will unite the refuge’s goal of connecting urban residents to wildlife conservation and ECHO’s mission of connecting young children to nature.

The refuge’s blueprint for wildlife restoration and community health addresses the effects of industrial pollution on the adjacent Mountain View neighborhood. The Valle de Oro Wildlife Refuge was built from grassroots community efforts, led by the people of Mountain View, who now support the refuge’s collaborative conservation efforts. In addition, the Tiwa people, who have stewarded the land for generations, continue to play a vital role in its protection, restoration, and prosperity.

Located adjacent to the refuge’s visitor center and outdoor classroom, the nature play space will serve as a gateway experience for visitors, promoting physical activity, nature play, and outdoor exploration through a variety of family-oriented features.

The process of planning the nature play space followed ECHO’s collaborative approach through four key stages of development: 1) community engagement and visioning, 2) co-design with refuge staff and community partners, 3) schematic design development and 4) action planning for implementation.

It’s All About Community

As the first refuge in the country created under the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program’s Standard of Excellence, the refuge prides itself in using an innovative and collaborative approach to connect people with wildlife, plants, and the land. Refuge and ECHO staff focused on these standards during the visioning process, resulting in a community-oriented strategy that included six different community engagement events for community members and other partners to express their vision for the space.

“At the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, community can be found at the center of all our programs and initiatives. We wanted to make sure that our visitors and partners were immersed in the visioning process so that the future nature play space reflects the needs of our local community.”

Giessell Aguilar, Visitor Services Lead, Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge

Between May and August of 2023, the refuge and ECHO staff collaborated to ensure a dynamic, inclusive visioning process that represented the community.

Model Building with Youth

The Isleta Hiking Club, an initiative for 3rd through 5th graders hosted by the Ancestral Lands Conservation Crew, was one of the first groups to provide input on the future nature play space. They participated in a model-building activity, creating a designated habitat for animals that incorporated elements and features that they found value in, for example, one student created a habitat for his iguana, “Ninja.”

In addition, students from the Youth Conservation Corps and the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps built models of the nature play space that combined some of their favorite memories in nature.

Mountain View Elementary School Field Day

In May 2023, the refuge hosted a field day for over 150 Pre-K through 5th grade students from Mountain View Elementary School.  As part of the field day activities, refuge staff introduced prompts that encouraged reflections on how students like to spend time in nature and what nature play features they would like to see at the refuge.

In the “Animal for a Day” activity, kids got to imagine themselves as one of 11 species commonly found at the refuge. “I would want to be an American kestrel because I could see the sky from above,” said one of the children, and another responded, “I want to be a toad so that I could jump high.”

The “Nature Flag” activity prompted students to think about how they like to spend time in nature. They responded with pictures, poems, and descriptions, which the ECHO team incorporated into a list of common nature themes that each age group enjoyed.

Following the community engagement process, ECHO staff analyzed all the feedback from each event. These tasks ranged from tallying numbers from the engagement boards, to sorting through all the nature flags from the Field Day and interpreting students’ drawings and stories to discern common themes. Staff then merged this data into a community engagement report that reflected wants and needs from community members and other key partners.

A group of people work on activities together.
Visitors at the refuge open house contributing to the nature play feature engagement boards, featuring the “Nature Flags” from the Mountain View Elementary School Day in the background. Credit: ECHO Team

Design Workshop & Schematic Design

In September 2023, the ECHO team hosted an in-person, interactive workshop for refuge staff and community partners to reflect on the ideas expressed through the community engagement events and begin to develop a vision for the nature play space.

A group of people work on an activity together.
Discussing possible nature play features at the design workshop. Credit: ECHO Team

Based on common themes identified by the community, ECHO staff organized the design workshop around the following five play and learning zones: move; build and dig; imagine and create; explore and discover; and welcome, gather, and engage.

Attendees discussed their specific visions for each of the five zones, identifying the types of opportunities that they would like to see for families in each area.

The workshop and community engagement report informed several alternative conceptual landscape plans, created by ECHO’s Landscape Design Specialist, Amanda Knight.

“Our initial drawings were completely based on the community’s feedback from all of the engagement events and follow-up discussions,” said Amanda. “Thanks to this input, we were able to create conceptual designs that brought together many ideas into a single vision.”

Initial conceptual design for the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge nature play space. Credit: ECHO Team

Recently, the ECHO team refined the design and created a final schematic plan for the nature play space. Local partners remained involved in the design process, ensuring that community voices and visions are reflected in the plan.

What’s Next?

The ECHO team will assist refuge staff in developing a detailed action-plan for implementation, addressing considerations like how to engage the community in volunteer build days, which elements should be built first, where and how to procure materials, and strategies for sustainability.

Everyone is excited to see the community’s vision take shape on the land for the benefit of the children of Mountain View, the Pueblo of Isleta, greater Albuquerque and beyond!

Follow Early Childhood Health Outdoors and the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge for continued updates on this project.