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What we learnt at the American Planning Association conference

20 April 2016 Author: Trudi Elliott


RTPI President Phil Williams in the exhibition area at the conference.

Over 4,300 planners and 57 exhibitors converged in Phoenix, Arizona for the annual conference of the American Planning Association (APA) earlier this month. Seeing that many planners or friends of planning in one place is quite an experience. I was a guest of the APA, together with our President Phil Williams. Past President Cath Ranson also attended under her own steam.

Phoenix is an interesting, sprawling city, one which reacts quickly to economic trends, good or ill. In 2007 greater Phoenix saw the fastest growth of the 28 largest US job markets, but in the recession it fell to the bottom of that list. By 2013 it had climbed back to 7th place.

In downtown Phoenix, where the conference was held, it took us a few days to find anywhere selling fresh milk and we never did find anywhere in walking distance to buy whole fresh fruit! Clearly we should have gone on the healthy corner store mobile tour which focussed on food system planning, but you can't do everything. We managed to walk everywhere – there were enormously wide streets with great pavements, and except for the evening we endeavoured to use public transport, including to visit the desert botanical garden. The interchange between the excellent but very limited metro light rail and the bus did not work. Curiously, no signage, indeed no bus - but fellow planners trying to do the same with a cab number saved the day, or rather the evening. The city Mayor, Greg Stanton, explained at his welcome why transportation is an important emerging issue for the city, as is trying to encourage some down town living and mixed use.


The Phoenix metro.

The opening address was by a self-proclaimed futurologist Jack Uldich, but actually was a look back at technological change and its impact. The key point, he argued, being that the impact of technology has always been underestimated. Looking forward he predicted rapid but unpredictable technologically-driven social, demographic and cultural change. This was an interesting juxtaposition with the closing address from John Englander, the renowned oceanographer, who was clear that whatever we do now technologically or via adaptation or mitigation, sea levels will rise significantly and we need to plan for that. His advice was to plan for sea level rise of 3 feet now.

It is always interesting to see what subjects are topical, well-covered and most attended at the convention. This year water and ethics figured highly. As every American planner has to attend annual certified Continuous Professional Development training on ethics, there is always a good selection of ethics sessions, but this year there were more than ever. APA has like us been working on the area so we have invited their President Carol Rhea FAICP to come and contribute the ethics session at our Planning Convention in London on 28th June 2016.


Phil with APA President Carol Rhea.

The water theme reflected the rising importance of this issue to APA members. APA convened a task group to develop a policy position paper on water, which was considered and approved in Phoenix and will be published shortly. You can read the draft paper. I also attended good sessions on the integration of planning for water planning. One was an interesting window into the interplay between water rights and planning in the US and the varying approaches to water; the approach among local authorities ranges from “Show me the water" to an almost “buyer beware” stance. Another session looked at attempts to integrate planning for housing, regeneration and water management plans.

The RTPI’s President, Phil Williams, was invited to the big city managers event and was able to compare notes. Understandably, there was a lot of interest in the Belfast experience, where Phil works, in terms of post-conflict planning.

As in the UK, there was much soul searching on the issue of affordable housing or indeed housing in the right place that ordinary folk can afford.

Habitat III was where most of the international focus was. Our honorary member Professor Eugenie Birch, who chairs the World Urban Campaign which we are active members of, chaired a session entitled ‘Everything you need to know about Habitat III’. This is where is where the world’s cities policies for the next decade will be shaped. We have been working hard in the lead up to Habitat III as this is so critical for planners. We also had discussions with partners in the Global Planners Network as to our collective presence and activity at the event in Quito, Ecuador in October. 

As in the UK, there was much soul searching on the issue of affordable housing or indeed housing in the right place that ordinary folk can afford. I went to a great session entitled ‘It’s Never All About Housing’. As the mother of a young teacher living in Oxford, I was fascinated by this year’s winner of the Ruddy Bruner award for urban excellence, which was a project in Baltimore creating affordable housing for teachers in an old cannery building which had been vacant for years. There’s a 50% turnover rate of teachers in the area, coupled with important regeneration needs. This award, which has been going since 1987, is interesting in that they have arranged for the University of Buffalo to hold the archive of the 80 award recipients. All the case studies include the financial and funding details – information that is not usually available.

We also went to sessions as varied as: uniting planners and economists; working with contentious groups; identity and representation in capital cities; urban parks as a system; place making as an urban development tool; creating desirable places through localism and reuse; and reversing the declining enrolments in US planning schools. We attended the APA’s Annual General Meeting, annual planning awards, international dinner and internal awards, as well as having bilateral meetings.  

Overall, attending the APA’s annual conference was both exhausting and rejuvenating in equal measure. It was certainly very productive as we secured offers of blogs from some outstanding planners (watch this space) and both APA and the Lincoln Institute will be participating in the RTPI Planning Convention. Finally, I am delighted to be able to announce that we will be working with the APA policy team to compare the policy and research priorities we are each working on.

Trudi Elliott

Trudi Elliott

Chief Executive, RTPI