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Our new Mayor in Wheatland Wyoming

Urban versus rural is an ongoing conversation — in words and images — between Jack Williams and Jon Kalev. Williams is Emeritus Professor of Landscape Architecture and former Chair, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, Auburn University, and author of East 40 degrees: An Interpretive Atlas and Easy On Easy Off.
Kalev is the town and county planner for Platte County Wyoming and former student of Williams.

Do two distinctly different poles rural vs high density or urban exist, and (I’ll add) is the fault line so deep as to prevent a form a cohesiveness…necessary for governing?

But how, why and where are the fault lines?

If rural Wyoming is different there will be threads of ecology, economics and physical geology affirming this. As to whether the resultant physical form is different is a intriguing question. I’ll go ahead and put my hypothesis out there - it is different.

First Jack…Wyoming is not just high desert”. Do not confuse Annie Proulx’s wonderful description of a specific region - the Red Desert with the state as a whole. Much of what appears to be an alkaline desert in Wyoming like the western slope of Colorado, Utah or Nevada’s Great Basin are influenced from humans tunneling under mountains and diverting water at a massive scale underneath mountains to other regions. Wheatland Wyoming is such a place. You were right in the fact that coming to a place like this as an experiment will revel what happens beneath the surface.

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Satellite view of Wheatland Wyoming

The past of any landscape is enormous with endless things hidden inside. As you have taught, and written about, the task of landscape architecture is to unravel and examine those threads and weave them into the new. I agree I am ignorant of how that really works at the public/gov side. But I am hopeful here it is not as bad that somehow there is a pride in the place that is a island. If anything this place’s history and the very name may serve as a fence to such greed. The name Wyoming” note was not a stolen place name but an indigenous adjective describing distinct landscape phenomena, mountains separated by valleys of undulating rolling hills of grass”. A very specific description of the shortgrass prairie in front range communities, formed when the ice age retreated around 12,000 years ago. In Wyoming the area along the North Platte and Laramie rivers, we would have confronted wooly mammoths, bighorn bison, both pursued by the famous dire wolf. At an archeological site in the north end of the county, Hell Gap, evidence of tipis and human settlement date back to the early Holocene period 12,000 years ago. Platte county remains one of the most continuously inhabited landscapes in the western hemisphere. Older than the oldest European city (Plovdiv Bulgaria, where Elena was from) and Athens Greece. Here the Mayflower did not crash land on a shoal of the Platte River and unload a group of Europeans naming everything new to them a new something else. Nor did they obliterate the native ecology and plant species of this place to construct a chemically dependent one in its place. This landscape had a vibrant culture and settlement pattern deeply intertwined with the ecology of the shortgrass prairie for thousands of years and in many ways, current land use continues this.

It has been humbling to realize where I serve as County Planner there is a settlement history predating European civilization. It has been disturbing that most public officials have no knowledge of this nor care.

Geologically where glaciers to the north and south clawed canyons, valleys and scraped aquifers clean an area of gently rolling hills and plateaus covered with streams and creeks define this landscape. If I had to describe it think of the narrow band of what’s technically a front range being stretched wide, as opposed to the west of Denver as you start to drive up into the mountains, imagine that transition zone being not a few miles wide but fifty.

If one looks from Raton New Mexico northward to the Canadian line and into Alberta on Google Earth, this is one of several anomalies where front range foothills are expanded and water plentiful. This area north of Cheyenne from Chugwater to Douglas wrapping in an arc around the Medicine Bow national forest is a particularly scenic one.

Etched to this day in sandstone are the rare footprints of a large canid’s paw was the size of a man’s head. Dire Wolves that at times were hunted by men, and at times hunted man. While just a stone’s throw away is where human’s record their names and those of the deceased who died along the Oregon trail at Register Cliff. History, at a vast geologic scale, is always on display. Even among schoolchildren, it is not lost that Pleistocene lions, saber-toothed cats. short faced bears all lived here alongside humans.

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Register Cliff, Guernsey Wyoming

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The botanical genealogy of this landscape reveals it was tundra, frozen much of the year with brief explosions of alpine green grasses and flowers coating the landscape in summer. Very much identical to what we see in the higher elevations of the Tetons and Medicine Bow range in summer. No bees were here, flowers and grass adapted to wind and evolved as self-pollinators. That plant community has literally only migrated east a dozen miles and is visible upward of slopes above 7,500 feet. The grasses that coat these hills are the genetic cousins of those on tundra within eyesight to the west from my office. There is an ecological integrity present that is absent on much of the American landscape.

Another factor is ranches are abnormally large. This permits cattle grazing that more closely mimic bison patterns. Mountain lions and wolves - the herd fear of predation compress the herd. The salad bar” effect of eastern bovines and those in Europe do not exist. By that I mean cattle wandering about picking and choosing what grasses they eat. Here cattle mimic the native Bison herd behavior, which is a compressed wave of eating like a lawn mower uniformly all grasses, urine, and feces trampled by hoof afterward reseeding and adding nutrients to the soil. The non-native species, clover, and alfalfa are primarily used for hay in the round patches visible from satellites. The bulk of the landscape is still shortgrass prairie, untouched by a plow, rich in native grasses like blue gamma, buffalo grass, and fringed sage.

