The Role of Wonder in Planning

I don’t think we talk enough about wonder in planning schools today. That sense of fascination, awe, of being spellbound by the immensity, delicacy, beauty of something, is an essential ingredient of our human spirit, and to making life joyous and meaningful. Yet it goes virtually undiscussed in professional planning programs, with few insights offered about how to go about designing and planning places and communities that provide these experiences.  Planners are a wonkish bunch, more likely to wax on about special use permits, density bonuses, and sliding-scale zoning. Important tools and concepts, no doubt, but a little uninspiring to those who are not members of the planning tribe. Perhaps we need to think more in terms of the ultimate experience and meaning of life, the potential for daily discovery, for encouraging in humans the very best virtues of curiosity and attentiveness to the life and wildness around. Does planning have a critical role to play here? I believe yes. But what can be done to bring about, or facilitate, or induce—one is not even quite sure how to talk about this—the wonder or awe that makes life truly interesting and magical?  There are probably a few essential aspects.  Access and proximity are critical (are there sufficient parks, natural elements, natural spaces nearby?), and here planning plays a very important role of course. But it is also true that it is virtually impossible to wall ourselves off from nature (though we seem to try mightily). If one only looks around there are incredible opportunities to connect with and understand this nature—a spider web, a bird flying by, a summer thunderstorm.  Yet, that said, we often need help in seeing the things right in front of us.  Sometimes, then, the mission is about educating, about simply encouraging us to see, to  notice, to pay attention, to look at the world with a wondrous lens and frame of mind and when we do we see things that we have missed earlier. There are many opportunities in designing and planning the built environment, to actually incorporate these moments of wondrous learning.  Part of the difficulty is that many of the most wondrous things in nature are beyond our immediate sight and field of experience and require some imagination.  Understanding the full ecological nature of trees, for instance, requires some knowledge and help in visualizing the underground roots structure, and when understood is even more wondrous than at first blush.  The subterranean habitats of ants and many other creatures are elaborate and extensive and truly amazing when understood, but difficult to see directly. Part of the challenge, then, is making visible many of the things in nature—the common nature all around us. Opportunities for fascination and wonder require creative ways that show what is otherwise hidden.  Perhaps community plans should be recast and re-written in more engaging ways that emphasize this narrative of wonder and wildness; at least as much as they emphasize the technical and sometimes bland accounting of demographic trends, development patterns, and policy recommendations. Much of the wondrous life around us is hidden from view, and finding effective ways to highlight and give visibility to this is a major challenge for planners.  One of my favorite examples can be seen in the work of Florida State University entomologist Walter Tschinkel, and his efforts at making dramatically visible the subterranean nests of ants.  We see only a small portion of an ant’s world, but with some creative research techniques—in Tschinkel’s case, using orthodontic plaster to make casts of these underground nests, and to render visible the nest architecture of species like the Florida harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex badius).  Reassembled as a single connected plaster model showing the shafts and chambers of these nests elicits, at least in this author, surprise and they are in Tschinkel’s words “undeniably spectacular.” Tschinkel’s research has already generated new knowledge about the biology of these ants (that there is a “vertical social structure by worker age and life stage”) but the functions of this elaborate next architecture are mostly unknown.  Nevertheless, the plaster casts—shafts of 12 meters long, connecting some 135 different chambers, lend a sense of awe to ant biology that few of us are familiar with. I’m not quite sure how we incorporate this kind of knowledge into community plans that often emphasis the larger scale, but there must be some creative ways to highlight as well the smaller wildness around us. It may be that we need to spend as much time (re)kindling a sense of the fascination and wildness around us, at whatever scale, as we do in developing actual plans. E.O. Wilson is right, I think, that we need to foster this wonder and fascination at an early age. I agree with him that encouraging the natural impulses kids have to collect things from nature is one step. I recall the endless delight my two young daughters experienced in collecting coquina shells in the sandbars off of Sanibel Island.  