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The Path Toward Wholer Thinking: Greater Yellowstone's Paramount Challenge

Lori Ryker says cities, counties, public land agencies and developers are failing the test for how to think like an ecosystem. If young people can do it, why can’t their elders?

Lori Ryker's architecture students set out on a course toward natural immersion. Do our elected officials and developers shaping Greater Yellowstone's communities need to do the same?
Lori Ryker's architecture students set out on a course toward natural immersion. Do our elected officials and developers shaping Greater Yellowstone's communities need to do the same?
For several years now while running a program I founded called Remote Studio, I’ve gone to universities across the country, seeking students interested in “immersion education” set in our northern Rockies.

During my early recruiting efforts, I explained that the program was based in a given community—Bozeman, say, or Livingston or Jackson, Wyoming. Over time I realized that this description of location for Remote Studio, a project of Artemis Institute, was actually incorrect. The program, which really submersed thinkers into wild places, was best described as occurring in the Yellowstone eco-region.

As we moved across landscapes from mountain to valley to learn about place, hiking, camping, and later, when the students prepared to design for their assigned community client and subsequently build their design, it was clearly the Yellowstone eco-region they were encountering.  It was a realm without a proscribed hard border that they were learning about and interacting with.

Explaining the “classroom” location for Remote Studio as the ecosystem helped students understand that place is larger than a town or county and includes more than people and their needs. When students arrived to attend Remote Studio they easily expanded their knowledge of how a place meets people and includes consideration of plants and animals that inhabit the different mountain ranges, river bottoms and creek drainages.

And with this awareness, they could better understand the relationships and impacts that human-centered communities have on the environment. These lessons of place shifted their focus from the narrow consideration of only pondering human needs to a more holistic understanding of place and, ironically, how more inhabitants could benefit from a built intervention in the landscape—i.e. pondering physical construction with a mindset toward compatibility, suitability and even reverence.

This process is different from thinking only in terms preset in code or style for human benefit—for example, designing for Santa Fe, New Mexico’s codes that set height restrictions and adobe motifs to generate a cohesive built context and only reference a past cultural “tradition.” Or, the northern Rockies' rustic cabins that are now stylized and even reflected in the great lodges of the national parks and echoed in large home designs. While these visual conditions infer a cultural code of place, they do not support an ecology of place.
"Nor does it result in the tyranny of homogenization that has come to dominate the nauseating suburban-style architecture reflected, for example, along Bozeman’s North 19th Street corridor, and could just as well be found in a suburb of Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake or even Billings."
The point of Remote Studio is to help students realize that design process isn’t considered or employed as a means to generate separateness between humans and the rest of the world as is often the goal of architecture and human centered environments.  Nor should it result in the tyranny of homogenization that has come to dominate the nauseating suburban-style architecture reflected, for example, along Bozeman’s North 19th Street corridor or West Broadway in Jackson, and could just as easily be found in a suburb of Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake or even Billings.

Rather than walling off nature, subduing it, distorting it or paving it over and pretending it doesn't matter, architects (of the human-built environment and civil leaders) need to do a better job of  bridging the gap, and insuring there's always a pathway for nature into the lives of citizens, Ryker says. Click on photo to enlarge
Rather than walling off nature, subduing it, distorting it or paving it over and pretending it doesn't matter, architects (of the human-built environment and civil leaders) need to do a better job of bridging the gap, and insuring there's always a pathway for nature into the lives of citizens, Ryker says. Click on photo to enlarge
Instead, by contemplating the conditions of land—the imprint of nature and its landforms— the design of structures and their organic expression became inclusive built constructions that draw from an ethic of protecting landscapes. In a more profound sense, the exercise encouraged the interaction of students with the natural world and prompted them to grasp how they are part and parcel of it.  Extensions of it, actually, growing out of setting rather than seeking to supplant it.

I wonder how often a holistic thought process like this occurs today among architects and designers, builders, planning departments and elected officials who seem to be taking cues not from the sense of place that defines the Yellowstone eco-region but from other lesser built environments where the natural factors that we have here disappeared long ago?

Revealing to me is that after several days students of Remote Studio actually grasp the bigger picture that seems elusive to many of us who live here permanently; they understand by experiencing it new and fresh what is worth cherishing, defending, and saving. They don’t need convincing or reminding how remarkable this region is and thus they are not prone to resisting any talk of human responsibility to treat this gift with care. Additionally remarkable is the fact that the students take this commitment to place back to their home communities and search out ways to contribute to enriching and restoring their local ecologies and environments.

I’ve actually been struck by how innovative the students can be. Their comprehensive vision toward siting, anticipation of environmental conditions and patterns, and choices of form and materials all play a part in crafting a better way for built environments to exist in the rural and wild landscapes of the Yellowstone eco-system.

I would assert that those who want the best for the Greater Yellowstone aren’t “resistant to change” for the better, nor do they believe growth can be halted.  But rather than retain the prevailing mindset toward architecture and development applied with the old failed playbook, how communities grow and evolve needs to fundamentally change. What we make needs to better conform to the sense of place and fundamentally requires that architecture and its subsequent accumulation champion not stylized form and newness for newness sake but instead reach toward compatibility with nature.

Beyond the impact of specific buildings on the landscape, I have been thinking about the torrent pace of development in Gallatin County. Today as I reflect upon what the students learned from Remote Studio by simply focusing first on the ecosystem, I recognize a different outcome for place than is typically employed.

