Art of Engagement: Planning INSIDE the Box?

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Great Falls, Montana

Once upon a time (I had to begin one of these columns with that) I was hiring a planner. The salary offered was too modest, but numerous resumes appeared in my mail. Some were from students seeking a first job, but many came from people who were my age or older and seeking a new career, or at least health insurance.

Those folks had eclectic careers, and every one of them boasted of the ability to think outside the box. None of the “outside the box” applicants got an interview. But I owe them an acknowledgement here. They helped me surface something from years of experience and really think about it.

What I realized is that it’s easy – too easy - to think outside the box. Some of us are more comfortable letting our imagination run wild than others, but when encouraged, as we often are in the brainstorming part of a public process, we can post quite a few ideas on a meeting room wall. Fair enough, as long as the rapid, random generation of ideas is not understood as the point of the conversation.

What is the point? To put it simply, then explain, the point of planning, and of the community conversations we initiate is this: To change the shape of the box. Every community exists within a box, a box that is made up of mostly invisible assumptions about the place and its future, and also of assumptions about people’s rights and responsibilities. Some of those assumptions are strong enough to be called myths. No idea can influence local decision makers until it is brought inside the box.

Why, for example, has private land conservation been reasonably successful in the rural West (despite grumbling opposition) while progressive land use regulation remains controversial and is seldom even attempted? A conservation easement is a commodity. People understand buying and selling. That’s inside the box. But regulations? Those are hard to fit inside a box that includes a powerful myth of freedom from constraint in the Western landscape.

But its not just about regulation. Economic development is affected. How many Westerners are still living – at least emotionally – in an economy of the past? I think they’re gone, and then there they are having a beer at the next table while I’m watching Sunday Night Baseball, all of them 20 years younger than me.

People adapt on a practical level. The landowner who recently brought us a plan drawn on a placemat and wondered why the city couldn’t install millions of dollars of infrastructure to help him build knew better. He showed it as soon as I smiled. I brought him gently up to the present, but he started in, let’s say 1964, and probably went back as soon as he was talking to his friends at the coffee shop. Isn’t planning just an endless series of conversations like that? If it is, then we change the shape of the box one conversation at a time and how we frame those conversations is critical!

This leads me to the question from my last column about how jurisdictions frame public hearings. I want to thank Mark Kulass, FAICP, of Douglas County, Washington for a thoughtful response. Unfortunately, Mark was the only one among you who took a moment to write. Let’s see if another month brings any more thoughts on that, or on how planners change the shape of the box.


Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974. Today he is the Deputy Director of the Planning & Community Development Department for the City of Great Falls, MT.


Published October/November 2014

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