When one thinks of conservation, what often comes to mind are efforts to protect an individual species,Save the fill in the blank!” 

When one thinks of improving a community, what often comes to mind is a site-specific project; “Build a fill in the blank!”

In the 1990s, I was involved in an effort to conserve threatened wildlife in the Yellowstone region. We were focusing the needs of individual species and site-specific natural resource management practices. But one day, a seasoned ecologist told me something I will never forget. It was along the lines of, “While it’s tempting to focus on conserving individual species, our major emphasis should be on conserving the ecological processes that keep this vast wildland landscape healthy.”  It turns out that things like wildfire, insect outbreaks, predation, flooding, herbivory, etc. – all the things we often try to control or suppress — are the natural processes that have shaped these ecosystems for millennium and sustain habitats that wildlife need to thrive.

In the end, putting energy into conserving ecological processes may yield greater conservation results then just focusing on specific species.

I’ve come to realize that the same can be said for conserving and improving human communities. We tend to want to zero in on specific community challenges, an affordable housing development or a proposed power line, rather than being concerned about the much broader community processes that can help us address and even avoid these problems.

What are these “processes”? My list includes concern for the future, an attitude of “we’re all in this together,” open civil dialogue, acceptance of new ideas and newcomers, an entrepreneurial “can do” spirit, concern for those less fortunate, investment in education, investment in infrastructure, support for arts and parks and open space, and extensive public involvement in local government. You probably have your own favorite community process you’d add to this list.

Research on what makes communities successful back up this theory. A major study by the Knight Foundation titled “Soul of the Community,” found that there are commonalities among cities that are thriving. Their list is a variation on the above themes, or perhaps better stated, they are the results of the above processes. They include “pleasing community aesthetics, a welcoming feel to the community, and vibrant social offerings.”

Author James Fallows spent three years traveling around America documenting the “unraveling” of our communities. Except that what he found was just the opposite, noting “The surprise was how wide a range of people of different generations and races and political outlooks, believed that their city was on the upswing, and that their own efforts could help that trend.” He went on to identify eleven signs that a city will succeed, ranging from “people having a shared story about the past, present and future of their community” to, “they have big plans.”

Future West engages in site-specific conservation and development projects to help maximize their site-specific positive  impacts and also to build the capacity of community partners to sustain these efforts in the long term. These projects also help us understand the challenges of on-the-ground conservation and development. But in addition, we also try to understand and promote the broader ecological and community processes that will influence their success. This spring, for example, we will host a workshop on “Community Facilitation” that will impart skills associated with civil dialogue, meaningful community engagement, shared goals for the future, and openness to new ideas.

The idea of sustaining ecological or community processes may not be as sexy as a campaign to “Save the Wolverine” or “Build a Community Swim Center,” but we must realize it is essential to achieving these goals.