Art of Engagement: Preserve the wholeness in landscapes and cultivate a community life that is both functional and aesthetic

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

Last fall, I challenged planners to take your staff, politicians, commissioners, and everyone else who would ride along to one of the amazing places in your community and stand together in the presence of what makes it special, wonderful.

If you recall that essay, you might guess that I spend a lot of time staring at Trout Peak, trying to imagine how we, as a society, are going to make it through these troubled times. Unless we surrender to coercion and the violence it breeds, we’re stuck with Jefferson’s admonition. If we don’t like the decisions people are making,  we have to educate them. “To inform their discretion,” I think he said. That’s hard to swallow when bitter divisiveness rules our politics, and the Jeffersonian understanding of democracy as a shared search for knowledge seems to have perished.

It is through beauty that we arrive at freedom.
— Friedrich Schiller, 1795

But that’s where we’re at. It is also where Friedrich Schiller, playwright; poet (he wrote the Ode to Joy, the lyrics to Beethoven’s thunderous finale of the 9th Symphony); and aspiring philosopher found himself in 1793. The violence of the French Revolution was casting doubt on everyone’s belief in democracy. But Schiller would not abandon his vision of freedom. In 27 letters to a patron, he proposed a theory that, despite its inconsistencies, should have tremendous appeal to planners.

As the quotation above indicates, Schiller believed that peoples’ capacity for self-governance, for freedom, can be realized only after they have achieved a certain wholeness or balance, a balance that he saw already fading from the increasingly specialized and fractionated mercantile society of the 18th century. We are now 220 years along the path Schiller feared, gone beyond factions into polarization that is barely mitigated by the worst tragedies. Yet we are also, I think, searching more than ever for the wholeness Schiller believed that we, both as individuals and a society, must seek.

Though he lived in the heady times of the Enlightenment, Schiller found rationality wanting, partial. “Only the communication of the Beautiful unites society because it relates to what is common to them all,” he said. And while Schiller offers no practical advice in his letters – he wasn’t writing a textbook – I think planners know how to respond to what he said. We know how to find and preserve the wholeness in landscapes and how to cultivate a community life that is both functional and aesthetic. It’s hard work, though, and reading Schiller reminds us that our effort is not trivial (“putting on band-aids” we so often say). What we do is basic to a free society.  

What to Read?

I am just back from the Sonoran Institute’s excellent Community Builders Summit where we heard all about the wealth that is generated by walk-able development patterns. The numbers were impressive and you should take a look at them at the website, http://sonoraninstitute.org/abouttown. We need these numbers, though returning to the theme of this column, it seems to me that what motivated folks most in the talks we heard were the photos of children at play in neighborhoods where beauty and the numbers have come together.


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


Published in April/May 2013

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