Book & Conference Reviews

American Planning Association – Centennial Celebrations at Washington DC’s National Building Museum, 21st May 2009

The morning session, entitled “The Competitiveness and Sustainability of American Cities and Regions” and sponsored by The Penn Institute for Urban Research, commenced with an introduction from Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. The co-founder of DPZ and University of Miami professor, spoke about the benefits of encouraging walkability in existing urban environments as well as the concept leading the design of new developments, the progress of change in American cities, which she assessed as slow but moving in the right direction, and predicted that suburban districts would become the new urban centres. Although the address was brief, it was optimistic and set the tone for much of the day.

Derek Douglas, Special Assistant to President Obama for Urban Affairs, was the invited keynote speaker. Mr Douglas took a quote from President Obama’s address to the Council of Mayors in June 08, that “the city is not the problem but the solution”, as the theme of his talk. He spoke broadly about three policy goals – economic competitiveness, sustainability and equality – and the visions behind their delivery. This included capitalising on talent in the workplaces as well as in universities, reducing carbon emissions in cities by 70% particularly by greening domestic buildings as part of the Energy Innovation Fund, and by investing $1.5bn to improve the walkability and public transit systems providing equality of access to the whole city for its residents.

Harriet Tregoning, Director of Washington DC’s Office of Planning, followed this with a presentation about transportation choices in DC. Beside the resident population, DC receives 20million visitors a year and 46% of all trips taken are on foot or public transportation. Using sales tax as an indicator, Tregoning estimates that residents reduced their vehicle ownership by 4,000 in the last six months of 2008, although escalating fuel costs and the wider economic status may have been a greater motivating factor than a determination to use buses and trains.

Continuing the transport debate, Marina Khoury, Partner and Director of Town Planning, at Duany Plater-Zyberk, spoke of the ‘unsprawling of America’ and the need to retrofit many cities with public transit, and the fundamental shift needed in how cities, and the regions around them, are zoned.

Andy Altman, Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Philadelphia, discussed how his city, with one of the highest poverty rates in the US but one of the highest concentrations of universities and medical facilities, was spearheading Green training to retrofit homes and how this fitted with the Community Development Block Grant.

Finally, Robert Yaro, President of the Regional Plan Association, concluded with a presentation that focussed on America 2050 the Trans-America Passenger Network. He encouraged delegates, most of whom were professionals rather than academics, to be creative about land use zoning in both urban and suburban locations, viewing regions as multi-centred regimes.

In summing up, APA President, Paul Farmer, implored for the creation of places with ‘lasting values’ noting that it had been too easy to make a quick buck and that American cities were the worse for it. That, unfortunately, is the same the Western World over and with a capitalist economy, less easy to resolve.

The afternoon session celebrated the forty-three planners who met in Washington, D.C. at the first National Planning Conference in on May 21-22, 1909. The session “1909 – 2109: Sustaining the Lasting Value of American Planning” was introduced by Paul Farmer who noted that 100 years ago the concerns at that first conference were alarmingly similar to those of today. He condemned the practice of ‘green washing’ and called for planners to ‘think big and bold’ as they view the next 100 years.

The afternoon’s keynote speaker was Her Excellency Carolina Barco, Colombia’s Ambassador to the United States. In the most entertaining speech of the day, she outlined how the city’s government (lead by her father at one point) had transformed Bogota from the drug and crime riddled city of urban legend to having gun crime rates lower than those of Baltimore. The Baltimore contingent in the audience was not best pleased with this statistic. As assessment of crime figures proved, much of the crime was alcohol related so they took the dramatic step of closing all bars at 1am, unheard of in South America, but it quickly delivered the results they had hoped for. They had reduced peak hour traffic by 40% by using number plate selection and commissioned the country’s best architects to build schools and hospitals. Inspiring stuff.

The panel that followed, moderated by Elinor Bacon the President of E.R. Bacon Development, delivered short presentations before answering questions. Eugenie Birch, Co-Director for the Penn Institute for Urban Research and Professor and Chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning identified water as the single most important issue for the future.

Robert Fishman, Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, delivered the same speech he’d presented at last year’s ACSP conference in Chicago, on the garden suburb in America and their similarities with today’s proposed eco-towns.

Chris Silver, Dean of the College of Design, Construction & Planning at the University of Florida, was most impressed with his own links to Indonesia and gave an historical review of the overcrowding of US cities at the turn of the last century and how cities have responded over the past 100 years.

Steven McCullough, President and CEO of Bethel New Life, outlined how his organisation educates communities on the city, greening and financing and highlighted how the community had retained a rail line threatened with closure after a successful campaign to encourage greater use of public transport.

David R. Godschalk, Professor of Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, discussed the positive power of planning and urged planners to ‘enable cities to become positive producers of environmental and social resources’.

Finally, Megan J. Cummings, a Transportation Planner with Gorove/Slade Associates, chose not to speak about her area of expertise but to deliver the most patronising presentation I have ever heard. She identified different age groups within the audience and ascribed lazy assumptions to each regarding attitudes towards and knowledge of environmental sustainability issues and the growth of suburbs. I wasn’t the only delegate unimpressed with her thoughtless, immature and inadequately researched lecture, which fired up the audience, forcing several to their feet to complain and receiving rapturous applause for their efforts. I doubt that this was her finest hour or that we will see her up on stage again (but if we do would Ms Cummings please wear a skirt of a more appropriate length).

Fortunately, all was not lost as Adolfo Carrión Jr., Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, built upon his colleague’s earlier speech and talked about ‘investing in the future’ peppered with spontaneous anecdotes, good humour and the demonstrated ability to simultaneously check his BlackBerry and make eye contact with his entourage and the wider audience without loosing track of his place in the paperwork in front of him.

Although the morning session had a higher standard of presentations overall, Derek Douglas, Adolfo Carrión and Carolina Barco were the highlights of the day. Whilst Mr Douglas and Mr Carrión Jr. delivered a level of optimism and enthusiasm for all things urban not previously witnessed in politics on either side of the Atlantic, Ms Barco’s presentation of Bogota reversed all my preconceptions about the city and had me all but booking my next trip there. Never had I wanted to visit any South American nation so much!

As part of the celebrations The National Building Museum invited delegates to view the Green Community exhibition. The exhibition won the 2009 MUSE Award for Interpretive Interactive Installations and is open until 25th October 2009.

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