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Imagine If Every County And Town Planning Department Had A Staff Ecologist
February 18, 2020
Imagine If Every County And Town Planning Department Had A Staff Ecologist
To protect the best of Greater Yellowstone, Lori Ryker says humans need to practice real intelligent design and make sure nature registers
For several years while running a program I founded called Remote Studio, I’ve gone to universities across the country seeking aspiring architecture and design students interested in “immersion education” set in our Northern Rockies.
A reflection point made by Remote Studio students for nature walkers along the Yellowstone River. In this park dogs must be on leashes to protect wildlife from displacement and harassment. Photo courtesy Ian Burgess
During my early recruiting efforts, I explained that the program was based in a given community—Bozeman, Montana, say, or neighboring Livingston or Jackson, Wyoming. Over time I realized that this description of location for Remote Studio, a program of Artemis Institute, was actually incorrect. The program, which immersed young thinkers into wild places, was best described as occurring more expansively in the Yellowstone eco-region.
How we think about one place, or what we do in that environment can have impacts, subtle and major, direct and indirect, on other places near or far. Like blocking a wildlife migration corridor crucial to elk, mule deer and pronghorn can have consequences that might stretch hundreds of miles in different directions but not immediately register for us.
We hiked, camped in the wilderness, met with ranchers, read Stegner, Berry, Leopold and Terry Tempest Williams, thought about towns from their edges where urban grids give way to ranch, farm and public land. Later, after students prepared to design their curriculum project for a local community client, they built it with a sense of conscientiousness that did not exist before the program began.
Some of the structures, various kinds of "vessels," were meant to illustrate the potential impermanence of a human footprint—designed to weather over time, decay and return back into the earth. It could be said from experiencing these things that such momentariness offers a way to understand co-habitation with other living creatures—a sharing of space that did not result in an imposition of human dwelling to the detriment of wildlife and flora that made a home there.
Just as we are not separate from nature, so too does the human-built environment not exist in isolation from its impacts on the wild and pastoral character of the land.
How and what we build says a lot about us, about our values and it reveals how much we really think about nature—or not.
Explaining to students that the “classroom” location for Remote Studio was "the larger" ecosystem helped them better understand that place is bigger than the artificial boundaries of a town or county or even an individual lot line, and it includes more than serving people and their particular short-term-focused needs.
An artful swirl of cobble and soothworn river rock assembled for the opening of Rendezvous Park along the Snake River in Jackson Hole served as a project for Remote Studio students as well as a muse for place-based thinking. It also serves as a venue where visitors can reflect on the elements of "natural architecture" present in the Snake River corridor. In the end, part of the installation, ephemeral by design, will over time be reclaimed by the river during high water—a reminder that long-lasting lessons can be imparted without having to be memorialized by permanent human construction. Photo courtesy Hance Hughes.
When students arrived to attend Remote Studio I was impressed that they readily embraced the idea of how a place gains specificity, not only because of the humans who live there but also because of native animals that often move seamlessly and inconspicuously through the different mountain ranges, valley river bottoms and creek drainages.
The necessity of these sometimes seemingly invisible considerations of place are plainly explained in a recent essay for Mountain Journal where former US Forest Service naturalist and writer Susan Marsh highlights a real phenomenon known as “plant blindness." It's a condition in which people don’t understand or appreciate different plant species the same way they know, for example, large mammals. And yet native plantlife is one essential undergirding for healthy natural landscapes.
It raises an important issue for citizens but most notably for those involved in transforming wild and pastoral places into urban or suburbanized settings. If designers can’t see the things they are impacting, then how can they conscientiously ever consider alternative plans that result in less impact let alone saving them?
As viewed from the Bangtails looking east, the town of Livingston, Montana sits along the Yellowstone River at the northern terminus of the Absaroka mountains. Today, Livingston and Park County are concerned about the spillover effects of population pressure coming from Gallatin County and Bozeman, one of the fastest growing micropolitan cities in the US. The down-home character of Livingston and Paradise Valley are enhanced mightily by the pastoral countryside and public lands around it. While some important conservation easements are in place, how would the feel of the community change were large-scale subdivisions to be approved and what would happen to the corridors of open space that provide passageways for migratory elk and mule deer? Photo by Todd Wilkinson
This, to me, speaks to a lack of ecological literacy and civic intelligence quotient when it comes to any hope we have of holding the essence of Greater Yellowstone together intact. And it is a key reason I immersed students attending Remote Studio in the wild lands of this eco-region.
