“This [the West] is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water (Penguin Books 1980, 38)
Last fall a former professor initiated a discussion about planning’s role in forming landscapes. The argument played out on this online journal, so it was never a secret if read carefully. No one should be surprised my coming to Wyoming was in part a documentary photography project from the onset.
It was continuation of an argument in every graduate design studio at Auburn. William’s position is known, articulated in a series of books about the American landscape, East 40 Degrees and Easy On Easy Off, He holds the belief lessons learned from studying our best human efforts at creating landscapes of the past and identifying failures or urbanism can be applied to making decisions that benefit society in a top-down design approach.
I attended a class of case studies of planning decisions and their outcomes in Boston and Denver taught by Michael Robinson at Auburn University. He is a student of the unseen forces that drive development. Both these men are contradictory, living polemics in the top-down-versus-bottom-up debate that started when they came of age at Harvard with the debates of Jacobs, Mumford and McHarg.
Their challenge was to insert myself into the government side of planning where a culturally valuable agricultural landscape was at risk. Only with such first hand knowledge could I understand the reality. Williams advised me every day take one photo and analyze how decisions were made by public officials. Then document how these decisions shape the landscape over time the next several years. His prediction was I would become cynical about human nature. Robinson’s predictions were just as dark, that I would “be forced to take the side of money or not be able to politically survive completing my education”.
Naively I thought they were wrong and believed in a process that is equitable and consensus-driven. Developed in part by the government’s response to the 1961 publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and the federal funding of land use / master plans that created or revised zoning laws. The key to good planning is transparency and an informed public guiding the process. I believed this narrative as much as those on the Titanic thought their ship unsinkable.
The way it should work is a majority of citizens make decisions on a consensus basis which prevents individual citizens to pursue self-interest with the coercion of public officials. However as one prominent local attorney told me, ”The public doesn’t get to call the shots”.My observation is to maintain public support, elected officials must mislead the public. This turns into a predictable Orwellian nightmare. The public denied information, prevents politically appointed boards to make good decisions about development. There is no lie per se, just an omission of facts and lack of transparency to the public that serves to undermine place.
Wyoming, to quote the previous head of the County Commission, Steve Shockley, is obsessed with private property rights. “We do not want anyone telling us what to do”. The commission’s two person majority denies they accepted the state statutes for example on the definition of “subdivision”. Their fear of laws and personal theories on “planning” being undemocratic seem copied verbatim from a reader’s digest version of Friedrich Hayek’s theories in 1945 “to achieve their ends, the planners must create power … so that it can be used in the service of a single plan.” It was this use of power that produced what the author of these theories would contend was an inevitable and irreconcilable “clash between planning and democracy.” The idea that consensus-driven planning decisions are taking away private property rights and is undemocratic is not healthy.
Communities across rural Wyoming were empowered through the federal and state governments funding of Land Use plans in the early 1980s were able to create plans of how they wanted counties and towns developed.
When a comprehensive land use plan developed by consensus with public meetings and used to develop zoning rules and regulations offers citizens a chance to plan their community the way they choose. Without this the process becomes manipulated by individual and political self interest.
If you ignore this process it creates a perfect storm for developers, mining operators, real estate speculators to exploit a landscape for profit. What generations have built up before them of open space, civic identity and community is erased. One need only drive south along the I-25 corridor from Wyoming to Colorado to witness the outcome of this approach.
I spent the past six months on a government contract documenting how planning decisions were made by a municipal and county government, over time I will document how these play out on the landscape.
Platte County Wyoming is not unique; it’s not a story of good guy versus bad guy, nor about corruption; it’s about a failure of process. The former chairman of the Town of Wheatland’s Planning and Zoning commission Herschel Pruitt wisely said, “When people break the rules they are doing it for only one reason; they have something to gain.”
There are three Cs of Planning — First, identify the most compelling reason to plan in your community; second, rely on collaborative approaches; third, foster regional connections.
A collaborative process allows local officials to weigh and balance competing viewpoints, and to learn more about the issues at hand. This type of open source - transparent process allows people most affected by land use decisions to drive the decisions, not a few seeking to profit from them.
Ultimately on a personal level I faced a situation where hospice had been called in for my parents two thousand miles away and if I was radically honest neither could I proceed as county planner when there is a refusal by the majority of the county commission to respect the process. It is not personal, and again I stress not a good guy vs bad guy debate, it is an ideological divide that cannot not be overcome.My ability to preserve agricultural landscapes and encourage responsible growth is best not in the role of a planner managing tension between adversarial interests but using my photography, research and analytical skills to document the results of these decisions. These landscapes are complex bio-cultural systems underrepresented but worthy of preservation.
Ultimately this will be a reflection of a place on the cusp of change, documenting how it happened in those very last days when it was still what it used to be. Perhaps as well it will encourage socially conscious planners and lawmakers to reassess their methods.
Swanson, Larry. 1999. The emerging ‘new economy’ of the Rocky Mountain West: Recent change and future expectation. The Rocky Mountain West’s Changing Landscape 1(1):16-27.
Center for Resource Management. 1999. The Western Charter: Initiating a Regional Conversation. Boulder, CO: Center for Resource Management.
Wijesuriya, Gamini, and Jane Thompson. 2016. Three people-centered approaches. Heritage, Conservation and Communities: Engagement, Participation and Capacity Building 34.
The Nature Conservancy. N.d. The Crown of the Continent. Online at https://www.nature. org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/montana/placesweprotect/crown- of-the-continent.xml.
Mitchell, Nora J., and Brenda Barrett. 2015. Heritage values and agricultural landscapes: Towards a new synthesis. Landscape Research 40(6): 701–716.
Kothari, Ashish, Philip Camill, and Jessica Brown. 2013. Conservation as if people also mattered: Policy and practice of community-based conservation. Conservation and Society 11(1): 1–15.