Coquina (Donax variabilis) show a remarkable diversity of color in their shells--some are purple, pink, blue, brown, and seemingly every color and shade and design is represented in nature. Collecting them takes a degree of delicate strategy, in order to preserve to the two halves in their attached form. This allows the mounting of the shells later, like so many butterflies, on paper or in a frame. The process of collecting coquina responds to several different values—for kids of course it is fun, and involves running, diving, extruding handfuls of sand and gleeful delight about what is discovered. There is a kind of hidden treasure, and one is never sure about what gem will be uncovered. It focused the attention of the beauty and detail of nature—as the shells are washed, the true colors uncovered. And there is much to be said for any family activity that keeps kids outside, out-of-doors, hands and feet immersed in the natural world. The objects of childhood collecting will vary, of course, depending on geography and setting, but there will be many equivalents to the coquina shells wherever one happens to live. Perhaps we need to look for ways to tap into this fun of looking for and finding things in nature at a community or collective level?  One powerful process of this sort is the BioBlitz, a 24-hour search for and accounting of all of the biodiversity, large and small, in a defined space or area, often a public park. The potential of bioblitzes was brought home vividly to me last year in watching (and filming) one unfold over a day and night in San Diego. Organized by the San Diego Museum of Natural History, and focused on recording the biodiversity of Balboa Park, the evening hours directly and viscerally involved kids. There was an opportunity even for kids to spend the night at the Museum, which many did, immersing themselves in the science and fun of this event. Several nighttime observation stations were set up, and especially entertaining was the moth station. Scientists from the Museum draped a white sheet over several dangling lights, in an effort (largely successful) at attracting moths. Much appeared that evening, and between the “oohs and awes” the kids learn a great deal, I think, about the biology of these species. But perhaps the most important benefit was the fostering of curiosity and fascination, and the mystery the evening holds for what it will bring out in the form of unusual looking fauna. Moths impressed me that evening with their ability to evoke a sense of mystery and magic. When people hear the number of different species of moths that can be found in North America—almost 10,000—they are amazed, kids and adults a like. The tally from that day and night in San Diego was impressive—more than 1000 species recorded at Balboa Park. I came away appreciating how valuable such a process might be in service of community planning.  The bioblitz should be viewed as a useful source of information and insight about patterns of biodiversity in a community and certainly helpful (if not essential) in developing a community plan that takes adequate account of nature and environment.  Organizing one or more community bioblitz’s as part of the community planning process also makes some sense, as might it would at once serve to give visibility and importance to a process sometimes lacking in excitement or perceived relevance. Making the connection between policies and actions in a plan, and the fascinating and wondrous nature and life all around would be a positive thing indeed.  And perhaps every neighborhood holds an annual bioblitz focused on learning about and understanding their special place and nature qualities—it becomes the biological block party, if you will. There are many other planning implications of a focus on wonder, of course. Conserving and protecting natural areas close to where urban populations live, and working hard on behalf of integrated, urban ecological networks, is important.  An agenda of wonder further supports the effort to creatively design-in green features into every urban neighborhood (from green walls and forested courtyards, to rooftop gardens and steam daylighting). And it is as much about the program as the space—neighborhood bioblitzes can happen anywhere, even in the most degraded of hard-surface settings.  Understanding the ecological assets of a place as opportunities to educate and nurture: One example can be seen in the visionary sustainable redevelopment Noisette, in North Charleston, SC.  Restoration of the Noisette Creek is a cornerstone of that project and through a network of trails and paths neighborhoods will be able to connect to this natural system. An interpretative nature center is planned, and the creek is envisioned as a new and important educational resource for the fourteen schools within two miles of the creek. What ultimately will be the payoff from fostering a sense of wonder, and an appreciation of the wildness in and around our communities? It is hard to know whether such a sensibility will really change much about how we live or our choices in life. It’s also not clear that injecting wonder into the planning process will change our planning policies or priorities, or the decisions made by the local planning commission. But it’s possible. It might lead us (individually and collectively) to look differently at the small and seemingly insignificant spaces around us that we know to be valuable pockets of nature. And perhaps we will take steps to better care for and preserve them, and take time to enjoy them. A local planning process that fosters a reverence for the biological world will pay many dividends down the road, and lay the foundations for a wondrous and meaningful life—what every planner, wonkish or not, should want to see. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ——————– Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. He co-authored Resilient Cities and Green Urbanism Down Under and is the author of the upcoming Planning for Coastal Resilience.