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Tim Crawshaw: Reflections on the American Planning Association National Planning Conference

I was delighted to join the RTPI delegation including Victoria Hills and our Young Planner of the Year Ryan Walker at the APA NPC 2022 in San Diego.

In a recently opened city in recovery from the pandemic the presence of 3000 planners certainly added to the vibe of this welcoming and diverse city. The APA can put on a good show, and the opening session set the tone for the whole conference with delegates being treated to a live DJ and a keynote speech from the Hip Hop Architect, Michael Ford.

This innovative approach to both the interpretation and designing of interventions in partnership with communities was an inspiration and the untapped use of around 50 years of hip hop lines describing in detail the challenges and inequalities of city living was both revealing and challenging.

San Diego itself provided great learning opportunities and a highlight for me was walking and mobile tours that revealed the underpinning social, environmental, and economic issues that the city faces. Whether this be the threat of gentrification to existing communities, the power of collectives and community organising, the challenge of delivering affordable housing or the need for transit in key parts of the city, there was a lot to learn and share.

The experience of being a professional planner on both sides of the pond has many parallels and the challenges we face in the UK are very similar, with resourcing and retaining a voice for planning being key commonalties.

Delivering affordable housing in the light of gentrification and a very private sector approach to delivery is a challenge many of us would identify with. The mechanisms for delivery are varied but a compelling strand within the initiatives discussed at the conference and showcased in the city was the use of public land and assets, alongside community activation.

Land is a key ingredient in any development and where speculation is rife it is essential that public land holdings are used to the best effect either as a catalyst or through direct development and partnerships. We saw examples of affordable housing-led mixed use developments that anchor and re-establish neighbourhood centres alongside improved access via transit.

Retaining diversity and local distinctiveness is another challenge faced by planners, city leaders and communities. In areas opened-up by transit and supported by Zoning regulations local communities are priced out of the property market. With 20-25% of property transactions being sales to corporate investors even a modest home is out of reach for the local community.

Whilst this, for the reasons above, leads to inequalities and challenges for the workforce and the retention of young people, there is something else at stake, local distinctiveness. Barrio Logan, zoned as downtown is a vibrant and distinctive district with a strong sense of community that is slowly being lost.

For many years the community have established a sense of identity through the arts and culture in the form of Chicano Park, established in the shadow of the Coronado Bridge. It goes deeper than this though and whilst community action is retaining identity and supporting social inclusion, the challenges are manifold.

So, what can planners and planning do? We saw some great examples of dedicated public sector planners who were working closely with the people that they serve, delivering housing projects but also softer measures such as broadband and internet access at an affordable rate and using publicly owned assets to benefit of local communities. The APA NPC showcased some fantastic initiatives and highlighted the complexity and highly skilled work of professional planners and the importance of our work to achieve social justice in a strongly market led context.

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