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Area grazed by a Bison herd, Platte County Wyoming

The county has two known breeding wolf pairs along the western end which excite locals and are a source of pride. I share this briefly just to give you an idea of a few of the biological threads that make this place.

To understand rural Wyoming I am convinced one has to focus on what you cannot see and no longer exists. The cultural threads of humans are fewer and compressed in time but just as complex as those botanical.

I do not think it is known how the native people used this land. The Snowy mountains which are a part of the Medicine Bow range extend into Platte County from the west. The thick forests on their lower slopes and rolling grasslands beneath them are not wild” in the sense that they are untamed or need to be controlled. Yet there are many accounts by whites and early trappers as this region being a vast uncharted wilderness waiting to be settled. That historical record is simply not true. It was a settled place with permanent communities, some nomadic tied to bison herds and a sophisticated system of transportation and politics governing shared land use that was completely unrecognized by men willing to murder humans to trap and skin animals for fur hats in London. Hollywood (exception of Netflix’s Longmire) and the genre of western fiction has betrayed that truth.

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Stone tipi rings in Platte County Wyoming

The result was knowledge developed from a ten thousand year settlement pattern was destroyed at the turn of the century by European immigrants and the complex interplay of forest and range fires, migratory paths of mammals and birds, medicinal plants lost. Wyomans today though are a different breed. They would more closely agree with their Blackfeet or Absaroka predecessors that viewed forests and native grasslands as the ideal state of the landscape. Ecologically a fine-tuned system that supports an extraordinary biological diversity. On this landscape we were once we were protein hunters now we are protein producers. The simple dynamic of northeastern facing range slopes accumulating drifts of snow that persist for months reveals a mosaic pattern of wildflowers and nutrient-rich grasses a city dweller reading the New York Times would not notice. But cattle and bison do.

Today’s Wyomans (Scalia version) see the risk of the cancer to the south spreading north - mass urban sprawl with large malls, concrete boxes with row house subdivisions and community facebook groups as a replacement for a town hall. The new-new urbanists define these areas as mega-regions using commute times gathered from data reflecting daily movement. (1) Good men (our colleague Stuart Shockley is one) with design educations largely smoking weed and putting the strange shapes and forms of dreams (or hallucinations) on the landscape until eventually, it becomes an unrecognizable maze of asphalt taking hours by automobile to travel short distances. I call it the Californication of Colorado” otherwise known as an urban landscape”. Increasingly these regions are being defined by transportation and daily commutes. Platte county seems oblivious to whats coming but the bankers and realtors know it very well and are smiling. One local lawyer told me yesterday its time to cash out”.

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  1. Area of urban megaregions determined by A.I. and algorithms

What remains in Wyoming though is a population largely tied to the land desperately trying not to be absorbed into a monocultured “Denver front range” community. Reducing community to identifiers such as commutes, social media interactions and cell phone calls is probably where urban communities have been for some time we just have not had the data analyst skills of A.I. to recognize it.

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A.I. generated commuter model of where Jon and Jack live

European settlers that took possession of this land recognized what the Crow (Absaroka) did about the grasslands and winter grazing. They added a remarkable is a web of irrigation ditches and tunnels under mountains that gave this region year-round grazing ability for cattle and the ability to grow hay. Although this altered the landscape it simply expanded wet areas along stream banks outwards. It did not, as settlement patterns in the east and south did, replace a native ecosystem with a non-native one for industrial purposes.

I would posit this is the second fundamental difference between the two cultures. We know from maps of the country’s urban regions these ecological and cultural divides exist and are growing. No doubt your poles” exist but my question is how does this change the culture of place (or undermine it) and to what end is this headed ?

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  1. Urban regions in United States

Rural and urban may not so different in North Carolina or Georgia but in this part of the West, it is profound. Few would believe a savannah of wiregrass under trees the size of small redwoods ( longleaf pines) supporting herds of wood bison once defined the landscape of Alabama and Georgia. That chemically dependent landscape filled with exotic species is literally required to be dominated to supply the cities of Atlanta and Jacksonville of Charlottes their very existence.

It is not rocket-science ranchers were shrewd enough to see that stone tipi rings told them where in winter the landscape created a windswept area that would blow the snow away from where grazing could occur.

Today this landscape is anchored by two fixtures, polar opposites of each other Laramie peak at over 10,000 feet to the northwest and oddly an enormous coal-fired power plant that rises hundreds of feet above the landscape.

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Laramie River coal fired electric power plant, Wheatland Wyoming

They symbolically represent a war with ecology and its people resistant to urban form. Ironically this landscape powers the Denver’s and Boulders of the new American West. As politicians debate green energy and banning the use of plastic bags, women in Boulder dance showing their breasts at local drum circles. All while they rely on millwrights and coal miners of Wyoming wearing insulated grease covered coveralls to keep them from freezing at night.