In Remote Studio, young architecture students—and those in mid and late career—willing to have their eyes opened, use nature and place-based concepts as a starting point, then ponder what a responsible, compatible human footprint will look like. Click image to enlarge
In Remote Studio, young architecture students—and those in mid and late career—willing to have their eyes opened, use nature and place-based concepts as a starting point, then ponder what a responsible, compatible human footprint will look like. Click image to enlarge
A large part of this difference came from learning to see the place whole, instead of learning through the lens of boundaries generated through abstract lines mapped across landscapes. These applied boundaries, commonly known as the Jeffersonian grid, are highly responsible for the ease and consequence of western expansion. This way of thinking also assisted in the governance system we live and operate in. And it has resulted not in a harmonious order but where nature is concerned fragmentation.

When we accept the dividing up of a place from the whole what we gain is separateness and efficient boundaries for administering legal conditions of municipalities. But often it means pandering to the lowest common denominator of thinking and aiming not for more noble objectives but being held hostage to limited vision of the least-creative bureaucrats in a room.
"We recognize these limitations, writ large in practice, in the separateness of thinking that exists between counties and towns and in the bifurcation that exists between those who manage public lands and those who guide development of private tracts. There is no cohesiveness holding the whole together."
We recognize these limitations, writ large in practice, in the separateness of thinking that exists between counties and towns and in the bifurcation that exists between those who manage public lands and those who guide development of private tracts. There is no cohesive vision holding the whole together.  And while I can appreciate that many decisions are made for efficiency or expediency sake, I have yet to see the benefits of a planning strategy that does not have an end result in mind.

In thinking about the whole I wonder: is it ethical to allow the Gallatin Valley to expand with human population without thinking about the consequences of sprawl that include stress on wildlife and general environmental health, as well diminishing land and availability of water? Why aren’t these things factored into the ledger sheets when assessing costs of growth?

Ryker has always taught her students, and advised her clients, to think about architecture as being "of the place," speaking reverence to it, rather than being forced, unimaginative, cheap, trite, tacky or "out of place".  She says that the boom sweeping across Bozeman and Gallatin Valley is producing plenty of the latter.  Newness for newness sake should not be an excuse for saying "anything goes" or that no one should have a right to serve as the "taste police".  Architecture that violates the aesthetic of a nature-based community provides plenty of fodder for criticism.
Ryker has always taught her students, and advised her clients, to think about architecture as being "of the place," speaking reverence to it, rather than being forced, unimaginative, cheap, trite, tacky or "out of place". She says that the boom sweeping across Bozeman and Gallatin Valley is producing plenty of the latter. Newness for newness sake should not be an excuse for saying "anything goes" or that no one should have a right to serve as the "taste police". Architecture that violates the aesthetic of a nature-based community provides plenty of fodder for criticism.
Often these are the conditions that really matter when determining our sense of place and the quality of life associated with it.  Yet when decisions are made, how often do they enter into discussion?  And if not, why not?  Is it an inability on the part of planners and elected officials to realize these vital and complex assets exist, is it because they choose to ignore them, or is it because no one in the non-governmental or citizen sector is there to insist they be considered?

Even more than the distress upon nearby human populations, I think about the other inhabitants of this place who are not given a choice about the development and its impact on their lives. Over my twenty years of living in the region I have grown into a firm believer that the Jeffersonian system of Cartesian order does not serve the whole. And while it was not conceived to serve the whole, it is time to address the recognizable consequences of rigid ways to approach planning that, frankly, are not up to the level of what Greater Yellowstone deserves.

Specifically I am wondering about the ongoing consequences and costs of fragmentation; how the cumulative affects of land division and inability to link across boundaries is destroying the ecosystem.  Why is it that we continue to value setting ourselves apart from nature, in an exclusive way, rather than understanding what it means to live responsibly in a special place?

How do we arrive at a different way of thinking about “inhabitation” and consider the concepts of investment, personal responsibility and protection of common values? I believe such thinking is attainable. On a micro-level, I have witnessed young adults in Remote Studio arrive at creative solutions for incorporating humans into landscape without setting themselves destructively apart from it.

I’m afraid that if we don’t pursue such thinking on a macro level, the essence of the Greater Yellowstone will be lost and faster than we imagine.
"In thinking about the whole I wonder: is it ethical to allow the Gallatin Valley to expand with human population without thinking about the consequences of sprawl that include stress on wildlife and general environmental health, as well diminishing land and availability of water? Why aren’t these things factored into the ledger sheets when assessing costs of growth?"
What if county commissioners and city officials and public land managers and private property owners all came together with good intensions to discuss this place and its future? While it’s never been done, it’s not an impossibility.  What if they committed themselves to assembling a comprehensive plan based on the recognized conditions and qualities of the ecosystem and were not solely tethered to the kind of silo thinking to which they perceive they are intractably beholden?

Could it also be that the multitude of non-profits and environmental organizations in the region who constantly object to, or ignore, human-focused governance issues could also work together with administrators to advance a more enlightened understanding of the larger needs and value of this place?

As I see it, we have a choice: we can continue down the path of current thoughtless development and land-use which appears to be leading to accelerated environmental loss and erosion in the quality of place, or we can embrace a larger sense of mission together and truly inhabit the common place we live and love with the understanding of an integrated whole.

Which do you prefer?  I choose actually bringing meaning to the “greater” in Greater Yellowstone.
Bozeman and Greater Gallatin: Becoming what?
Bozeman and Greater Gallatin: Becoming what?


Lori Ryker
About Lori Ryker

Lori Ryker is a thought leader in place-based architecture and founder of Artemis Institute that teaches students how to be smarter about blending development with natural environments.  She lives in Bozeman, Montana
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