Alumni Voices: Ellen Forthofer
Can you describe your career trajectory?
Like many planners, I found the profession by originally being attracted to architecture. In my first year at Ball State, I fell in love with the scale and scope of urban planning in my introductory courses, and the rest is history! I’ve always been enamored with strategic systems thinking, and I’m passionate in applying that type of thinking to the built environment in meaningful ways to build a more equitable community. I graduated from Ball State with a Bachelor of Urban Planning and Development and a Master of Urban Design; both of these degrees refined my skills in communication and design which have played a pivotal role in my subsequent career.
Early in my career, I became heavily involved with American Planning Association national leadership. I served in many capacities over six years - board director, student representatives council chair and past chair, regional representative, and contributor to numerous task forces and committees - and during that time helped to develop and launch two national membership programs. Meanwhile, I was also cutting my teeth in the planning world with initial internships focused on community accessibility and equity at the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, as well as an anti-hunger nonprofit based in Nashville, Tenn., called Community Food Advocates.
While in grad school, I worked at the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, who at the time were in strong partnership with IndyGo on a public education campaign about the Marion County Transit Plan ahead of a public referendum for the city’s first dedicated transit funding. After realizing my passion for creating more mobility choice within communities, I worked for IndyGo for nearly three years as the transit agency took initial steps towards building the city’s first bus rapid transit line.
In the fall of 2018, I had the chance to bring together my love for both transportation projects and the great outdoors with a move to Denver, Colo., to work for the City’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. While there, I helped to design and install bike infrastructure and transit improvements, and work with the community to plan for future transportation needs. Recently, I began working for the Downtown Denver Partnership - a nonprofit organization that serves as a Transportation Management Association and Business Improvement District, among many other important roles in creating a vibrant downtown environment.
What does your current job entail?
As Manager of Urban Planning for the Downtown Denver Partnership, I focus on mobility and public realm projects that improve quality of life and build community in downtown Denver. Each day looks a little different: sometimes I’m crunching numbers to make a case for a grant application to support a downtown initiative, other times I’m meeting with stakeholders and partner organizations in a charrette, and even other times I’m leading innovative projects that change the way we think about getting around and spending time downtown. I appreciate that no day looks quite the same as the one before it and that my role focuses on meaningful, impactful, and collaborative efforts to build community in a thriving downtown environment.
Please tell us about a favorite project and why it makes you proud.
While working at IndyGo, I was project manager for Food in Transit, an innovative effort to bring access to healthy, fresh food to transit riders at the Julia M. Carson Transit Center in downtown Indianapolis. After conducting research to show that transit riders are disproportionately affected by Indianapolis food insecurity issues, my work began in highlighting the ways a transit agency could potentially help to solve these problems for its riders. Recognizing that food insecurity was highly correlated with food deserts and access issues, I designed the program to meet people where they are with a predictable, regular schedule. In partnership with a local grower - Growing Places Indy - and the City of Indianapolis, I led efforts to bring low-cost, fresh produce and food education to the largest transfer point in the transit network weekly during growing season. The program is anticipated to start its fifth season this summer, and accepts all forms of payment, including SNAP EBT benefits.
I’m proud of this project because it challenges the typical silos that are often present in community building. By thinking outside of the box and bringing partners to the table who have varying expertise and knowledge, we were able to create one small solution to an enormous and systemic problem, and challenge the typical roles of public and nonprofit sectors. This led to a final product that met riders’ needs without creating additional hurdles to access.
What advice do you have for students who want a career similar to yours?
Try a little bit of everything to hone in on your passions – take an off-the-wall class that interests you, sign up for volunteer opportunities and internships in as many focus areas of planning as you can. You may surprise yourself with what you find!
Throughout school, I was nearly certain that I could succeed in many areas of planning, but I was absolutely certain that I would never step into transportation planning. My only exposure to transportation planning to that point had been traffic analysis courses that made me want to snooze just reading the title! Little did I know multimodal transportation planning is the perfect intersection of my interests, skills and passions; and there’s so much more in transportation planning than just traffic analysis for someone who is passionate about creating equitable and safe communities, and primarily walks, bikes, and takes transit to get around.
Do you have a favorite Ball State or CAP memory to share?
Too many to count! My CAP studio cohort quickly became my studio family after countless adventures on field trip weeks and memories made during late nights putting final touches on projects.
However, one of my most cherished chapters from my time at Ball State was an interdisciplinary studio to rehabilitate an old building owned by CAP in downtown Muncie. The building used to be home to community engagement and urban design efforts, but had since become storage space. Our studio cohort - which included architects, landscape architects, and planners - envisioned a new future for the building and rebuilt the space as we forged new relationships with the local community.
After sanding and refinishing the floors, rebuilding a bathroom, and many, many coats of paint, the space opened for its inaugural First Thursday Arts Walk event. Many community meetings and gallery shows have been held in Muncie Makes Lab since, and it continues to regularly activate community engagement and provide an avenue for students and faculty to engage with historic downtown Muncie.