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APA in Atlanta: 5,000 planners changing the world

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APA in Atlanta: 5,000 planners changing the world

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The APA Delegate Assembly votes unanimously to approve a new Policy Guide on Aging in Community. When 5,000 planners from 50 states and most continents gathered at the American Planning Association's (APA) National Planning Conference (NPC) in Atlanta from April 26-30, it was bound to be both exhilarating and exhausting. The NPC is the best way to catch up with many friends from all over the country, meet the best minds in the planning profession and explore a new city through the guidance of planners serving on the local host committee. Yet the schedule is jam-packed with sessions, events, workshops, and meetings, some beginning as early as 6 AM and others ending as late as 11 PM. I participated in the Mentor Match program, led the Delegate Assembly for approval of two policy guides, participated in a mobile workshop, went to a Braves game, completed a running tour of historic Atlanta streets, presented in a session about the Charleston Neck Master Plan, attended a few sessions, and participated in leadership meetings, including with the APA Board of Directors to interview and select the APA's next executive director.

Apropos of the conference's focus on healthy communities, it was on the marathon hike between the Georgia World Conference Center and the conference hotel with my mentee, Kessa Turnbull, a planning graduate student at Cleveland State University, when I realized this was my 20th APA National Planning Conference, dating to the San Francisco conference in 1994 as I first got involved in APA activities.

The sessions at the NPC have become consistently high quality opportunities to learn about interesting planning challenges and strategies, hear great speakers, and become inspired to step up your own planning efforts. Now that I'm serving on the APA Board of Directors and chairing the Legislative & Policy Committee, there isn't much time left for attending sessions or tours, but it sure was fun following all the tweeting from attendees under the hashtag #APA14.

Decisions at the Delegate Assembly

Policy Guides serve as a useful tool for APA to articulate its official positions on important planning issues to Congress, the Administration and myriad partner organizations. The guides also provide planners and state/local officials with policy positions and best practice recommendations to achieve better outcomes. This year, under the leadership of members of APA's Legislative & Policy Committee, we presented policy guides on Hazard Mitigation and Aging in Community for review and approval by the Delegate Assembly, which is comprised of members in proportion to APA's 46 chapters. APA's Aging in Community guide was prepared in close partnership with planners who are also on the staff of AARP, helping to strengthen the growing partnership between the two organizations. Approving two policy guides in a three-hour session is a heavy lift, but the guides had been drafted and vetted by experts within and outside of APA. After some recommended changes, the Delegates voted to approve both guides -- next the Board of Directors will formally adopt the guides as official policy sometime this summer and they will be made publicly available. Well deserved kudos go to my colleagues Jenny Raitt, George Homewood, Dave Gattis and Kara Drane, the leaders for the two policy guides.

TOD on Atlanta's Red Line

The transformation of Atlanta’s Midtown includes infill Transit Oriented Development that will replace this surface parking lot.

My favorite part of any APA conference is the mobile workshops, the best way to see a city and successful planning outcomes. For this workshop, we boarded the MARTA rail line for a walking tour of Transit Oriented Developments (TOD) in Midtown and Buckhead. Twenty years ago, Midtown Atlanta was a wasteland, but through expert planning and public-private partnerships led by the Midtown Alliance, infill development has given new life and a strong brand identity to Midtown that's attracting new residents and commercial businesses seeking a walkable and accessible environment around the Arts Center and Midtown MARTA stations. Over lunch, developers told us that the market-driven success of Midtown absolutely depended on having a good plan in place to guide investments and foster partnerships.

Atlanta’s Lindbergh Station mixes walkable mixed use urbanism with dispersed parking on 47 acres.

The next stop was in Buckhead, a gradually changing car-centric part of the region, where we toured the Lindbergh Station TOD, Atlanta's largest TOD at some 47 acres. The very walkable site has some 3,800 public parking spaces dispersed in several parking garages and on-street amid some three million square-feet of residential and commercial development within the 1/4 to 1/2 mile radius of the station, demonstrating that strategically placed parking is an important component of an effective TOD. Most of the post-recession residential units are apartments, and affordable housing programs keep a percentage of the units affordable for lower income residents despite the market demand.

Running Tour of Atlanta's Historic Streets

“Sweet Auburn” Avenue, near the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., will soon have a streetcar in operation.

With an impromptu send-off from Acting Surgeon General, Boris D. Lushniak, M.D., M.P.H., who was giving the Opening Keynote on planners' role in public health, I joined about 30 other planners on a guided running tour from the convention center to the Historic 4th Ward and Auburn Avenue, birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr. and sites where the Civil Rights Movement had its beginnings. We jogged the 3-mile course between stops at historic sites, such as Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King and his father preached and early meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference occurred. "Sweet Auburn," the long-time center of Atlanta's African American social and retail life, will soon have a streetcar line connecting to the MARTA Peachtree Center station and Centennial Olympic Park.

