Sunday was the day I spoke at the American Planning Association conference in a session with APA President Mitchell Silver and my friend Joe Minicozzi. Our session was titled The Economics of Land Use. It went over extremely well with the packed house. I sense that we opened a lot of eyes.
I feel like I need to back up here and provide some context for today's talk. When APA did a call for proposals for this conference, I submitted quite a few, including the Curbside Chat and others that dealt with the intersection of economics and land use. For whatever reason, all of them were rejected.
Looking at the conference program today reinforces my hunch that APA is having a really difficult time -- as is the entire traditional planning profession -- transitioning into the new economy. We're talking a lot of zoning, top down planning and all of the metrics of the Suburban Experiment, but very little about the finance of our places and nothing about ROI or value capture. I suspect my proposals were rejected because the people that reviewed them did not find value in the subject matter.
Fortunately Mitchell Silver did. When he learned I had been shut out, he volunteered to give up time in his own personal session to allow Joe and me to discuss our work. And apparently the crowd in attendance found value in our subject matter as they packed the room and stayed for the entire talk. We had standing room only with people spilling out into the hallway. This is important stuff and I'm so grateful to Mitchell for leading on this.
I'm going to voice a couple of other observations on APA as an organization that are not flattering. APA has this policy that speakers must not only register for the conference, but pay full price. I attended the conference just for my session -- only the one that I spoke at and no others -- and I was required to pay $350. That was the full price, one day rate. Combine that with the requirement that, in order to propose a session, one needs to be a member of APA, and you have a really weird negative feedback loop.
The effect of this is that, essentially, the only people presenting at APA are (a) those that are paying to be there and (b) those who are part of the tribe. In a day and age when the planning profession desperately needs new thoughts, ideas, approaches and attitudes, APA members are getting more of the same. (And I would say new leadership, too, if I did not have as much admiration for Mitchell, who I see as a great leader taking things in a really productive direction.) Instead we have a really expensive conference where nearly all sessions are (a) people showcasing their services, and/or (b) the current planning paradigm echo chamber.
They got my $350 and a couple hours of my time, but I really can't justify much more than that this year. I feel bad about it, but I feel I need to be honest about this one.
We stayed in Anaheim last night (and I still plan to post Day 3 and Day 4 of this trip to explain that), so Justin and I drove in to L.A. this morning. The Sunday morning traffic was terrible by our standards. I can't imagine what Monday morning would bring. There were many times on our trip that I felt as if I were in a Grand Theft Auto video game, with this desolate landscape of warehouse-looking buildings with bars on the windows and dumpsters out front (only there are people on the street in Grand Theft Auto -- here, just cars). I'm sure there are great parts of this city, but in the hours I spent getting around, I can't report seeing even a hint of any.
The convention center was really a big part of that. We parked in a ramp and then had to walk through the traffic stream -- no joke, right among the cars -- to get out and to the entrance of the convention center. Then we had to walk through this despotic walkway. I remarked to Justin that it felt like the designer assumed we would still be in our cars, despite the fact that we had ascended two flights of steps. I'm sure this looks really nice driving by on your way to the Staples Center to watch the Lakers, but as someone who actually has some sensitivity towards humanity, I just don't get it.
A couple of really bright spots. First, right after the session I was in -- and conveniently right next door -- was another counterculture session lead by my good friend Mike Lydon of the Street Plans Collaborative. The topic: Tactical Urbanism. And unlike the session on "Enhancing Building Code Enforcement and Revitalization" or one of the other repeating topic-du-jours going on at the same time, people were really into it. They had standing room only spilling out into the hall. I wanted to say hi to Mike and I needed to wait for a half hour after the session just to get through the crowd of people wanting more information.
And there, with the Tactical Urbanism session, is the glimmer of hope. I am not sure who is running APA, setting the conference agenda, deciding on the venue or putting any of this together. I'm sure they are very decent people and are sincere in wanting to have the best conference available, but that doesn't change the fact that they are not serving their members well. People are hungry for something new. They understand -- especially the young planners that are there trying to learn from their peers -- that we need to introduce new ideas, new approaches, new ways of thinking...that the planning profession needs to adapt to the times, to grow and mature and, in a sense, reinvent itself. Many desperately want this to happen, a fact that invigorates me.
The idea that there would be no role (unless the president insists, and then just one small session) for a conversation on return-on-investment, on value capture, on building Strong Towns, is simply bizarre. Especially since, if they introduced some open source sessions to the gathering as they do at CNU, these would likely be the hottest topics on the board.
I'm a member of the APA. I'm also part of their American Institute of Certified Planners. I'm here today because I want those things to continue to mean something. I'll be here tomorrow only if they do.