The Promise of Full Ecology: Planning and Sustainability Lessons from the Natural World

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the coverage of the 2016 WP/MAP Conference in Great Falls, Montana.

by Rachel Girt, Editor of The Western Planner

Gary Ferguson

In his keynote address, best-selling author Gary Ferguson offered a powerful view of the planning profession through the lens of what he calls “full ecology” – a means of moving forward by grounding our work in the some of the most profound, yet often overlooked sustainability lessons from the natural world.

“Planning is on the front cutting edge for helping people re-plan and plan extraordinary possibilities and values, whether that’s economically, physically or psychologically, and learning to live not apart from nature but as a part of a natural world and to find ways to integrate with this web of life that sustains all of us,” Ferguson said.

“The natural world influences us and sustains us not just through wilderness, but also through cattle ranches, urban open space, community gardens and all of those things that are part and parcel of our connection with the natural world,” he added.

Ferguson has devoted his entire career, so far 24 books to exploring and learning and sharing with his readers about the natural world. However, he is no stranger to the planning. Beyond his literary accomplishments, he was deeply involved in the creation of the Beartooth Front Community Forum (BFCF) in Red Lodge, MT. The BFCF led the City of Red Lodge to develop its first master plan, which won Western Planning Resources’ Sheldon Gerber Award for Excellence and gave the community the confidence to oppose U.S. Postal Service plans to move the post office to the fringe of town. The Red Lodge Post Office remains downtown.


Ferguson suggested that the next step for the ecology of planning may be centered on inclusiveness. “We really have to build a bigger tent.”

He pointed out that, “The most fundamental rule of ecology that we’ve known for about the last 40 years is that the most sustainable resource system is going to last the longest. You can count on it by how diverse it is. Diversity guarantees sustainability.”

The image of the earth as seen from outer space used for the original Earth Poster became the symbol of the conservation movement and the environmental movement because it suggested that there are no boundaries, Ferguson said. “We have to take into consideration the fact that we aren’t all on this precious planet together.”

He encouraged the audience to think about equating the natural world of equality and equating it with democracy.

“The time has come now to build a bigger tent to great understanding into our education systems, our justice systems, and our mental health systems. The more the natural world is integrated into the systems, the more sustainable those systems become.”

Ferguson admitted that this would not be easy, but then stressed its importance “to get us into the next era against incredible challenges like climate change.”

Planners play an important role in this, listening to all the people who make up these communities, he said. “You take beautiful visions and put them into something that can actually form and guide our daily lives.”

The role of qualitative data

Ferguson stressed using qualitative data in planning in addition to quantitative data.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve become incredibly rich in quantitative data. We’ve got all the studies pointing out how fabulous it is to have nature in the city, as well as outside the city, for economic reasons right down to the fact that how much property will appreciate if it’s next to a greenbelt to nature increasing the creative capacity of children.”

To be really useful, quantified data has to be married to qualitative data obtained from listening to many different perspectives and making sure all have a voice in planning for a community’s future, he explained.

“How can we create a kind of relational infrastructure basically that allows the community to have a dependable way to continue to express emerging needs,” he added. “Because at the point a plan is done too often, it is put on the shelf. And it’s really through this qualitative relationship that the plants can become dynamic and these infrastructures can be put into place that allow people to continue to meet their emerging desires and needs.”

He acknowledged that planners are not scientists observing something without affecting it. “You have a relationship with the community. Your opportunity in these kind of qualitative exercises is to apply your knowledge to move forward together a kind of wisdom that never would’ve possible with just one of you.”

The Front Guard

“You are to me my heroes because you’re the front guard,” Ferguson pointed out. “This full ecology, this notion of diversity, this notion of taking into account more components than we ever had before, this willingness to interact on a deep qualitative level with the people you serve with in service of making life more satisfying and sustainable — this is what you’re doing.”

Despite all the technical difficulties and legal wrangling, planners are the ones who help communities and people reclaim their connection to the natural world that if not dead is quite ill, Ferguson said.

He concluded, “You are about the quality of life, not just as it applies to the natural world, which defines the largest image of the community. Thank you for doing what you’re doing.”

About Gary Ferguson

As a writer and speaker, the work of best-selling author and lecturer Gary Ferguson comes from intimate experience. Over the past twenty five years Gary has traveled thousands of miles down the rivers, trails and back roads of North America: trekking 500 miles through Yellowstone to write Walking Down the Wild (Simon & Schuster), wandering through the seasons with the first 14 wolves released into Yellowstone National Park forThe Yellowstone Wolves: The First Year (Globe Pequot), spending a season in the field at a wilderness therapy program for the best-selling Shouting at the Sky (St. Martin’s Press). “I began my writing career by exploring the tracks humans have left in nature,” he says. “Now I’m mostly interested in the tracks nature leaves in us.” Gary’s lively keynote presentations – each tailored to a specific audience –  celebrate how science, myth, psychology and cultural history shape our thoughts and experiences of the natural world. He has written for a variety of publications, from Vanity Fair to The Los Angeles Times. He’s also author of 22 books on science and nature, including the award-winning Hawks Rest, published by National Geographic Adventure Press. Gary is a keynote presenter at conservation and outdoor education gatherings around the country, and is currently on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop Masters of Fine Arts program, at Pacific Lutheran University. Gary also joins with cultural psychologist, Mary Clare to offer workshops, retreats, keynotes and continuing professional developmentdesigned to help individuals, families and communities traverse life’s changes with integrity and vision. Visit his website
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