With the expanded awareness I witnessed flowing into Remote Studio students they came to better understand the relationships and impacts that human-centered communities have on the environment. As consumers, of others' living space, which we reference as habitat.
Starting there allowed us to shift the focus from the narrow consideration of only accounting for human needs to a more holistic understanding of place; which is to say, considering the built world with a mindset toward compatibility, suitability and even reverence for what was going on before one buys the land and how the place and its inhabitants can be sustained through thoughtful design.
This process obviously is different from thinking only in terms preset in municipal code and style for human benefit as well as aesthetic concerns for property values—for example, designing for Santa Fe, New Mexico’s codes that set height restrictions and adobe motifs to generate a cohesive built context of historicism to reference a past cultural “tradition.”
Most municipal codes barely reference ecology, and, if at all, only in superficial ways. None are written with the sophistication and insight necessary to safeguard natural assets here that are unparalleled in the Lower 48 states.
Few codes, for instance, speak to the trade-off that if we build a residential subdivision here the resident elk herd will disappear or the diversity of neotropical birds will vanish. Yet that is the practical consequence that gets extrapolated at a landscape level.
If nature isn’t considered, if it doesn’t factor into conscious deliberation and is not valued as something important, then its beauty and wholeness vanishes without protest or even recognition.
An elk herd in Yellowstone, one of many that leaves the park in winter and heads to lower ground often on private land. Here's a question: if residential sprawl deprives elk of key winter range the animals need to survive and they are displaced to other pieces of property where they are unwanted, who created the problem? Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
In Greater Yellowstone, how architecture is conceived needs to move beyond solutions that only benefit humans. We need to think deeper and consider how we may be impairing ecological function.
In the Northern Rockies, rustic cabins that are now stylized or reflective of the great public lodges of the national parks are echoed in uber-large single family home designs. While these forms infer a cultural code of place, they do not support an ecology of place.
Nature is missing from ledger sheets that calculate only cost per square foot of construction, that maximize profit per unit built, and predictive appreciation of future appraised values. Assesment of impacts and loss of habitat and common shared places are under-considered and mostly ignored. We need a new accounting system. This new system must necessarily include the costs imposed upon nature and then a conscious strategy for how to minimize them on the balance sheet.
Nature is missing from ledger sheets that calculate only cost per square foot of construction, that maximize profit per unit built, and predictive appreciation of future appraised values. Assesment of impacts and loss of habitat and common shared places are under-considered and mostly ignored. We need a new accounting system.
If our towns and counties valued and employed ecologists, for example, then critical assessments could be made to assist our understanding of the losses to nature that will be gone forever and irrecoverable.
Taken as a whole, as impacts mount and fragmentation sets in one new subdivision at a time, each one displacing wildlife, we slowly erode the function of the larger ecosystem that existed pretty much the same since the glaciers retreated.
These are places where Native people lived for thousands of years with greater integration than we have managed to achieve. They are habitats where wildlife endured, summered, wintered, migrated, died and new populations were reborn across scales of time that to us are now unfathomable.
In some places we can still catch sight of the unbroken wildlife legacy that as a matter of survival exists in close harmony and in sync and accordance with the conditions of the land, not at odds with it.
The drama that happened in these same places where we now walk on paths or concrete sidewalks would cause us to marvel but more importantly humble us and bestow us with a greater sense of responsibility and stewardship—if only we could look back into time and appreciate its value and richness instead of viewing it today only as "raw land" and "undeveloped bare ground."
When the city of Livingston officials asked Remote Studio students to design something for the new municipal park along the Yellowstone River, they asked not for a ballpark or another active park feature but instead a place for the community to go to reflect. The structures along the quiet path function like windows into nature. Photo courtesy Remote Studio
All around us, there was—and is—a lot going on worthy of our amazement. Our inability to recognize it does not negate its existence.
The inherent questions posed to students who attended Remote Studio and which we need to ask ourselves are: does an ancient wildlife migration corridor hold intrinsic value worth safekeeping? Does a river with trout unpolluted by human septic systems and homes not lining it banks? Or a night sky where we can see the stars with clarity we never had before? Do quiet places of nature deserve to remain where wildlife are not displaced by our overuse and blindness to the mammals, birds and plants?
