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4 Takeaways from the 2016 National Planning Conference


May 17, 2016 by William Simpson
Category: Planning Advisor

4 Takeaways from the 2016 National Planning Conference

Image: The Phoenix Metro Light Rail as seen from the Central Arts District. By William Simpson.

Last month over 4,300 planners, policymakers, and students attended the American Planning Association (APA) conference in Phoenix. They explored new ideas, learned from the success of other cities and regions, and returned inspired to address the challenges and opportunities in their own communities.

I’ve selected a few takeaways that might be of interest to planners and community leaders throughout Washington.

1. Technological innovations will transform our communities faster than we may anticipate.

The futurist Jack Uldrich kicked off the conference with the opening keynote address. He used the quote often attributed to Mark Twain - “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” – as a vehicle to assess how technological advances in the past shaped society, and how those advances reflect emerging technological innovations today. A few innovations he highlighted include:

  • 3-D printing (China is printing houses and Amsterdam is printing a steel bridge).
  • Fracking and its impact on the energy industry.
  • Robotic technology and its potential influence on industry and manufacturing.
  • Autonomous vehicles and their ability to reshape urban form.
  • SpaceX and Blue Origin’s impact on the aerospace industry.
  • Graphene, the world’s thinnest, strongest, and most conductive material has the potential to revolutionize electric vehicles and desalination projects.

Take a minute to reflect on the changes our society has experienced over the last 15 years, and how those affect local government operations today. Planners and community leaders need to remain cognizant of emerging technologies and their potential to transform our communities. By staying aware, we can adapt to the innovations that will change the way our communities function.

2. Planners and developers can improve professional relationships with a better understanding of respective needs and limitations.

The planning director of Maricopa County, AZ and a local developer provided an interesting perspective on the development process. The two blended humor throughout their presentation, noting that like a marriage, conflict is inevitable, but that the goal is to work through the conflict. They reviewed the tasks and skills required to progress through the seven stage lifecycle of the development process:

  • Land Banking
  • Land Packaging
  • Land Development
  • Building Development
  • Building Operation
  • Building Renovation
  • Property Development

Misunderstandings between planners and developers often occur because they are working through the development process and looking at specific steps from different angles. With a better understanding of the nuances of the development process, planners can gain an appreciation for the underlying risks and complexities inherent in each stage. Developers should also maintain a realistic perspective on timelines associated with environmental review, permitting, and public hearings.  Ultimately, a better understanding of each other’s professional obligations and challenges can create better long-term working relationships. As with most relationships, a little empathy and good communication goes a long way.

3. Planning is critical for the success and survival of small rural communities – even when they aren’t growing.

Utah’s Rural Planning Group assists small communities impacted by declines in natural resource extraction. This economic decline has also led to challenges for communities throughout Washington State and the nation. The agency looked at the concept of zero growth planning and categorized communities as urban, non-zero growth, and zero growth. The component of their research I found most interesting were the factors impacting population growth and measures of community success in Utah’s rural communities. These factors include:

  • Capacity (staff or others who can move projects forward)
  • Leadership (formal and informal)
  • Adaptation
  • Amenities (community and natural)
  • Economy
  • Gravity (population losses occurred in smaller counties, further burdening services)
  • Inertia (locals opposed to any change)
  • Access (transportation and proximity to urban centers)
  • Momentum

Their research offers a reminder that planning is crucial for all communities, not just those experiencing pressure from growth. As the saying goes, a failure to plan is planning to fail.

4. Communities don’t need a large budget to create great places.

More people are beginning to recognize that creating great places is important for community development and economic development. As a result, economic development strategies are beginning to shift from recruiting the “big fish,” to a focus on building vibrant communities with diverse amenities. These communities attract creative urban professionals, allow entrepreneurs to develop small businesses, and provide a great quality of life for local residents.

Michigan’s Community Development Unit highlighted this approach at the APA conference. They described talent as the currency of the new economy and recognized placemaking as a means of attracting talent, millennials, knowledge workers, artists, and entrepreneurs of all ages. It comes down to the simple fact that business needs talent, talent wants place, and place needs business.

Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix offers an excellent example of successful placemaking. APA recognized “RoRo” as a Great Neighborhood in 2015 and the mayor identified it as a catalyst for the renaissance in downtown Phoenix. The addition of light rail, the presence of world class art museums, and the proximity to the downtown core have clearly influenced redevelopment. But what really made this neighborhood stand out to me was its embrace of its historic character and the support of a grassroots art movement as seen through numerous murals and small, quirky local businesses.

Image: One of the many murals in Roosevelt Row – Phoenix, AZ. By William Simpson.

Communities throughout Washington can learn from this example by tapping into the talent of the local community and encouraging inexpensive tactical and creative placemaking. Do you have examples of successful placemaking in your community? Share them in the comments below.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About William Simpson

William Simpson is a Senior Planner with the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Growth Management Services unit. He serves as Commerce’s technical specialist on Urban Growth Areas and provides assistance to jurisdictions throughout Eastern Washington on a variety of planning issues. He worked as a long-range planner in local government and his professional experience has focused on comprehensive planning, shoreline planning, neighborhood planning, economic development, remote sensing and geospatial analysis. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning.

The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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