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Positive planning abounds in America

26 April 2019 Author: Ian Tant

It’s no exaggeration to say that the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference is vast.  Six thousand four hundred delegates gathered in San Francisco in mid April - all in one place.  Just imagine. 

We don’t tend to hear much about planning in the USA, probably because the President and Federal Government have little to do with it.  

It’s not just in numbers that the APA Conference impresses: the NPC also covers four days and numerous sessions, seminar, study trips and a whole range of activities to keep the conference vibrant and attractive.  Of course, it helps that there are so many paying delegates to fund the events – but it’s also a necessity.  Nobody could contemplate travelling up to 3,000 miles across four time zones just to spend one day at a conference.  

Inspiration from diverse sources

Having this duration and scale also allows the time and resources for some truly inspirational speakers from beyond the planning world.  The opening Keynote set the tone, delivered by violinist Vijay Gupta, who works with homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles, campaigning for social justice and taking fellow musicians from the LA Philharmonic out to engage in his Street Symphony, performing Handel’s Messiah on Skid Row.  It was tear-jerking, intensely human and inspiring.  

Leadership According To Brett CulpFilm-maker Brett Culp’s definition of leadership

The inspiration flowed through to the final Keynote on Day 4, with film-maker Brett Culp delivering a vivid definition of leadership and an exhortation for us all to be heroes in the work we do as planners.

In between was a breath-taking display of energy, enthusiasm and sheer passion for planning by the 6,400 delegates.  Imagine our Young Planners’ conference taken to that scale and just picture the positivity! 

It’s fascinating to note that the vast majority of those attending were from the public sector in the USA.  We don’t tend to hear much about planning in the USA, probably because the President and Federal Government have little to do with it.  

Much of the work is carried out between the State legislatures and the cities and counties.  The language may at first sound odd: “zoning”, “coding”, “permits”, “missing middles”, “ADUs” and the like.  But scratch the surface and the issues become all too familiar. 

Big issues

Under-supply of housing, town centre (all right, downtown) regeneration, NIMBYism, shortage of planners, frustration at over-turned recommendations (“push back”) – all come quickly into the conversations.  The big issues run large: social equality, climate change, land value capture, diversity and community engagement.

Take housing: there’s a real drive for city living and city-centre living.  Much of the housing built over the past decades has been traditional family housing.  But with only 15% of US households now fitting the 2 adult, 2+ children model, there’s a great need for a wider variety of homes – and not just high-rise apartments.  That’s what the “missing middle” refers to – the comparative absence of low rise apartments, elderly persons’ housing and the like.  Oh, and “ADUs”?  That’s “additional housing units” – infill to you and me. 

And they don’t fear autonomous vehicles, which are seen as likely to reinforce high-density urban living rather than support the suburbs. Why? Young people are increasingly more likely to share cars than own them, while telling your car to “go park yourself” will lead to less and smaller, tighter parking provision.  (Who needs a large gap between cars when you don’t need room to climb in and out of the self-parked vehicle?) 

Chief Possibility Officer

It’s impressive how positive the US planners are, with countless examples of achievement from regional planning in Southern Nevada and Greater Wichita (counties grouping together to create shared plans) to vibrancy and hope for the downtowns – which are valued not just in economic terms but for their inclusivity, culture and identity, vibrancy and resilience. 

Victoria Hills At APA 2019Victoria Hills with Rossalyn Hughey, Director of Planning for San Jose and Linda Tatum, Director of Planning for Long Beach

And on diversity, US planners are well ahead of the UK.  They certainly aren’t where they wish to be but just look at the number of Directors of Planning who are women – and women of colour at that. 

Planning isn’t about limiting and controlling – it’s about creating opportunity, economically, socially, in housing, jobs and place-making.  No wonder US planners are so positive.  They don’t have all the answers and still have plenty of work to do, but there’s a lot for us to learn and many experiences to share in both directions. 

And hands up who wants the job title we came across in their annual Awards ceremony: you too could be the “Chief Possibility Officer”!

Ian Tant

Ian Tant

Ian Tant is President of the RTPI.