Candy Chang Closing Keynote

I've never been so inspired by a keynote speech than the one delivered by Candy Chang at the conference's closing. Her talk focused on the role of public art in building community, featuring her initiatives in New Orleans, Brooklyn, Fairbanks, AK and elsewhere. Before I Die is her iconic crowdsourcing initiative, in which she painted the side of an abandoned house in her neighborhood with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with a grid of the sentence “Before I die I want to _______.” Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public space. Her talk covered other uses of public art, including Neighborland, a collaborative project she and others started to help organizations ask questions to gather feedback from their community about particular places and pair the online page with signs in public space.

A New Executive Director for APA

Culminating a six-month process, the Board selected a new executive director in Atlanta to replace current CEO Paul Farmer, FAICP, who is retiring this summer. Paul has enjoyed a remarkable career, and helped APA grow and become a more successful and effective organization during the last 13 years. The Board convened in December to develop the job description, survey chapters, divisions and students on desired attributes, meet with staff to get their perspectives, and the search committee met in March to interview candidates to shortlist a highly qualified "final four" for consideration in Atlanta. The Board and AICP Commission interviewed each candidate, all of whom were intriguing and capable, and the Board made its decision on Thursday morning. This was a monumental, inspirational and draining process, and I am immensely satisfied that we did our job and chose the best candidate for APA's future. Look for an announcement in the coming weeks. The new executive director will start work in July, with a retreat planned that month to shape APA's future by drafting its next development plan and budget.

–Whit Blanton, Cities That Work Blog

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Your Commute Choice Can Make You Fat and Less Productive

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Your Commute Choice Can Make You Fat and Less Productive

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woman on bicycle This recent Reuters story about commuters and weight gain kind of falls into the “no duh” category of Obvious Research Conclusions, but upon closer inspection it’s really quite remarkable. The study of 822 Australians found that people who commute to work by car gained more weight than their counterparts who get to work by transit, biking or walking. OK, filed. But it goes on to report that the study included people who all got at least 2.5 hours of exercise per week during leisure time. That’s 30 minutes a weekday. So, if you commute regularly by car, modest regular exercise does not overcome the health impacts of that mode of transportation.

"Even if you are efficiently active during leisure time, if you use a car for commuting daily then that has an impact on weight gain," lead author Takemi Sugiyama of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne told Reuters Health.

Other research in Atlanta had similar conclusions. A 2004 study also found that the longer the work commute, the more food people bought and extended their driving time by driving to lunch or running other errands, further contributing to their likelihood of becoming obese.

The Economics of Obesity and Skinny Butts

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Why should we care if auto commuters gain a few extra pounds than the “skinny-butt, skinny-tired bicyclists?” There is a huge economic impact of obesity associated with medical costs and lower productivity. A 2010 Brookings study reported that for childhood obesity alone, the annual direct costs in the US are about $14.3 billion in higher medical costs. There is also a quantifiable impact of obesity on adults in terms of lost productivity at work. For instance, in the North American division of Shell Oil Company, 3.73 additional days of work were lost per year for each obese employee relative to their normal-weight co-workers.

Another study cited in the research reported that employees considered at risk for obesity were 1.23 times more likely to be in the ‘high-absenteeism’ group than those who were not. With the cost of providing health insurance, employers may increasingly consider the obesity rate of the working age population when choosing between site locations. From the perspective of the digital arts and high tech industries, I’m willing to bet that the rate of obesity might be viewed an inverse indicator of a neighborhood’s or a city’s inherent coolness, much like having active transportation choices is a positive indicator.

It Takes a Plan

Planners have a critical role to play in designing active transportation networks and land use plans that offer more than just recreational and health opportunities. In addition to trails and Safe Routes to Schools projects, planners need to focus equally on taming the existing street network to improve connectivity and access for all users. We need to raise the awareness of elected officials about the direct and indirect benefits of a fostering a culture of walking, bicycling and using transit. As indicated in the research, active transportation needs to be integrated into every day activities. Trails or shared-use paths and other “amenities” often built by developers or by governments using abandoned rail lines have limited utility for most types of trips other than recreation. Even if they do connect people to jobs or retail, they are often limited and people must connect using streets or sidewalks.

Achieving a better jobs-housing balance and encouraging miwoman with bikes and busxed-use neighborhoods that offer complementary land uses is a long-term strategy that requires a commitment of policy and resources.

Investing in transit and ensuring it can thrive in an active, economically supportive environment is another must. But there are short-term, lower cost actions that can occur today. Designing walkable neighborhoods means addressing the barriers of wide, fast roads and improving access to transit for those on foot or bike. It means managing parking and using wayfinding. It will also take more education for everyone. And there’s no doubt that active streets depends on the support of law enforcement so all users – car drivers, walkers and bicyclists alike – observe the laws, know how to share the road, and feel confident they can access their destination safely and conveniently.

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