The part that Congress cannot grasp is Laramie River station’s power plant is always on, come wind, blizzard or any kind of inclement weather coal anchors the grid with consistent uninterruptible power. No legislature, despite all the rhetoric of global warming, has made it a priority to develop an alternative. It is confusing that those so against coal rely so heavily upon it. I have a hunch that this Urban-Rural cultural divide prevents that dialogue but that it is not political.

My first thought was these regions would be reflected in voting patterns so I overlaid the urban regions with the last presidential election and was surprised they were not. Not an in-depth analysis but we can see that urban versus rural” despite, how space and built form are radically different does not carry over into political ideologies. The fault Line” you have observed is not political. Image title

Animated overlay of urban regions with result of 2016 election.

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Urban regions in the 2016 election.

I think you can say that voting in rural areas are more red (republican) however you cannot classify urban regions as mostly blue (democrat) as is commonly reported. The data simply does not support the generalization of the media and its a mosaic. I have no idea what this means but it’s interesting.

For example politically there is not an attachment to coal as a energy source here, just a pragmatic reality that urban form has spread eastward it never stopped to address what it would take to support this carbon consuming monster called urbanism. Proponents of it fail to understand that we literally have to tear the earth open and cut down forests continuously to sustain it.

Ranchers in Platte County drive by scratching their heads of course ever focused on is their herd where the tipi circles of stones are and sit out blizzards at bars waiting for calving season (spring). They will tell you the whole world is nuts because no one questions where anything comes from. The classic example is where does the meat come from in a big mac eaten at Times square? No one knows, instead, they are discussing how cows farting raise greenhouse gas levels.

I have on a practical note observed rural communities tend to be less populated and when involved with agriculture more interdependent. There is a knowability factor exponentially higher. Denver as an example is connected through belief systems, winter recreation, and sports teams. Something that if you look at long enough discover is distinctly impersonal and market driven.

Compare this to a man buying hay from another. Both are dependent upon rain, both share horses. A tribal identity of ranching culture exists between them. Footwear (boots) is likely the same, trucks and their diesel engines that pull trailers are points of disagreement. We all have our tribes being the points that surface in shared landscapes. These are the cultural threads often hidden that connect us.

The ideas of fancy landscape architects - tree islands and roundabouts sound aesthetically pleasing to those presenting at ASLA conferences. But in northern Wyoming the idea of 30 ft. stock trailers dragging non-native plants through town and snowplows rolling over roundabouts didn’t quite appeal to the locals when suggested last year. Which worked out poorly for me as such a design disaster would have made a fascinating albeit disruptive magazine article.

Jack, I know you have heard the old Texas saying all hat and no cattle”, well in Wyoming there should be a saying all trailer and one horse”. Meaning there is a daily parade of cowboys with 30 ft long stock trailers that typically only have one horse tied at the front. These threads extend into the use of language. At the Platte County courthouse recently I ran into a group of title researchers from St. Louis wondering where the guards were for the cattle and why was cattle stealing so bad up here. On recorded plats there are Cattle” and Auto guards” noted along road easements. I replied technically its called cattle rustling and told them deadpan that guards were only used at night. Excited, they planned to go out and interview a few which I thought was a great idea.

This difference in the cultural landscape can also be observed by the use of new landscapes. Dog parks are not in vogue when cattle guards are on the interstate exits and most of the county is open range. One can watch the succession of men driving flatbed diesel trucks with cattle dogs on the back pulled over looking at the fenced-in off-leash” park. Several female newcomers walk their pets here. One rancher explained these are breeding pens”. I chose not to press for details.

Let’s do this - I want you to give me the quintessential New England town. I want to impose it with a similar western town. Let’s track the divergent physical form over time. Even if these towns share the appearance of an initial physical form it will be interesting to diagram and analyze how they each develop. Document where people meet, what defines the common space then versus today. My suspicion is we will find your fault line.

Oh, and by the way, we do not have the New York Times here. However, we have the Stockman’s journal. The Times does not have the price of steers or feeder calves listed thus disqualifying it from distribution in Wyoming. I do have a digital subscription and noticed that article. Perhaps more interesting though is the article of Stalking the Elusive Central Park Squirrel. Understandably I stick with my contention there is a difference between these two places in both scale and biological diversity. Whether that matters in what it becomes yet I have not a clue.

Consider my suggestion and take care of that new dog or the ghost of Hobbes shall haunt you.
  1. Hagler Y. Defining U.S. Megaregions. New York: Regional Plan Association/America 2050; 2009. Available: http://www.america2050.org/upload/2010/09/2050_Defining_US_Megaregions.pdf
  2. Dash Nelson G, Rae A (2016) An Economic Geography of the United States: From Commutes to Megaregions. PLoS ONE 11(11): e0166083. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0166083
  3. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Regional Plan Association, University of Pennsylvania School of Design. (2004). Toward an American Spatial Development Perspective: Briefing Book for a Policy Roundtable on the Federal Role in Metropolitan Development.” New York: Regional Plan Association.