I am just back from warm and sunny Phoenix and the national conference of the American Planning Association (APA). This is my sixth time attending this conference and yet again it delivered in terms of compelling sessions and ample networking (4,300 people attended!). I was pleased to see APA continue to enhance its focus on sustainability. In fact, at the session for the APA Sustainable Communities Division, it was suggested that ALL planning should be sustainable- as in sustainability planning and planning should be one in the same. I wholeheartedly agree with this statement.
Even back in the early 2000’s when I was a municipal sustainability coordinator for the City of Medford, MA, I always approached my position with an eye towards working myself out of a job. If everyone consciously applies a sustainability lens to their daily tasks, there should not be a need for a sustainability coordinator -- it would be integrated across departments and positions. In my opinion, being unemployed because everyone has bought into and understands how to incorporate sustainability principles in their operations, would be a great thing!
The conference offered a packed agenda. Amidst the flurry of in-depth sessions and catching up with colleagues from across the country, these were my top five highlights from the APA conference:
- West Hollywood, CA Civic Innovation Program
This was a very cool presentation delivered by the City’s Innovation and Strategic Initiatives Manager and its Innovation Analyst describing the City of West Hollywood’s Innovation & Technology program called WeHoX. The program launched in 2014 to engage the diverse and talented members of the West Hollywood community in dialogue with city staff to improve the city’s capacity for innovation.
The core goals of WeHoX are to:
- Enhance the city’s capacity to utilize new and emerging technologies and innovations for the benefit of its residents, visitors and local businesses
- Celebrate the city’s regional leadership in civic innovation
- Promote local democracy and increase civic engagement
- Promote efficiency and effectiveness in government
- Promote the local economy through leadership in civic innovation and technology.
If this city of 35,000 can be this innovative so can you! Check out their first report.
- Detroit, MI Departmental MOA
The City of Detroit, in an effort to build collaboration between municipal departments, has developed a Memorandum of Understanding outlining how the various departments will work together to address the many challenges that this fragmented city is facing. When you are trying to piece together what was once a thriving community there is no room for departmental silos.
- Las Vegas, NV = Efficient Water Use
At one of the sessions, a comment was made that indicated that Las Vegas has the lowest per capita water consumption rates in the Colorado River Basin. SAY WHAT? Anyone who has witnessed the size and decadence of Vegas would wonder "How?!" Well, because the City of Las Vegas has been a leader on sustainability and, as every city should, has placed a very high value on water- our most precious resource.
When accounting for recycled indoor water, Las Vegas consumes 118 gallons of water per person per day. Compare that to Los Angeles at 113 and San Antonio at 120. So okay, maybe they are not the lowest, BUT they are at an impressive level given the fact that they get less rain than all of these other cities and they are literally in a desert. And that is exactly the problem, most of their water use is for outdoors, which is why they launched this cool set of water conservation ads to engage people on what some might consider a boring topic with som funny ads that stick with you! So if VEGAS can decrease their water consumption- ANYONE can!
- Planning & Public Works Professionals CAN be Friends!
As chair of the American Public Works Association Center for Sustainability, I had the pleasure of speaking on an exciting panel that we initiated for APA, "Breaking Down Silos Between Planning and Public Works." We did not know what to expect in terms of interest, but we were pleasantly surprised to have a full house of more than 150 attendees -- many of whom stuck around until the end, which is always a good sign. We had John Trujillo, the Director of Public Works for the City of Phoenix share his experience collaborating with Planning on the creation of the Resource Innovation Center. Not only was the audience engaged in dialogue, a number of people stood up to share their own examples of collaboration. That included Kristina Johnson from Hudson, MA, who has worked with her Public Works Department to change out a fire hydrant. Understanding where public works is coming from and what they do is key to breaking down those silos.
- APA Sustainable Communities Division- Sustainability Champions Program
Last year, the APA Sustainable Communities Division launched a Sustainability Champions program. Angela Vincent from the Massachusetts Division is working with a number of APA member volunteers to provide a health assessment on a street tree project for Lawrence, MA. Very cool! I wish I was part of that project....oh wait, I am! Yay!
Those of us who work in planning at the local level have long known -- not from academic exercises but from direct, on the ground experience -- that sustainability is part of what we do everyday. The sessions at the APA conference reflected this reality, and I look forward to learning more from the speakers I heard there and the innovative projects and cutting-edge communities they represent.