Millenium Park in Chicago Last week I had the pleasure of attending my first American Planning Association National Planning Conference in Chicago. The experience was invaluable and inspiring; with 5,000+ planners packed into one place, I felt right at home. It was a great opportunity to network, learn about the latest trends in planning, and listen to the renowned speakers who reaffirmed my passion for planning. Between all of the interesting session options and mobile workshops, not to mention the multitude of activities Chicago has to offer, my only regret is that I was unable to be in 10 places at once. In my free time I visited Millennium Park, The Art Institute of Chicago, and biked along the Chicago Lakefront Trail.

One of the sessions I attended was called “Fast, Funny and Passionate,” in which presenters were given seven minutes to present on a topic of choice, usually in a humorous way. Interestingly, three of the presenters discussed the misconceptions the general public has about the planning profession. I couldn’t help but laugh because when people ask me what I do and I inform them I am an urban planner, 90 percent of the time I receive the following response: a smile and head nod, followed by “So what exactly is that?”

As defined by the APA, planning “is a dynamic profession that works to improve the welfare of people and their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive places for present and future generations.” Great definition, but how does that translate into real life? One of the presenters in the Fast, Funny and Passionate session described planning as often intangible, then challenged us to make planning more tangible by spreading knowledge about what planning is and what it stands for. The following is a tiny snapshot of what planners do using brief examples of some of the interesting planning efforts and emerging trends I learned about while attending the conference.

What Do Planners Do?

Planners research and evaluate trends in demographics to determine the potential impacts on communities. A growing concern is the aging population and their ability to “age in place.” Renaissance’s Whit Blanton authored a White Paper on the subject that was presented during the Delegate Assembly, which addressed potential policy responses for the impact “Graying of America” will have on communities.

Planners develop design guidelines for transportation infrastructure. Renaissance’s Vlad Gavrilovic presented the Multimodal System Design Guidelines developed for the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The guidelines provide a framework for multimodal projects at the regional, community and corridor level, with a step-by-step process for implementing the guidelines.

Planners perform technical analyses to assess the possible impacts different plans and growth trends will have on the community, city, or region. Scenario planning is becoming a preferred method of this type of analysis, with nearly two-thirds of planning agencies having used scenario planning, as noted by Renaissance’s Kate Ange. That statistic comes from a survey Renaissance conducted for FHWA to assess the state of scenario planning as a tool for planning agencies. Additionally, more than 50 percent of respondents noted the need to engage stakeholders and citizens in long range planning as their main purpose for using scenario planning. The Cape Cod Commission embarked on a scenario planning effort called the Regional Wastewater Management Plan (RWMP) to alleviate wastewater problems occurring from septic tanks leaking into the watersheds of Cape Cod. The Commission used scenario planning in real-time at public workshops to quickly show the public the impact different wastewater treatment options will have on their communities and to allow them to decide what treatments their communities would receive.

Planners develop innovative funding strategies to improve their communities. To comply with California Senate Bill 375 to reduce Greenhouse Gas emissions by 15 percent per capita by 2035, San Francisco implemented a grant program to tie transportation funding to focused development. The One Bay Area Grant (OBAG) is an incentive-based program that encourages compact growth by awarding transportation grant funds for projects located in Priority Development Areas (PDAs).

Planners address sustainability issues. Sustainable Jersey is a sustainability certification program for municipalities in New Jersey. Launched in 2009, the non-profit organization certifies communities that have taken specific actions to become more sustainable. Some of these actions include conducting energy audits for all municipal buildings, assessing the municipal carbon footprint, and adopting a water conservation ordinance. Points are awarded per each action and are added up to determine the level of certification achieved: gold, silver or bronze. The program also provides training workshops and priority access to grant funds.

Design Concept for Stormwater Management in Philadelphia Photo Credit: Philadelphia Water Department

Planners work to mitigate stormwater runoff that can harm lakes, rivers and streams. To address stormwater issues, the City of Philadelphia Water Department developed a 25-year plan to convert 9,564 impervious surface acres into greenland acres. The plan, called Green City, Clean Waters, implements green infrastructure systems that will reduce flooding risks, improve water quality, and enhance the aesthetics of Philadelphia by greening the city.

Why Planning Matters

The world is ever-changing. We have limited resources and limited space with a continuously growing population. A large portion of this population is aging and we must anticipate and plan for their changing needs. The sea-level is rising, forcing many communities to consider the impact this will have on their residents and economy. Lack of affordable housing in downtown areas has contributed to the reliance on the car; the reliance on the car has contributed to America’s obesity epidemic and dependence on unsustainable energy sources.

There are many interconnected issues that planning addresses, and those mentioned in this post only scratch the surface. To sum it all up, I leave you with a quote from APA President Mitchell Silver during his opening conference speech, which I think succinctly gets to the heart of planning: “We are the profession that addresses the uncertainty of the future.”