Western Planners have different challenges than planners from three coasts, the East, Midwest and abroad. Of course many of the things we all do - subdivisions, zoning, transportation planning, and natural resource planning. Western Planners do it a little differently and much of the reasons we do things differently is the limitations that come from where we live.
A planner in the West is probably more likely to work in a one-person shop. In fact, like a former employer of mine told me his first planning job he was the county planner, sanitarian, road supervisor and dog catcher. A western planner is more likely to work in a small town or city or in a rural county. A western planner usually works where the federal government is a major land owner, if not the major landowner in our county. Western planners work with an alphabet of federal agencies (FS. BLM, BOR, BLM, etc.)
I was reading Wallace Stegner's The American West as Living Space. Stegner wrote that two aspects of the West help define it: aridity and space.
West of the 98th, some say the 100th meridian, and east of the rain shadow of the coastal ranges, is another America that is big, wide, dry and dusty.
ARIDITY - land decisions and land use are largely determined by the scarce resource - water. The West gets about 8-12 inches of precipation a year, usually through snowfall. This time of year we start worrying about what the snowpack is going to be like for spring thaw. We don't have enough water in a good year and damn too little in a bad year. Typically the water resources are over-allocated and the most junior water right won't be his full measure. Water is needed for livestock, hay, wheat, cities and town and power generation, and we are expected to move what we don't use up downstream to float the barges in the midwest.
Montana is experiencing a drought. But that is practically normal lately. Water availabilty for development is a major concern in the Legislature. Water quality is a concern as well. The old water quality adage - "Dilution is the solution to pollution" - has special meaning when you don't even have enough water available to dilute! In the Helena Valley, many landowners count on the leaking irrigation ditches to replenish their wells.
By July on a bad water year, we have dusty roads that affect air quality, concerns about forest and brush fires and the fish are getting thirsty and too warm.
SPACE - The people of the West are accustommed to space. Lots and lots of space. On any given day, once I get out of town I expect to see 16 or more miles.
Stegner quotes Mary Austin, speaking of the Owen Valley, saying "The manner of the country makes the usage of life there and the land will not be lived in except in its own fashion. The Shoshone live like their trees, with great spaces between." The wide open spaces. The Big Sky! People here are pre-conditioned to accept long commuting distances. People live here or moved here for "wide, open spaces." To many, dense development is practically an anathema. Here, dense development is one house per acre (the smallest parcel size allowed under DEQ for an on-site wastewater treatment system.) You want more dense development - move into town. This is changing now. People coming from other states are more accepting of quarter-acre lots on community water and sewer.
Give me land. Lots of land. under starry skies above. Don't fence me in. . .
These are some of my observations about planning in the West. And these are general statements. There are exceptions. There are big city planners working in the West. Your area of the West may be wetter or drier than mine. Your spaces might be more crowded by now than mine.
I hope some of my fellow planning buckaroos and buckerettes will add some of their observations of planning in the Great American Desert, as Major Long dubbed these lands back in the 1820's. I hope non Western planners will chime in as well. Thanks.