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Highlights from the 2015 National Planning Conference

May 5, 2015  by  Steve Butler
Category:  Planning

Highlights from the 2015 National Planning Conference

Photo by Joe Szurszewski, courtesy of the American Planning Association.

Last month, over 6,400 planners from across the country came up to Washington State for the National Planning Conference, which took place in Seattle, April 18-21.  The American Planning Association’s (APA) annual conference was entitled “Sustainable Seattle,” but featured presentations on a multitude of topics and speakers from throughout the U.S. and abroad (including our Canadian neighbors to the north).  The conference provided some interesting trends in community planning, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts and highlights from the four-day event.

Ron Sims, former King County Executive and former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), delivered the opening keynote presentation on Sunday morning.  He fired up the attendees with a rousing speech, during which he stated that planners are critical to improving the quality of life in their communities. “Planners are charged not with the present, but with guiding us into our future,” Sims exclaimed.

U.S. HUD Secretary Julián Castro, a former mayor from San Antonio, spoke at the Awards Luncheon on Monday, during which he described the many goals of his agency, which includes creating a vibrant and compelling quality of life for people.  Castro stressed the importance of building relationships at all levels of government to get things done.  “Collaborative planning is smart planning,” he stated.

The Tech Zone at the exposition hall provided an opportunity for conference attendees to learn about innovative planning technologies and see how they are being used on actual projects. I was particularly interested in software programs that could be used by jurisdictions throughout Washington. A few focus areas that jumped out at me as ones worth looking into are “online town meetings” (such as, meeting facilitation (such as etherpad), and use of 3-D digital mapping to evaluate different development scenarios (such as Tygron).  I will discuss these types of programs, and others, in more detail in a future article.

Every year, the national conference puts on a Community Planning Workshop, sponsored by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). Planners analyze a local planning issue and provide pro bono planning services to a specific neighborhood. This year’s AICP workshop focused on Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, and was organized by Bob Bengford (one of our Planning Advisors) and Paula Reeves (the incoming President of APA-Washington Chapter).   The goal of the day-long workshop was to “establish coordinated, immediate next steps to spur innovation and investment in the neighborhood,” with a focus on the concepts of sustainability and placemaking.  There was a large turnout of both neighborhood residents/stakeholders and contributing planners, and all of the participants viewed it as an overwhelming success.

Stewart Brand, a visionary and author (works include The Whole Earth Catalog and How Buildings Learn), was the closing conference speaker. He talked about the global population shift from rural areas to cities, saying that planners must ensure that cities can accommodate this shift and remain good places to live and work. Brand exhorted the audience to not focus on short-term goals but to think 10,000 years into the future. While most people have difficulty even looking 20-30 years ahead, his message was a reminder that planners and decision makers should be thinking about impacts of short-term decisions on future generations many years out.

The local host committee (who spent countless hours and probably some sleepless nights) deserves a lot of the credit for the conference’s success, with a special “shout-out” to co-chairs Ivan Miller, Paul Inghram, and Deborah Munkberg.

Given the tremendous attendance level (second highest in conference history) and the fact that Washington is a state where significant planning efforts are taking place (not to mention the unseasonably warm and beautiful spring weather), it is a safe bet that APA’s national conference will return to the Evergreen State in the not too distant future!

 Were you able to attend the conference? If so, share some of your thoughts about it in the comments below.

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About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.



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