Last week I had the privilege of attending the North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association’s conference in Asheville, NC. I wasn’t originally planning to go, but how could I pass up a trip to Asheville?! In addition to the gorgeous mountain setting, vibrant downtown (with breweries aplenty), and a roadtrip with new friends, there would of course be the chance to meet practicing planners and to hear from folks outside of the UNC/Chapel Hill bubble.

I was at the conference for 2 days along with about 20 of my fellow DCRP students. I attended 5 sessions and made a connection with 4 practicing planners (yay, networking!). I also ate 3 biscuits and visited 2 breweries but you’ll have to ask me about those separately (omg the biscuits…).

Here are some of my takeaways from the sessions I attended:

  • Ensuring that community members, stakeholders, planners, developers, elected officials, etc. are speaking the same “language” when it comes to discussing options for planning is critical. One way to do this is to include terminology sessions in the community outreach process. For example, the community cannot make decisions about prioritizing a transit system’s ridership vs. its coverage without knowing what those two terms mean first. This is something we’ve also talked about in my PLAN740 class and it was cool to see it put into action in Wake County. —Strategies for Building Community Vision – The Wake County Transit Plan Process (Tim Gardiner, Teresa Gresham)
  • Walkability is measured in many different ways. One way I hadn’t heard before was to think about planning for walkability in terms of 1) adjoining land uses, 2) connections to other modes, and 3) barriers such as missing sidewalks. I also got to hear about Durham’s Station Area Strategic Infrastructure Study (SASI) where they are assessing pedestrian and cyclist circulation around future planned light rail stations (10+ years out!). This is wonderful because the light rail project won’t spontaneously generate adequate pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, so it needs to be planned for ahead of time in order to make light rail successful. This is the opposite of what they did with the silver line Metro stations in Tyson’s Corner, VA. —Is Your Community Really Walkable? Find Out and Fix It (Dick Halls, Paul Joyner, Garrett Artz, Scott Whiteman)
  • Another session was a panel with a few of the authors from the Carolina Planning Journal‘s 2016 issue on just creativity (emphasis on “just”, as in justice). I found the discussion of the American Tobacco Trail’s history as a divider of the community fascinating, and an example of great regional planning that was missing local level engagement, thus the project is not as successful as it could have been. Throughout the panel discussion were critiques of Richard Florida’s Creative Class and the missing ingredient from his agenda for the city, which is justice. I’m biased because the Carolina Planning Journal is run out of my program, DCRP at UNC, but it was the best session I went to all week.  —Just Creativity: Perspectives on Creative Placemaking (Julia Barnard, Kofi Boone, Ben Hitchings, Carly Hoffmann, Adam Levine, Rachel Wexler)

DCRP students are, as a rule, brilliant and social justice oriented. As such, we identified some things about the conference that we’d change, if we ruled the world:

  • Lack of racial & ethnic diversity of conference presenters and attendees. I couldn’t find demographic information for APA-NC members specifically, but according to the Census data, North Carolina is about a quarter non-White. The panelists didn’t reflect this, but it is imperative to hear from people who are representative of the state’s makeup, especially as we continue to grow and become increasingly diverse.
  • Lack of gender diversity of conference presenters and attendees. Of the 5 sessions I attended, 3 were all-male panels and another session had only one woman. If DCRP is any indication of what the future of planning looks like (lots of women among the first years), in a few years this should be in balance.
  • Absence of social justice in the conference session topics. The only session that discussed equity and justice openly was the one (mentioned above) put on by the Carolina Planning Journal. This shows me that justice is not at the forefront for many practicing planners in North Carolina. If equity was a major aspect of projects it would be something we’d hear about at a conference, right?

Overall, a great conference and I’m glad I went! I also had many observations about Asheville itself, including the walkability, reflections on how the city is growing, the walkability, the beg buttons and crosswalks, and the walkability. It deserves its own post, so look for that in the coming days!

Trip: Carrboro to Asheville (round trip)
Total trip time: 3.5 hours x2
Total trip distance: 217 miles x2
Mode: Car (Note: there is no public transportation option between the Triangle and Asheville, except for an airplane)
Line: N/A
Frequency: N/A
Cost: $10 contribution to gas
Level of crowding: Traffic was light both ways
Trip quality: 4 of 5 stars
+ for convenience, speed, and gorgeous mountainous country route
– for no public transit option

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