Saying yes tp such questions is not the same as putting aspirations into action; in the end, only action matters.
These are not issues typically considered by the architecture and design professions but they should be. The Greater Yellowstone region, whose noble identity is based on promoting human thinking beyond boundaries, ought to be a world leader in promoting trans-disciplinary and holistic thinking.
Think it can't be done? It's an idea that's not hard for young people to embrace. The key is that planners need to spend time on the land with ecologists; so, too, elected officials, business people, real estate agents and anyone involved with growth issues.
Immersive experiences in the Yellowstone ecosystem helped students realize that the typical design process actually does more to separate humans from the rest of the world, through boundaries and means of construction, than bring us together with nature. In my private design practice, I have never had a client who, once discovering the multiple ways wildness is expressed, did not appreciate all of the things happening on their rural land.
To consider the natural world through a more holistic lens requires a different process of thinking and designing. Few, if any, universities in the world, prepare architecture and design students to consider what's at play in a rare region like the Greater Yellowstone defined by it's still-healthy wildlife populations.
Few architecture programs require that students take courses in field ecology or walk landscapes with biologists, listen to Native voices, or visit with ranchers and farmers to gain insights into their descriptions of the things they know as part of their connection and memory of place.
When I look around Bozeman and Jackson and Big Sky I wonder how much thought is going into reflecting on architecture and development as a way of honoring these settings, but more importantly encouraging we human inhabitants to better appreciate "where we are." Often, I've wondered while experiencing the Bozeman boom how a holistic thought process could occur today. Again, I think it must begin with acknowledging the inherent qualities of the land.
Revealing is that after several days students of Remote Studio grasped the bigger picture that seems elusive to many of us who live here permanently. They came to understand by experiencing it with new eyes what is worth cherishing and readily defending. They didn't need convincing or reminding how remarkable this region is and thus they could fully embrace the need for human responsibility to treat this gift with care.
Additionally valuable is the fact that the students take this commitment to considering place back to their home communities. They search out ways to contribute to enriching and restoring their local ecologies and environments.
With many Remote Studio alums today involved in their own practices they represent an inspiring new generation of true place-based thinkers. They do not view architecture as a 21st-century iteration of Manifest Destiny—a mindset that open land is merely real estate that exists to be consumed and monetized.
Beyond the impact of specific buildings on landscape, I have been thinking about the torrent pace of development in Gallatin County and our current inexorable path to become metropolitan.
Architecture and community design needs to aspire to be more than a surrendering to the cheap and mindless tyranny of homogenization that has come to dominate the nauseating suburban expanses reflected, for example, along Bozeman’s North 19th Avenue corridor or West Broadway in Jackson; scenes that could just as easily be found in the sprawl of Phoenix, Denver, Albuquerque, Salt Lake or even Billings.
It’s worth remembering that during the early 1990s, when Patagonia was considering locating its product distribution facility in Bozeman, company founder Yvon Chouinard passed, saying that Bozeman—a community he loves— obviously was not a place where its elected officials had embraced an evolved mindset for thinking about growth. He pointed to the ticky-tack appearance of North Seventh Avenue, a vision of sprawl that has since assumed gargantuan proportions along North 19th.
Today as I reflect upon what the students learned from Remote Studio by simply focusing first on the ecosystem, I recognize the potential for a different outcome than seems destined. If we aren't willing to consider thinking differently now, we will never be qualitatively different from Salt Lake City or the Colorado Front Range where the wildlife values we have were extinguished long ago.
Rather than retain the prevailing mindset toward architecture and development applied in accordance with the old playbook, how communities grow and evolve needs to fundamentally change, be re-imagined, and courageous actions taken for defense of this place.
This fundamentally requires an architecture that champions not generic design responses and stylized form but instead reaches toward responses that draw in the necessities of nature. From this trajectory the building materials and technological innovations that help lead to a reduced carbon footprint, or negative energy usage, all make complete and integrated sense.
As I've written here before, we need to draw new kinds of maps that invite us to consider a deeper level of awareness about place. In the students of Remote Studio, I found hope, the courage to dare to think differently and with empathy and sympathy for nature.
When we accept the dividing up of a place from the whole, without regard given to the impacts of piecemeal thinking, we lose the enduring irretrievable essence of place. If that happens here, what will the point be of saying we live in “the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?”