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Food Systems, Planning, Tech at the APA National Conference

If you were wandering around Boston this past weekend you might have noticed an excessive number of people scoping out bollards, marveling at streetlight banners and snapping pictures of bike lanes.  These street-freaks were not your usual tourists, in fact the planners had descended.  This year the American Planning Association's National Conference was held in Boston for four days of workshops, discussions, guided tours and powerpoints.  6,000 planners poured through our city looking for a good idea to bring back home, or at the very least a good time.  I'm still recovering.  I mostly split my time between the food and technology sessions and even managed to present a session of my own on some of the research I've been working on.  Below is a rundown of some of my impressions.

Preventing Health Disparities: An Evening Roundtable Dinner Discussion
This event kicked off the conference for me, and was a welcome introduction to some of the ideas I'd be hearing over and over again for the rest of the event.  Following some opening remarks by Kim Hodgson of the APA's Planning and Community Health Research Center, Mark Draisen took to the stage to discuss what the MAPC has been doing to decrease health inequity.  Draisen has capped off an illustrious career as an affordable housing advocate and state representative to become the Executive Director of the MAPC.  Draisen made a strong case for a regional planning agency's involvement in health issues by appealing to the planner's sense of justice, and then pragmatically reminded us that "regions which are more equitable will be more successful than regions that are unequal."  When asked how planners might address concerns that they are unfairly awarding underserved communities with the lion's share of bike lanes and other health-related infrastructure, Mark replied "fairness is one of those ironies why people don't deal with equity," and that sometimes it really does take a bit of "putting your thumb on the scale" to ensure that historically neglected communities are prioritized for green infrastructure development.  I had no idea that MAPC was considering these issues in such depth (despite the fact that I recently noticed they are hiring a public health planner), so I was rather impressed by the level of ethic that Mr. Draisen seems to be committed to.

Urban Agriculture: Growing Healthy Sustainable Places.

This panel was made up of some of the authors of the APA's new PAS report on urban agriculture.  As someone who has written a good deal of my own reports on the topic it didn't really shed any new light on the subject for me, but it definitely shored up my long-held belief that Cleveland rocks.  Robert Brown, the director of Cleveland's City Planning Department, delivered a peppery speech about all the planning measures his city has undertaken to make sure that agriculture has enough space to thrive in his city.  Two points to note: there are A LOT of measures, and that guy is solid.  I look forward to the day when I can pull off using a powerpoint filled with animated gifs.

Regional Food Systems Planning

I walked in to this room and was pleasantly surprised to see that my professor, Tim Griffin, was on this panel.  He was seated next to other heavy-hitters like Samina Raja, Fred Kirschenmann, and the Urban Design Lab's Michael Conard.  Kirschenmann gave a talk on agriculture that spanned pre-history to present (no joke), while Raja spoke about her work in Buffalo and gave some useful pointers on how planners can get out of the way so that the food system can thrive.  These included changing zoning codes, simplifying the permitting process for food producers/processors, and conducting food system plans.  Conard spoke about the work the UDL is doing on New York's food system.  And Tim gave a rousing talk on what a regional food system might look like in New England (spoiler alert: there is no way in heck we can feed ourselves).  All in all it was a great session and I was glad to see that it was so well-attended.

Technology Infrastructure and Planning

This session was about the use of Big Data to streamline city services and create cities that are responsive to their inhabitants in both the real and virtual world.  The three presenters in this talk discussed how the "internet of things" can be harnessed so that all of the data being generated by cell phones, utility meters, traffic lights etc. can become a useful tool for planners and policymakers.  Urban Ecomap seems like a pretty cool toy, as does City ForwardJohn Tolva of IBM was a veritable wordsmith crafting such gems as "updating, tweeting and texting is a pointilistic view of city life" and used the concept of urban highways to brilliantly illuminate the difference between throughway and connectivity for today's technology.  Benjamin de La Pena brought the concept of equity back in to the discussion and cautioned planners to remember that there are "lies, more lies, and statistics" and just because we can now make data-driven decisions doesn't mean they are inherently any smarter nor are they more just.  One of the other panelists recommended subscribing to his twitter feed.  I shall do the same

What's Next for Urban Planning Technology?

I was worried that this session was going to be one of those, "hey old folks: young people use the facebook and tweet and like video games!" type of sessions, and unfortunately I was right.  I spent most of my time during this panel using the facebook and tweeting.  I did manage to stay away from Angry Birds though, so maybe it wasn't all bad.  These guys used a lot of the same examples as the guys in the previous talk, but with less force.  They did tell me about Slideshare, though, and I'm excited about that. 

Now you might be thinking, "this conference was four days long and you only went to four sessions?" Well, that may be true, but let me tell you I got in to more than enough amazing discussions to make my money worth it.  Planners are a great bunch of folks.  My next post will be a rundown of the session that I participated in.  This was definitely the highlight of the conference for me, and maybe it was for the handful of people that were there, too.  I know, 9am sessions are hard. I don't blame you for not coming.  Just promise me you'll read my next blog post.