Art of Engagement: Don’t let stress impact planning

Lee Nellis spends time in Yellowstone National Park on opening day in 2011. Photo by Karen Van Gilder.

Lee Nellis spends time in Yellowstone National Park on opening day in 2011. Photo by Karen Van Gilder.

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

Willows bend, snap, split.
Sagebrush waves stiff gray-green hands
and endures, wishing for spring.

The turning of a year is a time for reflection. So, as 2011 has become 2012, I offer these thoughts to my friends and colleagues who read The Western Planner.  

I have devoted nearly 40 out of what will soon be 60 years of living on this beautiful blue and green planet to planning. Of those four decades, I have spent more than three as a planner in the West. I have spent all of them as a planner who believed that my role was to help people make good decisions about the future of the places in which they live. Which is to say, I have spent my time helping others articulate and implement their visions, lending what expertise and experience I have acquired to their process.

I had a good deal of influence in places and that is shown both by what is and, in more cases, what is not on the ground. I recently drove past a particular still open meadow in Montana and smiled all day after. But it wasn’t easy and aging has revealed that there was a cost. The doctors have, as kindly as they can, suggested that I no longer pursue a stressful profession. It seems that I became addicted to the stress of difficult projects in demanding places, and that I took too few precautions to sustain my health while “taking” stress in the same way that others might take a drug. One cannot do that for as long as I did without losing something.

This could now turn into a stern warning not to let the stress of planning practice do this to you. Conversely, I would also have to warn, again, not to let the stress of making public engagement work turn us into a profession of bureaucrats whose advice comes from, to use the cliche, “the top down.” But I do not want to take either of those forks in the trail today. 

I simply want to wish a happy and prosperous new year to the many of you out there who helped make my career as a Western planner a wonderful one. Listing your names would take me well beyond the word limit of this column. You know who you are. Thank you!  

I will also say that, while I am wrestling with a new personal vision - which one should, perhaps, do a little earlier in life - I am not abandoning planning altogether. This column will continue and I will always be available as an advisor - paid or otherwise - to those who ask on behalf of an interesting place or a good cause.

What to Read?

Now that the days are getting longer, I have been working my way through Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and Social Hope. Rorty was foremost among Neo-Pragmatist philosophers until his death in 2007 and in several essays in this book, he gets right to the root of the current American situation and of why – though he never mentions it, of course – planning continues to be so contentious and difficult in the West and elsewhere. I will take up that topic in the next column.

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin in 1974. In 2010, he was elected into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He has served  in many positions from a staff planner to a consultant to the director of land use policy for the Sonoran Institute. He and his family live in Wapiti, Wyoming. Contact him at

Published in the February/March 2012 The Western Planner

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