Art of Engagement: Planning will not work unless we listen with respect

In order to survive, a plurality of true communities would require not egalitarianism and tolerance, but knowledge, an understanding of the necessity of local differences, and respect. Respect, I think, always implies imagination-the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.
— Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, WY

Hurray! I got mail. I’m glad that Brian in Utah found my discussion of foundational vs. anti-foundational thinking interesting. Thanks for your kind words. I’m also pleased that Pat in New Mexico found that column provocative. 

Pat’s message is too long to reproduce here, but it ends with this question, “Why would I want to have a conversation with you?” “You” in Pat’s message is someone who wants to take other peoples’ homes and lands through regulation.

I could just thank Pat for confirming my analysis, for emailing me proof that there are people who don’t want to talk about it. But planners, especially Western ones, must learn to avoid the course of least resistance. So, I take Pat’s question seriously. It is one that planners should be able to answer. 

Why, indeed, would I want to have a conversation with those with whom I disagree, with those who I perceive as threatening important values like property rights? Such conversations are often painful, but if we avoid them we are avoiding not just the heart of planning, but more importantly the foundation of citizenship.

The fundamental message of planning and good citizenship is simply: We are all in this together. We sail together through the wonders of the universe on a little blue and green (and brown this summer) planet that is both amazingly tough and amazingly fragile. We try to live, love, and prosper in communities that are held together by duct tape and respect. Without respect for everyone, no matter how different they seem to be, we have no future worth living in and probably no future at all.

Planning and, yes Pat, the regulations it takes to make plans happen, are an important expression of the respect community members have for one another. Do regulations get out of hand? Of course they do. We all have limited vision. We all learn from mistakes. But it is only by listening respectfully to all the perspectives that are part of the community conversation that we expand our understanding (and thus both our vision and our compassion) and learn from our errors.

Planning will not work if we don’t listen with respect. And land use regulation is guaranteed to be inconvenient or worse for land owners while, at the same time, failing to protect the landscapes we treasure, unless it results from a heartfelt (and possibly heart-rending) conversation that is both open to, and cherishes, our differences.

What to read?

I will build on this theme next time in a column that attempts to link the 1964 World Series with Old Faithful and both with the art of public engagement. Think I can do it? In the meantime, I recommend reading the collection of essays from which the quotation that begins this column is taken. When it comes to issues of land and community, Wendell Berry is our most powerful contemporary thinker. 

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin in 1974. 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 lee@roundriverplanning.

Published in the October/November 2012 The Western Planner

Print Friendly and PDF Email this page